A sharecropper's son with minimal formal schooling, Mr. Brashear joined the Navy in 1948 and endured years of racial taunts, even death threats, as he pushed ahead for what he hoped would be a glamorous diving career.
While on an aircraft carrier in 1950, he saw a mission to salvage a fighter plane that had fallen overboard.
"A Navy diver with helmet and diving suit was sent out to the ship and went down about 50 feet to attach lines to the plane," Mr. Brashear once told a Norfolk reporter. "Everyone on ship was looking at him. No one had ever paid much attention to me. I immediately thought that diving was something I wanted to do."