A war within a war: a World War II Buffalo Soldier's story.
Most accounts of World War II that address the service of black
soldiers were written by White officers, and often excluded, limited, or
misreported African-American soldiers' contributions. This article
chronicles an African-American elder's (William H. Thompson)
memories of the war in his own words. We use the case of one
"Buffalo Soldier" to explore core experiences of African
American men during the Second World War and its aftermath. A key
finding of our paper is that Mr. Thompson's narrative 1) reveals
how elderly African-American veterans interpret and understand
experiences of racism and war and, 2) acknowledges that DuBois'
"double consciousness" persists as a function of
self-protection and as a progressive Black masculinity.
Keywords: African-American men, World War II, life course, African-American soldiers, masculinity, progressive Black masculinity
African American men (Psychological aspects)
Masculinity (Psychological aspects)
Black, Helen K.
Thompson, William H.
|Publication:||Name: The Journal of Men's Studies Publisher: Men's Studies Press Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences; Women's issues/gender studies Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 Men's Studies Press ISSN: 1060-8265|
|Issue:||Date: Wntr, 2012 Source Volume: 20 Source Issue: 1|
|Topic:||Event Name: World War II, 1939-1945|
|Geographic:||Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States|
For a group of men born in the early decades of the 20th century,
being drafted into the armed services meant participating in some
capacity in the Second World War. Veterans retrospectively considered
this stage of life--young adulthood, and what occurred in this
stage--fighting a war--a defining period.
Along with recollections of campaigns, friendships, and deaths, the experience of segregation frames the memories of African-American World War II veterans. Although the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 prohibited discrimination by race or color in recruitment, African-American soldiers did not train, camp, or serve with White soldiers, and segregated planes and trains took them home when the war ended.
Stories detailing battles, turning points, and acts of bravery abounded after the war. Yet, African-American veterans heard little or nothing about their willingness to fight for their country. Most accounts of World War II that addressed the service of Black soldiers were written by White officers (Arnold, 1989), and often excluded, limited, or misreported African-American soldiers' contributions (Hunter & Clark, 1985). Those written by Black veterans garnered a mostly Black audience. These accounts chronicled battles and the development of campaigns (Hunter, 1995; Hargrove, 1985), narrated stories of Black soldiers (Johnson, 1978), and attempted to right the "gross omissions, distortions, and inaccuracies about Black soldiers' service (Hargrove, 1985).
This article chronicles an African-American elder's (William H. Thompson) memories of the war in his own words. We use the case of one soldier to explore core experiences of African-American men during the war and its aftermath. The question of our article is: For African-American men who enlisted or were drafted into World War II, how does the experience of being a soldier in young adulthood affect their sense of masculinity through the life course? Mr. Thompson describes his memories as representative of the soldiers (Buffalo Soldiers) with whom he served and remained in touch for over 60 years. He names their experiences during World War II as "a war within a War."
MEANING AND MASCULINITIES
Life course theory speaks to the profound connection between individual lives and the context in which persons grow and develop (Elder, 1979). The intersection of the Depression and World War II with a young man's coming of age engendered a mindset for which this cohort became known. Depression mentality, hard work, and sacrifice now to gain later are some of the idioms linked to this generation's self-perception and generativity (Elder, 1974; 1986).
In the early 1940s African-American men generally agreed with America's entry into the war, enlisted for the same reasons as White soldiers (Hodges, 1999), and expected to be treated as important resources for the war effort. But their struggle against racism influenced their experience from the moment of induction.
For African-American men the historical periods of the Depression and World War II fostered DuBois (1903) "double consciousness," by engendering a wartime version of African-American masculinities. African-American men's masculinities during the war were shaped by the same contradictions that had shaped them before the war. The armed services worldview was a concentrated microcosm of subjugation for African Americans as soldiers and as men. The White combat soldier was both the face of war and of masculine-appropriate behaviors (Doyle, 1989; Howard-Hamilton, 1997). The difficulty for African-American men to train for and engage in combat supported their belief that they were fighting two wars. The Black soldier was expected to be a defender of the United States and a liberator of foreign lands, but solely within the small container American culture allowed him.
Over 1.2 million Black Americans served in World War II, mostly in support units such as quartermaster, transportation, food services, and as gravediggers (Burger, 1997). Those who eventually trained as combat soldiers and were mobilized overseas questioned why they had been sent from a segregated society to fight for freedom for others when it was denied them at home (The Buffalo, 1988).
After the war, African-American men heard others' versions of the war, which negated, denied, or stigmatized African Americans' character and roles (Galloway, 1999). Not one African American received the nation's highest military honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor. Certain persons and groups, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Truman Gibson, long-time champion of equal rights for Black servicemen, the NAACP, and Black newspapers pressured the government and the media to treat and present Blacks equitably (Gibson, Huntly, & Huntley, 2005). Black veterans' associations continued to argue for equal treatment of Black soldiers in the present and the past, noting that: "In official records of World War II, American generals attempted to absolve themselves of any allegation of racism, attributing the poor performance of the (all Black) 92nd Infantry Division to the collective inferiority of its black personnel. White generals stated that black infantry officers lacked the emotional and mental stability to make good combat soldiers. Any instance of poor performance by the 92nd (The Buffalo Soldiers) was cited as evidence of black inferiority" (Hunter, 1995; Hunter & Clark, 1985; McDonnell, 2010).
In current research on African-American soldiers in World War II, several historians argue that World War II may not have been the turning point that historians stated in terms of equality for African-American veterans (Galloway, 1999). Other research examines inequality in the administration of the G.I. Bill, especially for disabled veterans and veterans in the "Deep South" (Jefferson, 2003). This research on the Second World War relates directly to the continuation of Du Bois' "double consciousness" forty years after he wrote about this phenomenon, and reflects the dichotomized and ruptured masculinity of African-American men during the war. Yet there is little phenomenological material on the double consciousness of African-American soldiers juxtaposed with American idealized masculinities (Jabar & Walton, 2004; Whiting, 2010).
Gerontological research shows that Black men die younger than White men and women of any color. There is a group, however, of oldest-old African-American men who are known as remarkable survivors (Mills & Edwards, 2002). Aged 85 and over, they have outlived most of their contemporaries. They share their coming of age while serving in World War II. Our focus on one aspect of their lives--service in the war and their memory of it--is crucial because they have not, on the whole, talked openly about their experiences. For these veterans seeking integrity in old age demands at least three acts: 1) honoring the past and 2) validating their memories by 3) voicing the events that occurred over sixty years previously.
This article seeks to combine a public view of Black soldiers in World War II with the private memories that recall their service to the country. Our goal is to add a voice to the literature on old age, the experience of war and suffering and its effect on theories of the life course and masculinities, and to the waning numbers of African-American veterans who are nearing or have passed their ninth decade of life.
The question of our research, For African-American men who enlisted or were drafted into World War II, how does the experience of being a soldier in young adulthood affect their sense of masculinity through the life course? We answered this question by using a phenomenological qualitative methodology.
I collected data from Mr. Thompson through a formal ethnographic interview I crafted for the purpose of interviewing him, as well as through our informal conversation. The data was processed through audiotaping and transcription for analysis and detailed in notes I made during and after our interviews and conversations. Mr. Thompson met with me in my office approximately four times over a period of several months for approximately two hours each time. I also called him several times during that period for further elucidation of a response or to ask a new question. The case of Mr. Thompson was culled and analyzed from all data collection processes.
The method of our approach, phenomenology, fits well with our subject matter--the lived experiences of an African-American combat soldier (Buffalo Soldier) during the Second World War and the meaning of those experiences as an elderly African- American man. A case such as Mr. Thompson's combines an individual's self and world view with social and cultural factors and historical place in time. Mr. Thompson's set of circumstances illustrates that one case is a necessary and sufficient means of showing a phenomenon, such as racism in World War II, and its far-reaching effects on individuals, a community, and a country, in depth.
I met William Thompson through Mr. H., a respondent on the study, "Suffering in Late Life," conducted a few years previously, and with whom I remained in touch. Although Mr. H was ten years younger than Mr. Thompson, both men had lived in West Philadelphia, and had followed their fathers into the United States post office, Mr. H for steady work that eventuated in a career, and Mr. Thompson for part-time seasonal work.
Mr. H. described Mr. Thompson as "dedicated to getting the word out" about African-American soldiers. "He has so much information about what went on with Black soldiers in World War II--newspaper clippings, articles, letters--but nobody wants to know about this stuff." Mr. H was surprised that few organizations, African-American organizations included, were interested in the material that detailed African Americans' combat service in World War II.
Mr. H arranged a conference call for the three of us, and on the phone introduced me to William Thompson. After introductions, this is what Mr. Thompson told me: "I've been married for 68 years and I have two men, 60 and 55. I'm 89 years old. My health is pretty good. And call me Fish, that's what everybody calls me." We arranged a meeting in my office.
On the appointed day, Fish Thompson walked into my office carrying two large binders which he placed on my office table, and where they lay between us during our conversation. I learned later these were only two of many binders, boxes, and files holding information about a group of African-American soldiers in World War II. I asked him to tell me a bit about his growing up years.
Fish gave the legitimacy of his name and genealogy. He remembered his childhood in West Philadelphia.
Fish viewed this party as a turning point. The students' excellence gave them distinction, and puberty posed the possibility that boys and girls might see each other as potential partners. Inter-racial socialization stopped. Fish's father explained that this "was how the world works;" his mother warned her children "to get all the education you can." The children in the Thompson family heeded their parents' advice.
Fish's opening was similar to many African-American men I interviewed, especially those who were born or came as children to live in northern cities in the United States. After high school graduation, men followed their fathers into fields that were open to them--for example, working at branches of the United States post office, and taking college courses toward an eventual degree. In December of 1941, Fish was called in another direction.
The 92nd Infantry Division was an all Black U.S. army unit in WWI and II. It was organized at Camp Funston in Kansas in October, 1917 and included soldiers from all states. The buffalo had been selected as the insignia of the 92nd division in 1918 because of their original nickname, "The Buffalo Soldiers." This name was given to BlackAmerican cavalrymen by Native Americans in the 19th century because "the Indians thought that the Black soldiers, with their dark skin and curly hair, resembled buffalos" (Hodges, 1999). The 92nd was the only Black-American infantry division to see combat in Europe during World War II. Fish continued.
This image creates a moral warp in a 21st century listener. From the moment of induction, segregation was part of the army experience. When I asked Mr. Thompson what he and his fellow soldiers said to each other about this, he said, "Right away we said, what are we doing this for?"
After three days at Fort Meade, the recruits were sent to Camp Breckinridge in Kentucky where basic training began. Fish was assigned to C Battery of the 598th Field Artillery. Although Black recruits were told that all skills and trades were open to them, Fish reported, "The Selective Service Act really didn't do anything until Truman changed it in '46."
The 370th Regiment (Fish's regiment) of the 92nd Division stayed in Kentucky for eight months learning how to use the equipment, fire a rifle, and march in formation. They were also taught math, algebra and some geometry to use at their gun sights, which was similar to surveyors' equipment. Despite their training, only a small per centage of African-American soldiers saw combat. When the 93rd Division (also an all black contingent) was mobilized, some soldiers in the 93rd were "left behind."
After basic training, the entire 92nd was sent to infamous Fort Huachuca, Arizona, a virtual "no man's land" where training continued, as did overt prejudice and stereotyping. Discrimination and ill treatment at the fort culminated in clashes with the White townspeople, as well as soldiers' poor morale. Equitable treatment often depended on the officer in charge and his sensibilities about race and about war. Black officers, however, were like "nowhere men," in between the Black and White world. Fish said that most of them had ...
In this statement, Colonel Ross's warning echoed the widespread prejudice of even the "fairest" officers in the segregated Army. Many White officers believed that African-American men lacked the aptitude for jobs of authority, such as pilots and officers. Fish explained:
Fish explained that experiencing racism in the army caused a kind of despair for African-American soldiers, especially for those who attempted to learn new skills to use in jobs when they left the service.
Fish's use of mixed tenses throughout our interview reveals that the consequences of past experiences of racism are ongoing. The past as part of the present also explains how American masculinities, internalized by African-American men as ruptured and divided before and during the war, remain so in the present.
After maneuvers in Louisiana, the group went to Hampton, Virginia. White soldiers could "hang out or rest or do what they want" as they waited for deployment. Black soldiers were ordered to "clean the camp." Eventually, the order came down that the 92nd was going to Italy. But the officers in charge of this mission stated no purpose for the Division to be sent overseas. In fact, White officers "presumed they would fail." The soldiers heard that being sent on a "doomed mission" was part of a plan to ensure blacks would not be recruited for combat duty (Hargrove, 1985).
Overseas, not only were Fish and his fellow soldiers subject to the segregation they endured during training, but also to "veiled" threats of death by their own commander, Major General Almond. In Italy, he spoke to his men before they went into battle.
Army life posed daily humiliations. In Italy, Italian liaisons were responsible for coordinating the affairs of Italian civilians around the presence of American troops. The liaisons received instructions from White commanders on how to "treat" black soldiers.
When I asked Fish how all of this affected the soldiers, he thought a moment. "We were all concerned about being segregated but we had allegiance to our country and we wanted to excel. But we always felt like we were fighting two wars."
Mr. Thompson and his fellow soldiers wanted the United States Army to know that the 92nd Infantry Division was as prepared for battle and as dedicated to winning the war as any White contingent. Still, he noted that "it just seemed like they (Army officials) wanted you to fail," a conclusion that many in the division echoed when it occurred, and sixty years later (Hunter, 1995).
Interviewer: How did you get through these experiences?
Fish: You grumbled a lot because everybody felt the same way. See we were lucky in that sense. We had each other. And we always did what we had to do. But you didn't let the officers hear you grumble. Now some fought back and they were incarcerated. So you dare not fight back. But if somebody achieved something we were all happy for him.
Fish and his buddies used the mainstay of African-American masculinities in regard to coping with difficulties--viewing family and friends as a mirror for community and dignity--after finding no way around the impediments placed in their path.
Fish then described the soldiers that were sent to his Battalion to replace the dead and wounded during combat:
After the war, Major General Almond told confidants he had been "cheated out of a higher command" because he headed the 92nd Infantry Division. Because of the 92nd combat record, he was burdened with a poor performance record. What he did not say was that the division's showing was due to poor handling by White superiors and brittle morale among Black soldiers, rather than real failings (Lee, 1966; McDonnell, 2010). As a result, the division received a bad reputation that further damaged morale.
Although the 92nd Infantry was forced to fight next to soldiers who had no combat experience, were illiterate, and had committed serious crimes, Fish said that his infantry division brought the rag-tag team up to speed by teaching them necessary skills.
Building a community with the "replacements" despite a lack of skill and negative personal characteristics resonates with progressive African-American masculinities. This model of masculinity acknowledges that the "freedom struggle" advances within the physical and spiritual formation of community (Mutua, 2006), especially with those who have the least.
Similar to every situation Black soldiers faced during the war, the trains that brought wounded men home were strictly segregated. Because the train was run by coal, the residue of dirt and soot drifted into the first three cars--where the Black soldiers were confined. Although his memory of the following incident is almost 70 years old, Fish recalled it clearly.
Mr. H also had told me that Black GIs were "very much disgruntled about coming back to the US after fighting the war, and they still had to take a second class spot. Black veterans could not fly home with the white soldiers. The planes were segregated."
Fish brought up a subject that particularly offended Black soldiers who fought in World War II--The Congressional Medal of Honor.
Certain criteria had to be met in order to receive this medal. Black soldiers consistently missed one or two of the criteria. Fish talked about a well-known hero of World War II.
It was not until 1997--50+ years after the end of the war--that President Clinton awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor to seven Black veterans, only one of whom was alive--Vernon Baker, a respected member of the 92nd Division (The Buffalo, 1997; Galloway, 1999). And now, as Mr. Thompson pointed out, "there's just a few of us left."
Similar to what other African-American men told me, Fish said that many Black soldiers returned from the war as activists. They told others about the racism they endured here and overseas, and a new consciousness emerged in the Black community. This new consciousness 1) acknowledged the institutionalization of American (White) masculinities with a legacy of oppression (Harris, 1992); 2) affirmed the need for theories of Black masculinities based on African sources of identity (Asante, 1980; Karenga, 1993) and 3) set the stage for the civil rights movement.
After the war, the government thanked all of its service men and women. Veterans were offered the advantage of the GI bill to attend college and secure low interest home loans. In the 1950s, Fish took college courses in Lab Technology and thought about entering the medical profession. When we spoke, he proudly mentioned that some of his fellow soldiers had become doctors, college professors, lawyers, and educators. Fish mentioned that Mayor Usry of Atlantic City, NJ was a member of the 92nd. "There were also judges, authors, athletes, and actors (Roscoe Lee Browne) that came out of the 92nd," Fish said with pride.
When I asked Fish how he views his war experiences now, with the vantage of over 60 years, he replied, "I still feel hurt. The hurt has to do with what went on in the war, but also what happened in the ensuing years. It's a kind of bitterness about the lies that were told about us and getting no credit for what we did. And that never being made right."
Interviewer: Where does the bitterness go?
Fish: If you're not strong it will go to your own community; it will go to your own family. If you're not strong, you'll get angry and you take it out on others.
Interviewer: How do you get to be strong?
Fish: My parents. They were strong.
Interviewer: How does strength ease the bitterness?
Fish: It still hurts inside. But I didn't put it on anyone else and I learned a lot, too. I learned what racism was, what it looks like, how to define it. It's still there, but it's undercover now, but ! know how to recognize it.
Interviewer: How do you recognize it?
Fish: It's about competition and fear.
After the war, the command of the American military considered the "experiment" of Black combat troops a failure (Hodges, 1999). At the end of our first meeting, I asked Fish one last question. What did he think now about the 598th Field Artillery Battalion, the one that was "presumed to fail?" Fish answered definitively, "Oh, the 598th? We were tops. We were tops."
In 1982, forty years after entering the service, Fish and seven fellow soldiers met at Spurgeon Burrus' home in Washington, DC for the purpose of forming an association to commemorate the formation of the 92nd Division in October 1942, and the outstanding combat participation of its troops. Fish told me that he and other men were on a "Buffalo Hunt" for members, which was rewarded at the next meeting when 55 Buffalo Soldiers showed up. This association continues to work to "bolster the image of the Black-American fighting man in World War II, and make others remember their campaigns, their bravery, while fighting racism at home" (Hunter, 1995).
Fish: Harry (Brown) and Louis (Aytch) (from the 92nd Division) formed a Philadelphia group in 1984. I recruited Spencer Moore, so there were just four of us originally. At the next quarterly meeting in Washington there were about 70 men. We were inside having the meeting and the bell kept on ringing, and another guy would come in. Many cried when they saw each other for the first time in 40 years. It was really something.
Interviewer: What would you like people to know about the 92nd Division?
Fish: There's a true story to be told, good and bad. Yes, we had deserters, but know why. Know what we had to go through. You don't have to love us, but don't lie about us.
Currently, there are about 50 living members in the Association, but most cannot attend the annual meetings. "They no longer talk about war," Fish, said, but about "family and health. "So many of us aren't well."
As I looked through the many papers in his binders, I saw Fish's discharge papers. During the Second World War, he trained men on the 105mm Howitzer. He fought in three campaigns in Italy--the Rome Amo, Po Valley, and Northern Apennines. Ultimately he received three battle stars for fighting in these three combat zones. He also received the Purple Heart. I found another yellowing piece of paper. On it was typewritten:
"When the smoke of battle cleared, men of the 92nd division had received 12,096 decorations--including two Medals of Honor; two Distinguished Service Crosses, one Distinguished Service Medal, eighteen Legion of Merit awards, seven Oak-leaf clusters, 208 Silver Stars, six Soldier Medals, 1,166 Bronze Stars, 7,996 combat infantry badges, and 1,891 Purple Hearts. The Division also received 205 commendations and 48 foreign awards including: Eight Order of the Crown of Italy; 17 Military Cross for Military Valor, and 22 Military Cross for Merit in War."
The division had lost one-fourth of its men. "Of 12,846 Buffalo Soldiers who saw action, 2,848 were killed, captured or wounded" (Hodges, 1999, p. 74).
Our article offered a paradoxical look at the Second World War--touted as a war that met the just war criteria and needed "no apologies." Yet, Reid (2008) noted that "the first lie of war" is that one's side of the effort holds the forces of truth, mercy, and justice; the enemy does not. Yet, even in the just defense of lives and borders, all combatants will commit and witness horrendous acts. The Just War theory reminds persons about the moral ambiguity of war, and in that sense no war is just. In World War II, government sanctioned racism created a "war within a war" for African-American combatants, which we glimpsed through the eyes of an African-American combat soldier.
After the war, The United States Army began a series of reforms that helped make the Army one of the nation's most equitable employers for men and women, White and Black. And although the Armed Forces has been an integrated institution for 60 years, and Black officers command at high levels, they struggle to reach the highest rungs. Less than six percent of United States General Officers are African American (Baldor, 2008).
Our paper had two major goals. The first goal was to tell Fish's story as both a true story and a symbolic one. Its truth represents Fish's experiences during the war and those of other African-American soldiers, particularly those in the 92nd Infantry, who were treated as less able and skilled to fight in a war, yet more expendable because they were Black (Viviano, 2008). The second goal was to look at Fish's story in the frame of masculinity ideologies that acknowledge diverse races and ethnicities, different stages in an individual's life, and distinctive historical eras (Levant & Majors, 1997).
During the Second World War, a vast number of men found meaning in acts of patriotism and brotherhood. For each man, the circumstances of his early life, worldview, and role in the war, created an intersection where history imprinted him with experiences that forced him to make choices that foster growth. African-American men made choices within limited, sometimes equally onerous options, such as being incarcerated for speaking up against an injustice, or remaining silent.
Certainly, theories about the life course or masculinities are not meant to handle uniqueness, and theories that take racism into account can not account for the singular aspects of each life (Mills & Edwards, 2002). Racism changes the conflicts that an individual confronts at each stage in life, and it is individual stories that show the healthfulness of mistrust and the reasonableness of despair (Kales, Blow, & Bingham, 2000). Narratives show the harsh realities of our world. Biology and history wield power whimsically and the constraints of social systems mark certain members of society as inferior. Skill or hard work does not ensure success, and being true to oneself, or having the love of family and friends does not heal all hurts. It is within their own stories that persons fit themselves into their history, their biology, and their experiences.
Mr. Thompson's narrative reveals how elderly African Americans interpret and understand experiences of racism and war. It also acknowledges that DuBois' (1903) "double consciousness," which persisted as a function of self-protection (Black, Groce, & Harmon, 2011) during the war and afterward, pushed African-American masculinities into a progressive masculinity. This masculinity remains rooted in a liberation struggle on many fronts (Franklin, 1986). It discloses a history told from an African perspective, and from an African identity that affirms the masculine ideals of community, spirituality, and dignity (Pierre, Mahalik, & Woodland, 2001).
To see Mr. Thompson walk into my office with two binders filled with information on the War (The Buffalo Soldiers, in particular) is to witness a commitment to both reality and hope. What happened in the past is painful and real; to continue to tell his story about the war means that he believes others want to hear it. For now, Mr. Thompson's binders remain in my office, a reminder that in each life there is or will be some battle against injustice we choose to fight for however long it takes, in order to find peace.
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HELEN K. BLACK * and WILLIAM H. THOMPSON *
* Arcadia University.
Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to HELEN K. BLACK, Arcadia University, Glenside, PA 19038. Email: email@example.com
... Said he was fighting on arrival fighting for survival Said he was a Buffalo soldier win the war for America (from the lyrics to "Buffalo Soldier" by Bob Marley)
I was born in Richmond VA, September 15, 1921 to William H. Thompson and Julia Dean Thompson. We moved to Philadelphia before I was a year old. My father came to Philadelphia to manage his mother's business on South 15th Street in Philadelphia. We lived in West Philadelphia across from an elementary school. I had two brothers and two sisters. I was one of five. I was the youngest boy.
West Philadelphia was nice; everybody got along. It was mixed. Some Irish, Black, a lot had just come from Italy. People hung out with all sorts of other people and it wasn't until junior high that you separated. When you start socializing at dances and parties, that's when socialization breaks up. It's a silent thing but it hits you like a jolt when you realize they stop wanting to be your friend. In junior high a white history teacher invited us to her house for a party because we had been an exceptionally good class. So that was the first time I had been in that neighborhood, and that was the last time we socialized.
In high school, we were told point blank that we were wasting our time if we took academic courses. Why do you need chemistry if you're going to be a chauffeur or an elevator operator? Those were the jobs opened to blacks even with a high school education. My mother said for me and my brothers, "Oh, yes they will take the academic course." She was a very strong person. She stressed education, hitting the books. So, all five of us took academic. All five of us graduated from high school; two from college. And the family did well. We achieved what we wanted to achieve.
When the war started they called me to work at the Signal Corps. They employed men, women, even the elderly. This was an Army warehouse where they stored equipment, radios, batteries, cable wire. It was factory work, and for blacks you could work as a custodian or a driver, and I was working as a driver when I was drafted. It was November 28, 1942. I had just got married and didn't want to leave my bride. They called you into the armory in Philadelphia; they gave you a medical exam and a shot. I was 21 when I was put into the 598th Field Artillery Battalion, which was part of the 92nd Infantry Division.
Then we're being transported to another camp--Fort Meade, Maryland--and we're waiting around to go. And we're supposed to have lunch. Now we're still in Philadelphia. We see the white soldiers go into Linton's at 32nd and Market Streets, right across from the armory. But the black soldiers weren't allowed to go in. We just got drafted but we couldn't go in the restaurant. They gave us a boxed lunch and we ate it outside.
Some whites gave us credit. The first officer we saw was Colonel Ross. He was a West Point Graduate and he trained us well. When he met us he said, "My name is Robert C. Ross, R-O-S-S and I am your boss, B-O-S-S." He was really gung ho. He wanted the best outfit. I think it fed his ego, but he took pride in us and asked us to be proud. And we were.
The ones in the 93rd that didn't go to the Pacific--the cast-offs--were the ones supposed to teach us. Some were drunks. But we had the good sense to say, 'We're going to learn ourselves. We're not going to let these guys hold us back.' That's how we succeeded. By the time we went overseas not one of those men that was supposed to be teaching us was still in charge. Not one, 'cause we overtook their jobs; we knew they weren't qualified.
... as hard or harder time than we had. They couldn't go with the white officers to their movie house. They had to go to the black enlisted men's movie theater. It was Colonel Ross who said to one black officer, "You will never be anything more than a second lieutenant." See that was the lowest officer grade.
Most officers came from the South. When they were in contact with African Americans, say down in the deep South, they met field hands and farmers and laborers. They didn't have the opportunity to see how intelligent or competent or talented a black person could be. They also didn't have the imagination to see beyond this.
There was a lot of competition because everybody is trying to earn a stripe and you get a stripe with a promotion. You get a promotion when you take tests for the open jobs. Before we went overseas, I was in Ft. Huachuca and I was a sergeant. We had this big test, the Gunner's test. Artillerymen and infantrymen had different types of tests, depending on your "MOS" or what your duty was. I made 99.5 on the test and that would have got me recognition. I knew I had a very good score, but it was as if I hadn't done anything. That's one instance. People who made high marks with the rifle usually got recognition. But they didn't want to say a black fellow scored that high. That's why a lot of us get discouraged, we fall out and just don't want to fight.
We left from Hampton Roads on a converted luxury liner named the SS Mariposa. We were sent to Italy. There was no convoy and it was only when we neared the Rock of Gibraltar that we were escorted by a B25 bomber plane. When we landed in Italy, we were later joined by the 442nd Infantry Regiment, which were all Japanese-American soldiers, and the 473rd Infantry Regiment, which were all white soldiers. The officers were mostly white; one or two were black. All together there were about 15,000 men.
He said the Negro press demanded combat duty for Negro troops so now they were going to get it. They were given frontline duty as a punishment because of the Negro press! He sent men to the front for disciplinary reasons, too. He just seemed to have little regard for men's lives. He showed this when he ordered the artillery to fire on his own men! He insisted they were enemy troops. Even after being told by men who reconnoitered the area that he was wrong, he wouldn't change his mind. Because of that, one hundred odd men were killed.
On days off, white soldiers could go to town. The black soldiers were confined to base. We did manual labor; we were like stevedores. Even when we liberated a beautiful resort town in Tuscany called Virregio. In a few months, when we had time off, white soldiers could go into the town, but the order came down that the American General in charge didn't want blacks in there. And we were the ones that liberated it! One day, Brigadier General John Wood gave a lecture to a group he thought were white officers. Major Bowser was a light-complexioned black officer in the audience. He quoted the general as saying, "Now I know how to handle the Negro soldier. Just treat him like a big happy dog."
The replacements we got were ill-trained. Some were convicts who were just released from prison for crimes like murder, or men who couldn't read or write, or who never shot a gun in their lives. There was one guy they gave us, a convicted murderer. You could see right away he was a bad actor. He caused trouble all through the camp. It was like they (Army officials) tried every way to stop you from succeeding. Later, they (US officials) brought up how many black soldiers were deserters. But most of them didn't have an idea what to do or they were told they couldn't do anything. They were never trained.
And eventually, we all just came to be one. We taught them to read and write; we showed them how to shoot a gun. We just helped them through. And they learned. Even though we were not given the opportunity to excel, we changed that around. We built up camaraderie with those men. The 24th Infantry Regiment (African-American combat soldiers) faced the same thing.
One of the men from my division was badly wounded and sent home. This man didn't go in the Pullman car with a berth, where men could lay down, but in the segregated train car where he had to sit up the whole way, breathing in all that soot and dirt.
What hurts me is that they falsified information about things we did or did not do. There was no recognition of what we accomplished with what we had to work with. You could read in the newspapers that no black soldier in World War II ever won the Congressional Medal of Honor. And when you heard reports of this it was said in almost a glad way. And the government was complicit in this. Until Clinton changed that.
There was a Navy Messman (worked in the mess hall or kitchen located in the lower quarters of the ship) named Dorie Miller. He should have been one of the first to receive this honor. This happened at Pearl Harbor. The gunners on deck had been killed. He ran up from below when all hands were needed on deck. He was never trained on that artillery piece, but he got fight to work on that big gun and did what ever he could to save the rest of the men. Wouldn't you know they were going to court martial him for using that gun because he hadn't been trained on it? We couldn't believe that.
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