Originally created 09/02/01

We were there



Like many World War II veterans, Hughlon L. Johnson was moved when he first saw Saving Private Ryan.

His emotions, however, did not lead him to shed tears. He was angry - angry that the Academy Award-winning 1998 movie, like most movies about World War II, did not have a single black soldier in it.

"I get so damn mad about it," said the 79-year-old retired sergeant major. "We were there."

Of the 16 million U.S. military personnel who served in World War II, more than 1 million were black. Some black veterans, including Mr. Johnson, say their contributions have not been fully appreciated by the country they served.

For instance, no black received one of the 432 Medals of Honor given to World War II soldiers during the United States' involvement from Dec. 7, 1941, to Aug. 12, 1945. The omission was corrected only four years ago, when President Clinton awarded seven black World War II veterans the nation's highest military honor.

That it took more than a half-century demonstrates the second-class treatment black soldiers endured, black veterans say. For them, the war was fought on more fronts than just the European and Pacific theaters. They also had to battle the prevailing attitudes of the time in the military - and in the country - that kept them segregated from their white counterparts and that relegated most blacks to service units, where they performed tasks such as unloading ships and providing supplies.

The way it was'

But today they can relate their experiences without bitterness. It was, said 22-year Army veteran Frank Latson, "just the way it was back then."

Mr. Johnson trained in field and anti-aircraft artillery but was assigned to a quartermaster battalion to pump and supply gasoline when he was shipped to Casablanca, Morocco, in February 1943.

"I had no fear about going into combat," said Mr. Johnson, a Texas native who retired at Fort Gordon in 1972 after 31 years in the Army. "I figured I was trained. I figured I could have done just as good as anybody else. ... Black soldiers did not shrink from combat. (The military) just did not make any effort to put us in combat units."

The seeds of how best to use black troops in World War II were sown in the years after World War I. In The Employment of Negro Troops, a book authorized by the Army on blacks in World War II, Ulysses Lee writes that Army planners used the testimony of World War I commanders - some of whom were white Southerners - and traditional public attitudes in drafting its strategy on black troops for the next war.

Those attitudes are reflected in the 1925 memoirs of Maj. Gen. Robert L. Bullard, the commander of the American 2nd Army during World War I and an Alabama native.

"Poor Negroes! They are hopelessly inferior. ..." he wrote. "If you need combat soldiers, and especially if you need them in a hurry, don't put your time upon Negroes."

For the most part, that strategy was adopted, as less than 10 percent of black troops saw combat. That didn't stop them from serving their country as best they could in the roles they were given.

As a member of the 24th Infantry Regiment, John Williams, an Augusta native, was trained for combat, but his unit was relegated initially to unloading ships and clearing airfields for the island-hopping maneuvers in the Pacific Theater. But the 24th took pride in how it performed its assignments, he remembered.

"Even when we were unloading ships, we would try to get a goal above," said Mr. Williams, 82, who was drafted in April 1941. "For example, if the guys on the next dock unloaded 10 ships, and they were all white guys, we would try to unload 20. That was the competition. Everything we did, we tried to do better because we had prideful recognition to be accepted as first-class citizens."

Suffering indignities

That would prove difficult as the military mirrored what was going on in the country.

Even celebrities such as future baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson were not immune to the indignities suffered by lesser-known blacks in the military. Mr. Robinson, a lieutenant at the time, was almost court-martialed in 1944 for not moving to the back of a bus while stationed at Camp Hood, Texas.

In his autobiography, legendary boxer Sugar Ray Robinson talks about how he and fellow boxing great Joe Louis were arrested by military police for standing in the wrong section of an Alabama bus terminal.

"Soldier, your color belongs in the other bus station," the white MP told Mr. Louis.

When the Brown Bomber asked what his color had to do with it,seeing as "I'm wearing the same uniform just like you," the MP replied, "Down here, you do as you're told."

The fact that many blacks trained at Army bases in the deep South often made for heightened racial tensions, which several times spilled over into violence. Mr. Johnson said he barely escaped being involved in one of the more infamous incidents, which occurred the night of Jan. 10, 1942, in Alexandria, La.

Black soldiers became embroiled in a conflict with military police, local police officers and Louisiana state troopers when an MP used strong-arm tactics to arrest one of them. By the time order was restored, 28 black enlisted men had been wounded.

"I came out, and the streets were in a turmoil," said Mr. Johnson, who was in a theater at the time. "My friend had a car, and we took our hats off. (A white police officer) looked in the car but didn't see our uniforms. He said, 'We're going to straighten these n-----s out tonight. Y'all get out of here.'

"I never can forget seeing soldiers pushed and seeing people out shooting at soldiers. I can't forget that. It stays in your mind."

In the book Liberators - Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II, a member of the 761st Tank Battalion sums up what it was like to be a black soldier stationed in the South.

"If you go into town, you would have to get off the sidewalk if a white person came by. If you went into the wrong neighborhood wearing your uniform, you got beat up," Johnnie Stevens wrote. "If off-post you was hungry and couldn't find a black restaurant or a black home you know, you know what? You would starve. And you were a soldier ... out there wearing the uniform of your country and you're getting treated like a dog!"

Segregation came not only at an emotional cost, but also at a financial one, as millions were spent to build separate housing and other facilities for black soldiers. It also proved costly in less obvious ways, said 30-year Army veteran Olin Dorsey Jr., who was drafted in 1943, served in a quartermaster company in the Pacific Theater and saw how the military changed after President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, to integrate all service branches.

"I believe that if the Army had been integrated from the get-go it would have showed more professionalism in the other countries that we are one people, not colored and white," said the Harlem native, now 76 and a retired command sergeant major.

"This is the impression that we gave to the foreign nations that blacks and whites are different. If we had been integrated like when we went into Vietnam, if we had been integrated like when we went into Korea, we would have given a better picture and representation of the United States Army."

Coping mechanisms

What got many black soldiers through those hard times was a sense of humor - making the best of a bad situation, they say. At Officer Candidates School in 1942, Mr. Johnson and the other blacks could not enter the service club at Camp Davis, N.C. That changed one hungry night when they smelled the aroma of food wafting from the club and convinced one of their light-skinned buddies it was time to see whether he could pass for white.

This friend turned out to be Romare Bearden, who went on to become one of America's most renowned collage artists. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1972.

"One night we told Bearden, 'Damn it, if you don't go in there and get us some food we're going to kick your (butt),"' Mr. Johnson said, chuckling at the recollection. "We got some money and told him, 'You go in there and get us some sandwiches.' We finally got him to brave going in that service club. He went in there and didn't have no trouble. Every night from then on in, we come out of study hall, Bearden had one duty to do.

"We laughed about the situation in terms of how bad it was for us," Mr. Johnson said. "That's how we were able to do these things."

Once overseas, life didn't get much better. Mr. Latson, who served with the 1132nd Combat Engineer Battalion, shook his head as he described the efforts of some white troops to portray black soldiers as less than human when he arrived in England.

"Rumors were out that at 11 o'clock at night that our tails would come out," said Mr. Latson, 80, an Augusta resident who retired as a sergeant first class in 1964. "It was very difficult."

One such incident still brings a frown to Mr. Williams' face nearly 60 years later. He recalled how white officers - who typically commanded black units - would open the outgoing mail of soldiers and blot out anything that could provide the enemy with details on their location and mission. This was common practice during the war, but what bothered then-Pfc. Williams wasn't what they did but what they said.

"They would sit around the table and make comments about this guy is illiterate and he couldn't read, didn't know how to put down sentences," he said. "They would make jokes about it. Would say things like, 'This n----- can't even spell."'

The lack of respect for black troops at home and abroad did not prevent some of those who did see combat from performing admirably.

For instance, the 761st Tank Battalion - known as the Black Panthers - fought for six consecutive months without relief against some of Germany's best units. That effort came during Gen. George S. Patton's 3rd Army campaign beginning in the fall of 1944 in northeastern France. The average American tank unit spent no more than a few weeks in combat before being sent back from the front for rest and relaxation, according to the book Liberators.

A member of the 761st, Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers was one of the seven blacks eventually honored in 1997 with the Medal of Honor for his bravery during a Nov. 19, 1944, battle in which he was killed. He might have received the honor sooner, but racism again delayed justice, said one of the country's pre-eminent military historians.

World War II historian Dale Wilson, whose scholastic work was used in a 1995 study to determine the list of black World War II soldiers nominated for the Medal of Honor, said Sgt. Rivers' acting battalion commander, who was white, refused to put through a recommendation to honor the hero.

"He said that no n----- was going to get a Medal of Honor in this war," Dr. Wilson said in a telephone interview from his home in Mountain View, Hawaii.

The return home

Perhaps the cruelest blow was returning home only to again be expected to sit in the back of the bus. That and the lack of fanfare black soldiers got when they returned from war is still fresh in Mr. Johnson's mind.

"While white troops were marching down Broadway, I snuck off a ship in Newport News (Va.), and almost had a fight as soon as I got off the boat," he said.

Reality smacked the returning soldiers in the face when they found that jobs - at least for black troops - were hard to come by. That prompted many returning black soldiers, including Mr. Dorsey, to re-enlist and make the military a career. For those who didn't, they said they made do the best they could.

"I was waiting on tables when I left to go in. When I came back, the only thing I could get was a job at Fort Gordon working in the mess hall," Mr. Williams said. "I couldn't get no truck driver job; I couldn't get no up-to-date job. There was supposed to be vacancies, but those were for the returning white soldiers. You could get a janitor's job, the mess hall.

"That's what I came back to doing - cleaning up behind the same soldiers that I served with."

It wouldn't be until many years later that blacks would see the benefits from their participation in the war, historians say.

Those who left their farms to go overseas were no longer satisfied with returning to their previous lives and helped start the mass migration of Southern blacks to the North and more urban areas, said Russell Adams, the chairman of Howard University's Department of Afro-American Studies. The G.I. Bill helped many soldiers educate themselves, he said.

"The plus side of all of this business is that X (number of) farm and plantation workers saw a wider world," Dr. Adams said. "The second is that they realized that there were jobs other than the mule, the hoe and the plow. And the other is self-discovery, that I can do this."

Those who returned also played a key role in igniting the civil rights movement, Dr. Wilson said.

"The civil rights movement was fueled by guys coming back from World War II and seeking redress and who were not going to stop until they got it," he said. "They were the ones who provided the energy for civil rights reform. No question about that."

Also not in doubt, say the veterans, is that they were patriots. Most black World War II veterans say they loved their country, even though it didn't always love them back.

"You still wanted to serve your country," Mr. Johnson said. "It was never something where we ain't going to do right by this country."

Military milestones

Benjamin Oliver Davis Sr. was the first black general in the regular Army and the U.S. armed forces. He was promoted to brigadier general Oct. 25, 1940.

Legislation enacted in 1866 and 1869 created the first four all-black Army regiments - the 9th and 10th Calvary, and the 24th and 25th Infantry.

Four thousand black women - 120 of them officers - served in World War II in the Women's Army Corps.

The 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion was the only black combat unit to take part in the initial landing on the Normandy coast June 6, 1944. It was an anti-aircraft unit, the only American unit of its type in Europe.

Twenty-two black combat units participated in the operations of the American Expeditionary Forces in the European Theater. They were the 333rd, 349th, 350th, 351st, 578th, 686th, 777th, 969th and 999th Field Battalions; the 453nd Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion; the 761st and 784th Tank Battalions; the 614th and 827th Tank Destroyer Battalions; and the 183rd, 184th, 1695th, 1696th, 1697th, 1698th, 1699th and 1700th Engineer Combat Battalions.

Gordon A. Parks Sr., the director of the movie Shaft, became in 1943 the first black to work for the U.S. Office of War Information as a photojournalist and war correspondent.

Pfc. Leonard Brooks and Pvt. Annias Jolly of the 24th Infantry Regiment were the first black infantrymen killed by enemy fire in 1944 during fighting on Bougainville in the Pacific Theater.

The Tuskegee Airmen flew 1,578 missions and 15,533 sorties, destroying 261 aircraft.

The USS Mason, a destroyer escort commissioned March 20, 1944, was the first naval warship with a predominantly black crew and at least one officer.

Sources: Congressional Record, Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II, and the U.S. Army Center of Military History

Reading list

To learn more about black soldiers in World War II, here are some must-reads:

The Employment of Negro Troops, by Ulysses Lee

When Jim Crow met John Bull, by Graham Smith

Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II, by Lou Potter

Fighting in the Jim Crow Army: Black Men and Women Remember World War II, by Maggi M. Morehouse

Blacks in the Army Air Forces during WWII, by Alan M. Osur

Blacks in the Military: Essential Documents, by Bernard C. Nalty and Morris J. MacGregor

The Medal of Honor and African Americans in the United States Army During World War II, by Elliot V. Converse II, Robert K. Griffin, Richard H. Kohn, John A. Cash and Daniel K. Gibran

The Quest for Equality: From the Civil War to Civil Rights, by Charles H. Wesley

Segregated Skies: All-black Combat Squadrons of WWII, by Stanley Sandler

One Woman's Army: A Black Officer Remembers the WAC, by Charity A. Earley

Golden Thirteen: Recollections of the First Black Naval Officers, by Paul Stillwell

Recognition - 40 years later

President Clinton honored seven black soldiers from World War II with the Medal of Honor on Jan. 13, 1997. The recipients were:

1st Lt. Vernon Baker (Company C of the 370th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Division)

On April 5, 1945, then-2nd Lt. Baker destroyed two German machine gun nests near Viareggio, Italy, and attacked two other positions with the aid of one of his men. The next night, Lt. Baker voluntarily led a battalion advance through enemy mine fields and under heavy fire toward his division's objective.

Staff Sgt. Edward A. Carter Jr. (Company No. 1 (provisional), 56th Armored Infantry, 12th Armored Division)

When the tank on which he was riding received heavy bazooka and small arms fire March 23, 1945, near Speyer, Germany, Sgt. Carter voluntarily led a three-man group across an open field. Two of his men were killed and a third was seriously wounded, but the sergeant, wounded five times, continued alone. As eight enemy riflemen attempted to capture him, Sgt. Carter killed six of them and captured the remaining two. He then crossed the field using his two prisoners as a shield, and obtained valuable information from them concerning enemy troop disposition.

1st Lt. John R. Fox (366th Infantry, 92nd Division)

On the morning of Dec. 26, 1944, in Sommocolonia, Italy, Lt. Fox and several men had voluntarily stayed behind to help direct artillery fire on advancing German troops who were about to overrun the town. From the second floor of a house, Lt. Fox directed artillery fire to slow the enemy advance. As the Germans continued to press the attack, Lt. Fox adjusted the artillery fire closer to his position. When he was warned that the adjustment would bring the artillery fire on top of him, he acknowledged the danger and insisted it was the only way to defeat the attacking soldiers. When a counterattack by the American forces retook the position, Lt. Fox's body was found among the bodies of approximately 100 Germans.

Pfc. Willy F. James Jr. (Company G, 413th Infantry regiment, 104th Division)

As lead scout during a maneuver to secure and expand a vital beachhead near Lippoldsberg, Germany, on April 7, 1945, Pfc. James was pinned down for more than an hour during which time he observed enemy positions. Returning to his platoon, he helped work out a new plan of maneuver, then led a squad in an assault. He was killed by enemy machine gun fire while going to the aid of his fatally wounded platoon leader.

Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers (Company A, 761st Tank Battalion, 3rd Army)

During a battle outside Guebling, France, beginning Nov. 15, 1944, Sgt. Rivers' Sherman tank was disabled by a land mine, ripping his right leg open to the bone. The sergeant refused medical evacuation, took command of another tank and advanced with his company to Guebling the next day. At dawn, the company's tanks began to advance toward Bougaktroff, but were stopped by enemy fire. Sgt. Rivers, joined by another tank, opened fire on the enemy tanks, covering Company A's retreat. The sergeant's tank was hit, killing him and wounding his crew.

Capt. Charles L. Thomas (Company C, 614 Tank Destroyer Battalion, 103rd Division)

On Dec. 14, 1944, then-1st Lt. Thomas volunteered to lead one of his tank platoons as point for an armored task force sent to capture the village of Climbach, France. During the assault, Lt. Thomas' armored scout car was hit by heavy enemy fire. Lt. Thomas signaled the remainder of the column to halt, grabbed a 50-caliber machine gun and returned fire at the German troops. As he left the disabled vehicle, Lt. Thomas was wounded in the chest, legs and left arm but managed to direct placement of two antitank guns.

Pvt. George Watson (29th Quartermaster Regiment)

Pvt. Watson was aboard a ship near Porloch Harbor, New Guinea, when it was attacked by Japanese bombers. The order came to abandon ship and instead of seeking to save himself, Pvt. Watson remained in the water assisting several soldiers who could not swim to reach the safety of a raft. As the ship sank, its suction dragged Pvt. Watson under. His body was never recovered.

Sources: U.S. Army Center of Military History; various newspaper articles

Reach Mike Wynn at (706) 823-3218 or mwynn@augustachronicle.com.

During the next three months, The Augusta Chronicle will publish the stories of our World War II veterans to commemorate the 60th anniversary of America's entry into the war.

If you have a war story to tell, mail your submission to: War Stories, c/o The Augusta Chronicle Newsroom, P.O. Box 1928, Augusta, GA 30903-1928. Or e-mail your stories to newsroom@ augustachronicle.com. Please include your name, address and telephone number with your entry.