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Black soldiers battled fascism, racism

African Americans who served in World War II will be saluted this weekend and recall a fight waged on two fronts: against fascism overseas and against racist laws at home.
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A few months after the Allied victory in World War II, 24-year-old Capt. Harold Montgomery returned to the General Accounting Office at Fifth and G streets NW to reclaim his old job with the U.S. Post Office Department.

Since leaving 4-1/2 years earlier, Montgomery had led a heavy weapons company of the Army's all-black 92nd "Buffalo Soldiers" Infantry Division up the western coast of Italy through barrage upon barrage of German fire.

He had watched wounded men die as shrapnel sliced through the plasma bags set up to give them transfusions. He had grinned and waved as cheering residents of liberated cities pressed flowers and bottles of wine into his hands.

But when the Washington native walked into the GAO's grand, high-ceilinged lobby, it was as though time had stood still.

‘To hell with that’
A large plaque honoring postal employees who had served in the war did not list Montgomery or any other African American veterans, he recalled. Worse still, a personnel manager informed him that he would not receive a pay raise given to returning white soldiers.

"To hell with that," retorted Montgomery, who resolved to find a different line of work.
Today, as the dedication of the National World War II Memorial approaches, the memory of their homecoming still gives Montgomery and many other black veterans a bitter twinge.

At a series of events honoring the roughly 1 million African Americans who served in the war -- part of this weekend's salute to the World War II generation -- they will recall a fight waged on two fronts: against fascism overseas and against the racist laws and attitudes that oppressed blacks at home.

African American newspapers of the time called it the "Double V Campaign." And although the victory over the Axis powers was complete, the results of the second struggle were decidedly mixed.

Unparalleled need, unparalleled opportunity
The nation's unparalleled need for troops gave thousands of African American soldiers, including many in noncombat service units, the chance to prove their mettle in battle and put to rest the assertion by military brass that blacks lacked the courage, discipline and intelligence to fight effectively.

But black soldiers generally received few medals for their accomplishments. They were kept in segregated units, made to sit behind German prisoners of war during USO concerts and banished from the very streets they had liberated once white nurses moved in.

For James Strawder, one of more than 2,000 black soldiers who answered Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's call for black volunteers to replace white soldiers killed during the Battle of Bulge, the final indignity came after Germany's surrender, when the volunteers were immediately transferred back to all-black labor units as their white comrades in arms were being sent home or given more dignified assignments.

Strawder and the 200 other black volunteers at the Army post he was sent to refused to work. When their commanders threatened to court-martial and execute them for insubordination, the men marched to the stockade and dared them to go ahead.

"Didn't give a john"
"I had already risked death [in battle], I didn't give a john," Strawder, now 83, recalled.

The Army relented and allowed the men to return home on a ship bearing other combat troops.

But President Harry S. Truman did not issue his order desegregating the military for three more years. At the war's end, Strawder saw little cause for hope.

"I was really disgusted with this country," he said. "I was angry, and I stayed angry for years."

Like the overwhelming majority of blacks who participated in the war, Strawder was initially assigned to a service unit -- in his case a quartermaster company assigned to an air base near Cambridge, England, early in 1943 to build landing strips, dig ditches and clean latrines.

Four days after the D-Day invasion, they were shipped to northern France to bury the dead.

"There were hundreds of bodies all over the place," Strawder said. "We'd spend day after day loading them on trucks. Lordy, was it sickening."

Combat was not an option. Before the war, the Marines and the Army Air Corps barred blacks outright. The Navy accepted them only as cooks, stewards or longshoremen. The Army had only a handful of black combat units, mostly led by white officers.

‘Blood on the line’
Still, Strawder said, when white soldiers taunted him about being in a service role, "I just felt inferior. It hurt."

He also remembered the words of one of his high school teachers: "The only way the black man will ever be free is if he is ready to put his blood on the line when the time comes."

African American leaders in the United States felt the same way and pressed President Franklin D. Roosevelt to use more black troops in combat. As casualties among white soldiers mounted and the need for replacements grew, the administration's resistance weakened.

The Navy began commissioning a few black officers — about 60 by the war's end — and allowing blacks to fill skilled positions such as signalman and electrician on support ships. The Army Air Forces, precursor to today's Air Force, began training nearly 1,000 black pilots.

Dubbed the Tuskegee Airmen after their base in Alabama, they flew more than 15,000 sorties over Europe, as part of dive-bombing, strafing, patrol and bomber escort missions.

The Marines trained several hundred blacks for two combat battalions. Several thousand more were trained for depot and ammunition companies. Though technically not combat units, some of the companies repulsed fierce attacks by the Japanese in the Pacific.

Meanwhile, the Army began deploying black combat troops, including such storied units as the 92nd Infantry Division and the 761st "Black Panther" Tank Battalion, which led a 183-day thrust from France into Germany. Montgomery was in the first contingent of the 92nd Infantry to land in Naples, Italy, disembarking in the summer of 1944 in pitch darkness.

So many wrecked boats blocked the harbor that the men had to walk from their transports to shore on a long network of narrow planks, swaying unsteadily under the weight of their packs as German fighter planes strafed them and Allied antiaircraft guns boomed back in reply.

A special responsibility
As Montgomery reached the dock, he began to make out a new sound "like the roar of a crowd in a ballpark," he said. Hundreds of black service troops — cooks, stewards and laborers — had gathered to cheer the arrival of the first black combat soldiers in Italy.

Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the African American commander of the Tuskegee Airmen, was careful to impress on his men the special responsibility they had as representatives of their race, said Charles McGee, who left college to join the Airmen and flew missions over Europe out of southern Italy.

At a briefing soon after McGee's arrival, Davis sternly warned the pilots to stick close to the bombers they were assigned to escort into Germany rather than peel off to engage German fighter planes in glamorous, but unnecessary, dogfights that would leave the bombers vulnerable.

"He said, 'If any of you go happy hunting, I'll court-martial you,' " McGee recalled.

Some of the pilots chafed under the rules, which prevented all but two from shooting down the five enemy planes required to become an ace. But McGee took pride in the result of Davis's policy: The Airmen, then flying as the 332nd Fighter Group, did not lose a single bomber to an enemy fighter.

McGee, now 84, enjoyed flying so much that he went on to a 30-year career in the Air Force.

Today, he still hosts friends from the 332nd for lunch at least once a month -- receiving them in a Bethesda house packed with photographs and paintings of McGee in the red-tailed P-51 Mustang he flew during the war.

‘We were angry young men’
Montgomery, now 83, also turned to the military after his disappointment at the Post Office, serving in Korea and rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

By contrast, Strawder, who became a truck driver, was haunted by how easily combat can turn men into killers. For years, he had dreams about a German sniper he shot in the face.
"He couldn't have been older than 15 or 16," Strawder said. "I can still see the hole in his head, before the blood started rushing in."

And he worries that the black soldiers in his unit were particularly vulnerable. "We were angry young men," he said. "We used to say, 'If we don't kill these Germans, they'll come home and become our bosses.' "

For Strawder, as for many black veterans, time and the nation's growing recognition of their sacrifice has helped salve the wounds. When he learned that some of the events surrounding the memorial's dedication will honor African Americans, he gave a smile free of rancor.

"It does my heart good that they are giving us credit," he said.