As the nation pauses to dedicate a new memorial to World War II veterans this Memorial Day weekend, the fog of amnesia about the accomplishments of black World War II heroes will hang over the occasion.
Serving with distinction, valor and honor was the easiest part of the war for black Americans in uniform – a fact too often forgotten by the history-challenged media and far too many politicians.
The hardest part was dealing with the open contempt of white commanding officers who denied them Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars, and the real danger of being lynched in uniform (as many were) when returning to America.
Forgotten is black Physician Charles Drew, who developed the blood bank system, and his firing by the Red Cross from his post as head of wartime blood donations.
With government approval, the Red Cross had separated the donations of black and white. Drew was fired because he tried to end this practice.
Forgotten is Gen. George Patton’s racist treatment of his black troops. Patton’s Third Army included the all-black 761st armored tank unit, known as the “Black Panthers,” and the mostly black “Red Ball Express,” the trucking convoy that hauled gas through enemy lines.
Liberated Nazi death camps
Patton, who routinely referred to black soldiers as “niggers,” rotated his white combat troops every week or two after fighting on the front – but the 761st served for more than six months with the same personnel, sustaining a 50 percent casualty rate.
It was the 800-man 761st that liberated the Buchenwald and Dachau Nazi-run Jewish death camps. It took a 1985 letter to The New York Times by a liberated prisoner to bring this to light – the U.S. Army forgot to remember.
“The recollections are still vivid – [b]lack soldiers of the Third Army, tall and strong, crying like babies, carrying the emaciated bodies of the liberated prisoners,” wrote Benjamen Bender, a Buchenwald survivor.
Another Holocaust survivor, David Yeager of Poland, said of the 761st, “I thought they had come down from heaven.”
“You never hear anything about us in the media; it makes me bitter that we were never recognized” complains former “Red Baller” James Cranchall.
Now 82, Cranchall, a resident of Philadelphia, was a part of the historic June 1944 D-Day landing and invasion of Nazi-held France along with 120 African Americans of the all-black 427 Quartermaster Truck Battalion.
"Red Ballers" under fire
Over 75 percent of the Red Ball Express drivers, who hauled an estimated 413,000 tons of gasoline, food and other supplies under fire, were African American.
It consisted of a truck convoy system traversing a 400-mile route stretching from St. Lo in Normandy to Paris and to the front along France’s northeastern borderland. Daily, 900 fully loaded vehicles were on the route round-the-clock.
“We were doing with trucks what they are now doing with helicopters,” notes Cranchall. “We would load up as many as 100 soldiers and drop them off at a location, and then haul gas.”
Cranchall was injured in a land mine explosion in 1945 as he rode in a jeep as a part of Patton’s Third, which was holding at the Rhine River to allow the Russian Army to march in first to seize Berlin.
“All our officers, who were white, showed very little appreciation for the black soldiers,” recalls Cranchall. He suffered burns over 10 percent of his body but, he says, “I never heard from any of them after I got hurt. I should have gotten a Purple Heart.”
Cranchall said he earned three Bronze Stars, “but I had to send away for them.”
A meeting with Ernie Pyle
One of the highlights of the war for Cranchall was sharing a foxhole with legendary World War II Journalist Ernie Pyle, while his unit was under attack near Germany.
“Pyle jumped into my foxhole, asked me my name, wrote it down, thanked me, and jumped out. Now, there was a journalist I admired,” Cranchall says.
Army Sgt. Edward Hicks of Washington, D.C., also landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day as part of the 20th Anti-Aircraft Division.
“The invasion of France was some rough fighting. So rough that our white commanding officer, a Lt. Colonel, ran and hid. The next day when General Omar Bradley [12th Army Commander] came looking for him; he couldn’t find him,” Hicks says.
Blinders on history
Hollywood producers, such as Steven Spielberg, forgot to remember incidents like this. Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” did not include one African American soldier in its 20-minute opening scene recreating the D-Day invasion, or in any other scene in the film. (Vin Diesel played an Italian soldier.)
Hicks, 87, reluctantly talks about his war experiences, because he finds them depressing. He describes a train trip to Fort Dix, N.J., with three white friends, all in uniform, on their way to muster out of the military.
“As we entered the dining car, the maitre d’ met us to tell us I couldn’t be served, but my three white friends could. My friends refused.
A black waiter intervened and went off on the maitre d’, telling him that his brother had died in the war the day before.” In effect, the waiter said Hicks would be served that day in that dining car in that particular instant or he would know the reason why.
”We were sent for, escorted to the dining car, served and treated like kings because of the brother who asserted himself then and there,” remembers Hicks.
African American women of the Women’s Army Corps (WACS), like black men, were kept apart from their white counterparts. In civilian life, however, “Rosie the Riveter” factory jobs opened up that gave black women a brief time of unprecedented opportunity to work (at far less pay) in a traditional all-male bastion.
Black military personnel of both genders were not allowed to mingle with white soldiers at USO dances. Many black military personnel remember reporters from the military paper Stars & Stripes whizzing by black troops to interview white troops. The armed forces were not officially desegregated until President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in 1947.
African Americans were derisively known in the segregated Army and Navy as “Eleanor Roosevelt’s Niggers,” because the first lady, and wife of wartime president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was seen as African Americans’ most powerful ally, arguing for full integration in the armed forces.
She thought things were not racially ship-shape with the Navy, so she prevailed upon its brass to do something to lift black morale on the home front. Fittingly, The Navy commissioned the USS Mason DE-529, the only Navy destroyer escort to be manned by an all-black crew (again, with white officers) in 1943.
The crew served with distinction when during what was then described as “the worst North Atlantic storm of the century,” the Mason’s deck split while escorting a convoy of merchant ships bound for England. The crew handled emergency repairs in the high winds, lashing rain and poor visibility and took one section in to land, then returned and escorted the remainder.
Long decades later, President Bill Clinton, in 1994, gave a presidential commission to the 67 surviving Mason crewmembers. President Jimmy Carter gave the liberators of Dachau – the 761st – a presidential citation in 1978.
Lt. Col. Taro Jones, president of the D.C. Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., says that 44 chapters (and many of its members) nationwide plan to converge on the memorial dedication ceremonies.
“This is long overdue because it remembers those who gave their lives for freedom and those who returned to reinforce democracy here,” Jones says.
Several events are scheduled on the Mall for Saturday, Sunday and Monday to honor the approximately 1 million African Americans who took part in World War II. In addition, discussions are scheduled involving blacks who have fought a war on two fronts – both abroad and at home for equality.
On Friday, the day before the dedication, the Congressional black Caucus hosted a special tribute to African American war veterans on Capitol Hill.
Among the attendees were The black Patriots Foundation, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled American Veterans, the Tuskegee Airmen and the Army’s 92nd (Buffalo Soldiers) Infantry Division.