NMAAHC’s Letter to Black Americans

Dear Black America:
It was good to have you visit, and to lay eyes on you and give you a wide-open embrace. I love you in all your hues, and do’s and views.
I admire your tenacity, creativity, and innovation. I remember you, and I celebrate your valor, swagger, intellect, and style. You have done all of us honor, and made our country greater than it might have been. I am proud of you.
I hope you can see, from the care we have given in preparation of your visit, that we deeply appreciate you.
It is our privilege to welcome all visitors. But your company is especially cherished. NMAAHCPlease, don’t let too much time pass, before I see you again.

With all, due, fondness,
National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Black soldiers on D-Day: “We Were There.”

woodson-209x300Waverly B. Woodson, Jr was a medic on D-Day.  Despite his own injuries from a mine explosion, Woodson continued to treat other wounded soldiers for 30 hours.   His actions, chronicled by his white superior officer, earned him a Bronze Star.    But Woodson is only one of many black soldiers who acted out of duty and honor to their uniform.

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Allied forces executed a massive invasion along a 50-mile stretch of coastline in northern France occupied by Hitler’s so-called Fortress Europe.  D-Day was a massive operation, the largest amphibious force in American military history, and involved 5,000 ships and landing craft, 160,000 troops and 11,000 aircraft providing support.  D-day-NormandyFour thousand Allied troops died in the Normandy invasion and thousands more were wounded or missing as troops scrambled ashore drawing machine-gun fire from the cliffs above the beach.    Omaha and Utah beaches were assigned to U.S. Forces.  The U.S. First Army Division faced heavy opposition on Omaha Beach where Black Soldiers at D-Day2,000 American soldiers died.  On that morning, seventy-one years ago, Negro soldiers did their part with tenacity, adaptability and bold action.  Some 1,700 black troops were part of the First Army including the 327th Quartermaster Service Company and the 320th Anti-Aircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion, which used helium-filled balloons tethered to explosives to thwart German aerial attacks. 

 

 

A Distant Shore: African Americans of D-Day  is a 2007 History Channel documentary which brings to life, through first-person testimonials, the challenges of black troops on D-Day.    “You see movies and stuff.  The Longest Day, you don’t see know African Americans.  Private Ryan, no African Americans….but we were there!”

On this day of commemoration of D-Day.  I salute these unsung heroes.        

African American Soldiers on D-Day

alg-normandy-jpg

2,000 black troops were among the Allied forces that stormed the beaches of Normandy, France on June 6, 1944. Too many stories leave out these Negro soldiers who served in a segregated American military during World War II.

These soldiers served in support capacities in the thick of the combat. An Emmy-nominated documentary, A Distant Shore: African Americans of D-Day tells their stories.  Here is an excerpt:

Resources:
The African-Americans of D-Day
http://www.military.com/NewsContent/0,13319,126337,00.html

Americas-The neglected story of African Americans on D-Day
France 24 International News
http://www.france24.com/en/20140604-d-day-african-american-battalion-320th-france-scholar-mills-dabney-normandy/?&_suid=140241208469005233622491359711

The Book: How it All Began


 

Long Way Home:  A World War II Novel is historical fiction and I have been at work on the project for more than five years.  The idea began in a very informal way after a series of conversations with a friend’s aunt who was a WWII veteran and one of the 150,000 members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.   Her memories of life at the Ft. Huachuca Army base  provide the novel’s setting and emotional center.

My father also served in WWII as a Private First Class.  He enlisted in 1943, just shy of 18 years old and worked in the Transportation Corps.   We spoke only a few times about his army service but he recounted fondly the many places he’d seen during his service, among them: New Orleans, San Francisco and Liverpool, England.   He wasn’t one of the “stand out” black soldiers of WWII–like the Tuskegee Airmen or naval hero Dorie Miller–he was just a regular soldier.

After Ken Burns’ produced his iconic The War series (amidst allegations of omitting the contributions of Latino soldiers*) I began to imagine there were many men and women, like “aunt” Lil and my father, who never won Medals of Honor during WWII or even got to the front lines, but whose service was nevertheless honorable.

PFC Sam McGarrah (my father)

The research that was required of the storytelling was daunting and many times I thought I’d bitten off more than I could chew.   Ultimately, doing the research  became an exhilirating treasure hunt.

Long Way Home has romance, conflict, celebration, humor and also detail about the tenor and tone of a segregated Army experience that is a microcosm of the Negro experience in 1940’s America.

 

* Hundreds of thousands of Hispanics served in the military during WWII; and 13 Hispanic servicemen were awarded the Medal of Honor for their WWII service.

Long Way Home is available as an eBook

updated July 2013 (original post April 2011)

Fort Huachuca-Home of the African American Soldier

Note:  This post was corrected on December 4, 2013.  The previous post erroneously listed Ft. Huachuca’s acreage.   In actuality, during WWII the base was more than 71,000 acres and today is some 73,000 acres.   Thanks to  Major General (retired) John M. Custer for the correction.

Two-thirds of my work of fiction, Long Way Home:  A World War II Novel is set on a 73,000-acre, army base in southeast Arizona that still operates today as an army installation.

Fort Huachuca has been significant in the training of black soldiers since the late 19th century and during World War II served the largest concentration of African-American (Negro) soldiers.

SoldiersatHuachuca

Continue reading

Introducing: Private First Class, Georgette Newton (Part 1)

One of the two, key protagonists in my novel Long Way Home:  A World War II Novel (formerly Home Front) is Georgette Lillian Newton a twenty-one year old, North Carolina farm girl who leaves home to become one of only about 6,000 African American members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACS).

Maj. Charity E. Adams and Cpt. Abbie N. Campbell inspect women of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the first Negro WAACS to be sent overseas

The WAACS played an integral and successful role in America’s military presence during World War II but the path to their involvement was a bumpy one.  Public opinion about female soldiers was initially negative and the initial bill authorizing the WAACS failed in Congress.  It was not until after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 that American military leadership saw the wisdom of adding new personnel to the war effort.

The law activating the WAACS was passed in May 1942 “for the purpose of making available to the national defense the knowledge, skill, and special training of the women of the nation.”  A recruitment goal of 25,000 was established but enrollment quickly eclipsed that goal and a final ceiling of 150,000 was authorized by Secretary of the War Henry L. Stimson. 

The first Director of the WAACS (later shortened to WACS when the corps traded its auxiliary status for a permanent one) was Oveta Culp Hobby, a former War Department employee who advocated for the WAAC Bill.  Hobby’s general idea for the WAACS was that they be trained as non-combatants to take on positions that would free a male soldier for battle.

July 20, 1942, 440 women began officer candidate training at Fort Des Moines (over 35,000 women applied for the training).  The four-week basic training of the first auxiliaries (enlisted women) began in August.   Note: Forty black women trained as officers were placed in a separate platoon.  They attended classes and ate with the other officer candidates but base facilities were segregated. Continue reading

Long Way Home: A World War II Novel – An Excerpt

1944

The day after our sweet reunion, we boarded a bus to a beautiful port town in Sonora, Mexico.  For five days we lounged on the beach in the early morning sun watching the local shrimp boats go out with empty nets and return hours later with nets full, inching their way to the wharf where their fresh catch was unloaded for market.  In the afternoons, we explored the beach and the small shops filled with beautiful, handmade crafts painted with brilliant oranges, yellows and blues.  At night, we ate wonderful seafood and rice dishes with olives, peppers and blue corn tortillas at outdoor cafes.  We drank lots of red wine and enjoyed the wharf lights dancing across the black water.

We laughed with the patrons at one or another of the cafes that lined the village; all of us temporary escapees from the war that held countries on several continents in its grip.  We spoke of music and art, we learned of the weather’s impact on the pristine coastline and we showed appreciation for photos of beautiful, brown children and smiling sweethearts with flashing eyes and long, dark hair.

No one held questions in their eyes about two men traveling together and sharing a small apartment with one bed; we were simply accepted.

Excerpt: Long Way Home:  A World War II Novel (formerly Homefront)  

 Cheryl A. Head   (NOW AVAILABLE in the Kindle bookstore)

“You know I’m gay, right?” asks one of my characters.

 

This blog was originally posted in September  2012.

Long Way Home:  A World War II Novel  (formerly Home Front) is a love story recounting the journeys of self-discovery of a young woman and a young man who also happen to be African American soldiers during World War II.

SoldiersinBarracksThey don’t face combat (most Negro soldiers never made it to the front lines of WWII) but their daily existence is one filled with heroic acts and small successes in the midst of demoralizing discrimination.

I was surprised when in the pre-dawn hours of half sleep one of my secondary characters nudged me to say:  “you know I’m gay, right?”  I awoke with a start of ‘what? Oh no!’

The character—Sergeant Moses a tough-as-nails career soldier charged with training Negro recruits—plays a pivotal role in the novel and serves as the reader’s moral compass as he reacts to the second-class treatment of the black soldiers in his care.

All of a sudden, I not only had to deal with how to weave the theme of race relations into my love story, now I was forced to think about what it would mean to be a homosexual soldier in 1943.   Remember this is seventy years before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  In those days it was more like… don’t dare even think about telling.

I took a couple of days away from the writing to analyze my feelings about this character’s secret and to figure out how my narrative would be affected.

At first I resisted.

This novel is loosely based on my father’s military experience during WWII.  Was this

PFC Sam McGarrah  (my father)

PFC Sam McGarrah (my father)

revelation something about him?  Was I afraid of what I might find?   I also worried about what this theme might mean for the book’s potential audience.  I was already busily balancing a military backdrop with a romance narrative and hoping I wouldn’t lose my connection to the women’s market.  I was also constantly second guessing about how much weight to give to historical fact in the novel.

Then I remembered the wise words of a teacher in a writer’s workshop…only worry about the writing.   So, I let the needs of the story lead me and I started another wave of research.  Here’s a fact I discovered: there is very little fiction or non-fiction (other than memoirs) about gays in the military during World War II and nothing about black gays.

Ultimately, I figured out how to use this new information to enrich the novel

Sgt. Moses’ secret (and its revelation in the novel) is a precipitating incident in the coming-of-age journey of one of my protagonists.  I used my writer’s imagination to conjure the language characters would use within the story line–endearments between lovers; the words of curiosity, sympathy, hatred and acceptance.  Remember, the terms “gay” and “queer” weren’t commonplace in the 1940’s.  Even the term, homosexual was

The Lesson for me:  Characters are almost always right.

Long Way Home:  A World War II Novel is AVAILABLE in the Kindle Bookstore

The Love Affair

Back in Love Again

I’ve lived with my novel Home Front through several years of writing and editing.  I’ve fallen in love with it, gotten impatient with it, never wanted to see it again, thought about it with excitement at my first waking and crawled into bed exhausted by it.     Like every relationship, my novel and I have had our ups and down.

I’m back in the love stage.  Continue reading