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

World War 2 History: Sobibor

Author’s Note:  My first book:  Long Way Home: A World War II Novel has made me an interested researcher about the Great War.   From time to time, I stumble across information about this global event which I will share on this blog.

 images-2

In October 1943 the prisoners of Sobibor death camp in Poland planned and carried out a revolt against their Nazi captors.  It was the most successful escape from a concentration camp. 

 

 References

The Times of Israel.  “70 years after revolt, Sobibor Secrets are Yet to be Unearthed.” http://www.timesofisrael.com/70-years-after-revolt-sobibor-secrets-are-yet-to-be-unearthed/

Blatt, Thomas Toivi. From the Ashes of Sobibor: A Story of Survival. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1997.

Caplan, Richelle Budd. “Escape under Fire: The Sobibor Uprising.” 2004. Yad Vashem On-line Magazine. Yad Vashem The Holocaust

Piccirillo, Ryan. “The Sobibor Revolt: ‘Death to the Fascists’. http://www.studentpulse.com/articles/285/the-sobibor-revolt-death-to-the-fascists

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

“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

First, Black WWII Marines Receive Honors

On June 27, 2012, the Montford Point Marines (the first, black WWII marines) were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in a ceremony at the U.S. Visitors Center.

 

Gunnery Sgt. Mack Haynes Sr Montford Point Marine

 Some 20,000 African American Marines received training at Montford Point between 1942 and 1949.   More than 400 of them, mostly in their 80’s and 90’s today got their due.

 

 Read more at:  The Detroit Free Press

http://www.freep.com/article/20120627/NEWS01/120627024/Montford-Pointe-Marines-honored-today

Words are All That Matter

Yesterday, President Barack Obama’s introduction to 2012 Medal of Freedom winner Jan Karski a leader in the World War II resistance to the Nazi occupation of Poland included a reference to “Polish death camps”.   Most of us understood that Mr. Obama was referring to the horrendous extermination sites established by Nazi Germany.   However, some Poles are, understandably, troubled when these facilities are characterized as Polish camps.    The Polish Foreign Minister has asked for an apology from the Obama Administration for the poorly-worded introduction used in the White House ceremony.

Five days ago, former Washington, DC Mayor (currently a city council member), Marion Barry attended a meeting of Asian American business, civic and community leaders to apologize for his recent public comments which were offensive to that community.  As the meeting ended and attendees were being conciliatory and discussing the undercurrents of racism that continue to plague our country, Mr. Barry’s words turned on him again.  As he listed groups that have been historical victims of discrimination in this country, he included Irish and Jewish emigrants and then, unfortunately, referred to Polish Americans with a term considered derogatory by most.  Barry was chagrined by his error.  He had meant no harm and was, again, apologetic.   His remark prompted a demand for an apology by the Executive Director of the Chicago-based Polish American Association

These two incidents, albeit dissimilar, provide a teaching moment for public officials, and others, to be conscientious about their words that may offend, even when unintentional.   Some might say the calls for apologies come from those who are overly sensitive or that this attention to “political correctness” is getting way out of hand.  I don’t see it that way.

The diversity field is not a static landscape.   Being aware of language as it intersects with values and norms is critical for navigating diversity in our work and our lives.    That’s why it’s good to have staff, speech writers, etc. who have diverse backgrounds and an editor’s eye/ear when it comes to our public messages.

First Waves of Freedom

350,000 women served in the military during World War II, of these 150,000 were members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACS) led by the service’s first director, Oveta Culp Hobby.

African American WAACS at Ft. DesMoines

The eligibility requirements were straightforward:  each woman must be a U.S. citizen, 21-45 years of age with no dependents, at least 5 ft. tall and weighing a minimum of 100 pounds.

The service of these women was a critical element of the U.S. war effort.   They took on jobs in the military that would free service men to be on the front lines.  Primarily they worked in clerical jobs, in medical units, in the motor pool, as radio operators, in military post offices and as  cryptographers.

The WAACS were the first of these services to allow Black service women (1942).   Forty black women who entered the first WAAC officer candidate class were placed in a separate platoon; most had attended college.

But the transition of women in the military 70 years ago was not easy or smooth.    By early 1943, the number of women joining the WAACS dropped dramatically due to a backlash of public opinion against women in the armed forces.  84% of letters received by the families of male soldiers were critical of WAACS.

Still, America’s World War II service women played an important role in the war.   Some women served in combat zones, were held as prisoners of war in the Philippines, conducted undercover operations, and sacrificed their lives.

For more information about women in the U. S. military during World War II  check out the National Women’s History Museum “Partners in Winning the War” web page at:

http://www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/partners/exhibitentrance.html

And the archive at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro The Betty H. Carver Women Veterans Historical Project at:

http://library.uncg.edu/dp/wv/conflict/?c=2

An excellent bibliography on the WWII service of black women in the military “We Served America Too” is available at:

http://www.howard.edu/library/moorland-spingarn/WWII.HTM

STATISTICS

    • 150,000 WAACs served during WWII; 6,520 African American WAACS
    • 35,000 women applied for WAACS officer’s training school
    • The first WAAC training center was at Ft. Desmoines training began in 1942..
    • Successful service of WAACS led to a permanent corps in 1948 with the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act; but not until the 1970s were women fully assimilated into the army
    • 100,000 women were members of the Navy’s WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency)
    • The Airforce also had a contingent of women service members called Women Airforce Service Pilots or WASPs.

Cheryl Head’s first novel, Home Front, is the story of two, black World War II soldiers (one a WAAC) serving in a segregated Army base near Tucson, Arizona.    It is a love story.