Thursday, March 5, 2020
I was in a squat position in a trench with bombs exploding all around me. I was safe. I had my military issue weapon, and my daddy next to me. He was the sergeant of the platoon. He yelled his orders and we rose out of the trench toward the Jerrys weapons blasting and grey German uniformed soldiers falling to the left and right of us. I pulled a grenade out of my pocket, pulled the pin, and threw it at the German bunker from where the sniper fire came, and—a direct hit, an explosion, and silence. We had won the battle. Daddy picked me up and we celebrated with milk and cookies.
Two days later we retook a German occupied French city. This time I’m in a tank. Dad is driving. During the battle I was in charge of the big gun. I directed it toward the German Panzer tanks in the way. Me along with the other gunners hit four that day, opening a pathway for the troops to charge toward the German regulars, take prisoners, and liberate Paris. In celebration, the French, famous for their good milk, cookies and ice cream, allowed me to eat and drink my fill for several days.
I don’t remember anything after that, and I remember these stories from my Dad’s recollections of the war—World War II. Though I was born in 1955, I was told that I was in the war with him and fought along side of him. I was four during these re-tellings and couldn’t do the math. We re-enacted those battles in our yard in North Beaumont Texas. Dad said I would remember them if we played war. I believed him then and still do. In a way.
These were the 1950s and war play was common for little boys at the time and it was before the psychological theories and child raising methods that took over our collective consciousness a decade later which rendered that kind of child raising passe’—though Dr. (not Mr.) Spock’s theories were beginning to circulate when I was hurling grenades at the Germans in 1959.
Later when my frontal lobes developed a bit more I did the math and realized that the stories were fables. But I was immersed in war stories, war movies, overhearing conversations with his Prairie View college buddies who also went to the war, with his brother who was injured in the Pacific. He dragged my mother and me to the South Park Drive In theater to watch the film “The Longest Day” where the non-combatant movie war hero John Wayne stormed the very same Normandy beaches that my father stormed just under two decades earlier. Didn’t much care for the film. A few years later when the film “The Battle of the Bulge” was released, he and I went—mom was becoming a little resistant to the war film genre and declined the invitation to attend. I was nine and liked the action. From the time I was seven, Tuesdays at 6:30, when prime time began in those days, was reserved for the ABC series “Combat!” with Vic Morrow. I even remember the final episode of the series when Morrow’s Sgt. Saunders’ arms were burned severely after being captured by Germans, who perished in an Allied bomb attack out of which Saunders was the only survivor. Crazed from the pain, he wandered through what I believe were the outskirts of Paris before being rescued by American troops who told him that the war was over.
These war experiences initiated conversations between me and Daddy about the war, at a time when I was older, skeptical, yet still curious in my hero worship of my father. I learned that he was in Prairie View A and M’s “Corps” before the war, and after Pearl Harbor, the Corps, what we would call ROTC today, was called up. He spent time in England where English families “adopted” American troops stationed there in 1944 for Sunday dinner and occasional breaks from training (he had pictures of him and his “family”). Later in high school and college, we discussed the long wait for the invasion of the European continent everyone in the world knew was coming, but no one knew from where and to where. He never conveyed fear in these conversations, just told the stories. Then came the invasion. Not a lot of details shared about that from him. I once asked him how many Germans did he kill. I remember getting antagonistic saying that he did not know, and reminded me that those soldiers were young men with families too. The rest of the stories as far as I remember included an episode where he was bunked down in a Belgian barn with his mates when a rat scurried into his sleeping bag. Or when he admitted to smoking some marijuana that somebody scored over there during a long wait for orders and the effect that it had on him such that he said he never smoked the stuff, what he called reefer, ever again.
The only grim stories that he told were about his group of tank soldiers getting wiped out during a battle which found him jumping out of his tank after it was hit and diving head first into a ditch right when a piece of bomb shrapnel sheared his thigh producing a scar that he kept for the rest of his life. He spent time in a military hospital, and was approved for duty, and spent the rest of the war in the Red Ball Express ferrying gasoline to the front line for the war operations. Many members of the Express died horribly in explosions in that effort. He would become quiet telling these stories. I recall a few occasions when he changed the subject to football, another one his favorite topics.
All of the stories, including the fables which included pre-natal me as a combatant, were about the Negro Army. It was the largest of the two segregated armies during the war, the other being the Japanese American unit in Italy. Both the black and Japanese American soldiers were of that part of the United States Army known as the Buffalo Soldiers, a name retained from the famed black frontier unit of the 19th century, and was later disbanded after President Truman’s executive order desegregating the military. The Army apparently couldn’t figure out any other place to put the Japanese American soldiers whose families were in internment camps back home. They became the most decorated soldiers of the war for their fighting in Italy against the remnants of the Italian and the reinforced German armies.
After a pre-teen childhood of taking in the atrocities of the white reaction in the South to the Civil Rights movement I moved from patriotic Boy Scout, to cynical Black Panther admiring 13 year old. I recall a moment at a professional football game that I attended with my father, when I pulled a Kaepernick, about 30 years before he was born, and declined to stand for the national anthem. He was upset, angry or furious might be better words. But I didn’t stand. We did not speak during the game. Later, after a furious yelling match in the car, I explained that I never saw black soldiers in all those (I wanted to say damned, but this was 1969) war films that he took me to and that he might give consideration to not standing himself. Just file that one in the asshole kid file.
Driving from Houston to Beaumont, a journey of 90 minutes, there was silence. I don’t recall how long the silence continued, but knowing him, it lasted at least through most of the next day. Mom probably told me to talk to him and apologize, which I probably did, and that was that. What I did not acknowledge in that moment of adolescent arrogance was the fact that he was antiwar, ranting and raving constantly about the Vietnam War as he worried about my draft eligibility barely half a decade away. It was a pacifism that was made clear to me 22 years later as I, armed with a masters degree from Johns Hopkins in international affairs, tried to explain to him, perhaps arrogantly again, the strategic importance of getting Iraq out of Kuwait and how the impending Gulf War was necessary for national security. He essentially told me to shut up. He had seen war. I hadn’t. Then he hung up.
From these experiences I developed a fascination with the Second World War, the European Theater in particular. I have read books on the war, Eisenhower, the battles, more books about Hitler and the Weimar Republic than I care to admit. I’ve even read Mean Kampf to understand Hitler’s mind, to no avail. As historians began to recognize the black soldiers, airmen, and sailors during the war, I picked up as much of those writings as I could, a task I continue to this day. I have an insatiable appetite for that war, because my dad was in it. And because my dad was in it, I avoid certain treatments of the war in cinema or literature of the “heroic warrior” genre if they only depict white soldiers. I admit to seeing “Saving Private Ryan” because it was sold as being the first realistic depiction of the horrors of the Normandy landing, and it sure was. And that Spielberg film sure was white. Clearly his work on “The Color Purple” and “Amistad” did not have any effect of self-reflection of the type George Lucas experienced after the all white first Star Wars caused him to correct his mistake by making his next films truly diverse. To the contrary, Spielberg insensitive to diversity, did not include any black soldiers in his film. Yet, they were there in the mud and blood of western France.
So last month I sat glued to my television watching “Apocalypse: The Second World War” a French documentary from 2009, on Hulu. It was an amazing documentary about the war no doubt from a European standpoint (with the Pacific war relegated to occasional mentions throughout six episode mini-series). It was dubbed in English and narrated by Martin Sheen for American audiences. Exhaustive in detail, some might forgive the French film documentarians for not delving more into the racial history of the United States, whose entry became the centerpiece of the second half of the documentary, because, I suppose, they are French. But the French are supposed to know better, or at least that was the reputation portrayed by black American artists, writers, and jazz musicians of the 50s and 60s in self-imposed exile there describing a race culture that black revolutionaries in French occupied Africa might not recognize. But I digress.
The documentary’s history, for a devotee of that war as I am, was fascinating, well told, and displayed with a cinematic intensity of which it is not hard to find oneself transfixed on the story for several episodes before realizing that one has other things to do on a particular day. But when the documentary told the story of German war prisoners being taken away from Europe so as not to repeat the mistake of the French of holding captured German pilots in territory that would be taken by the Wermacht during the collapse of the French Army, allowing those prisoners to resume battle against the Allies, the narration noted that many prisoners taken by the Americans were taken to farms in the US South to replace black farm hands that had been drafted.
That was it. Yep, that was it. The only mention.
This goes unnoticed by those not affected by such omissions. Count me as one so affected. The previous stories not withstanding, the one thing that affected me more than anything else was what my mother told me after my father died in 1991. He would awaken from nightmares frequently in their young marriage which began in 1948 screaming curses at the Germans (I think she recalled him saying something along the lines of get off me you Jerrys. I imagine it was more profane than that, but, as a southern woman of her generation, a more graphic description would not be uttered to her son). The nightmares apparently lessened over the years, her nights of consoling and massaging his shoulder to lull him back to sleep lessening as well until they finally abated sometime in the early 80s according to Mom. I never knew. Her story gave me pause. Made me sad. Made me angry.
And then it occurred to me that my normal father, loving father, community leader father, Boy Scout loving father, stand for your flag father, had been going to war movies, watching “Combat!”, and playing war with his toddler kid as part of an unconscious attempt to treat PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder. He was never diagnosed, and I am not psychologist. And as far as I can tell, never had any other symptoms like rage, drinking, somberness, and the like. And after all, he just might have been a war film buff, and an amateur historian of the Greatest War (a branding that his father a WWI veteran frequently disputed). But the nightmares that my mother revealed to me have seared my amateur diagnosis in my consciousness. He dealt with it, or whatever it was, as best as he could. Like that entire generation did.
He took courses at the Sorbonne in Paris, thanks to a grateful French public, where he was stationed after the fall of Berlin waiting for orders to load up and go to the Pacific to take part in the invasion of Japan. Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed those orders and after declining an offer to steal some military supplies and sell them on the black market (he was 22) and stay in Paris to live the good life, a temptation offered by a black gangster he knew in the army, he went home, marched in the colored troops parade in Harlem, and stayed there working at the post office and going to clubs at night. Of all the fantastic tales he would tell me, the one about meeting a gangster named Malcolm Little, known as Detroit Red (who would become Malcolm X) was one I am not sure about. But it could have happened, because Harlem was like that, filled with disaffected black vets, many from the South, whose disaffected white counterparts are depicted in the film noir movies of the post war era. Finally after declining an order from his father to come home to Texas, he was “kidnapped” by some college friends and fellow WWII vets sent to New York by Granddaddy to bring him home. He resumed his college on the GI Bill, played out his final year of eligibility on the Prairie View Panthers football team, student taught in Palestine Texas in pursuit of a teaching certificate so that he could make a living, slugged a white man manhandling a black woman on a bus there, was picked up later by the Klan and taken to a barn outside of town, told he was one of them smart-assed niggers from the war (a true statement), was rescued by the local sheriff (in one of history’s few instances of law enforcement coming to the rescue of a black person at that time), left town, got his degree, worked on his masters, did research on the sly at Rice Institute at the invitation of a secretly progressive biology professor there, received his biology masters, got a teaching job in Beaumont, met and married my mother, and a few years later I was born.
His is one of those fascinating stories not part of the nations recounting of its history. Barely in history, and only recently in cinema. Spike Lee’s 2008 Miracle at St. Anna (about a black unit in Italy), the George Lucas film The Tuskegee Airmen, and a few other treatments just doesn’t fix this.
At least it doesn’t for me.