World War II black veterans group disbands, but friendships remain

August 13, 2011

A little-known group of World War II veterans had a lot to share Saturday at their last official meeting of Prometheans Inc.

Veterans — most of them nearing 90 -- friends and family members made toasts and speeches at the group’s banquet in Silver Spring. D.C. chapter President Friason Travis, 90, called the organization a “guiding light and power.”

The Prometheans, as they call themselves, are similar to the Tuskegee Airmen in that they were among the African Americans who fought for their country in World War II. But they weren’t master aviators and never swooped down on enemy fighter planes during the heat of battle, which may be the reason why their name may not sound familiar to most.

These servicemen came from a different background — originally a group of about 350 young black students, chosen by the military because of their IQ levels of 120 or higher. They were sent to Howard University in 1943 to complete a four-year engineering degree in 18 months through the Army Specialized Training Program, which at that time offered training at colleges throughout the United States.

But the program was dissolved only a year later, and many of the untrained college kids were thrown onto the Italian war front as infantrymen, cavalrymen, medics and other “ground pounders,” said Bryant Tate of Silver Spring, a member of the organization and son of one of the veterans.

Along with the usual hardships of war, veteran William Barr recalled how the American segregated Army back then was “a different world.”

But the young black soldiers bonded. And after the war, the survivors pledged to keep in touch as long as they could. They named themselves after the Greek god Prometheus, meaning “fore-thinker.”

The nonprofit Prometheans Inc. officially started around 1960. It has a scholarship fund for Howard University graduating seniors. In decades past, the group held community service events to help young black children in the Washington, D.C., area stay educated and find jobs.

“I think they realized because of their education and military experience that they had a little more to offer,” said Howard Fletcher Jr. of Washington, a son of one of the veterans.

Every few years, the Prometheans would get together to visit, sometimes traveling across the country. But every few years, the membership would decreased. What was once hundreds has dwindled to 25 surviving veterans, Travis said.

It hasn’t been easy to maintain a national organization of so few members, said national President Laurette LeGendre. And it has been difficult to recruit interested, younger members who can continue the community service aspects of the organization, Tate said.

“All of us have our own lives and own commitments,” he said.

So after almost 60 years, the group is calling it quits.

But if there was any sadness at the banquet, the nine veterans and dozens of family members who attended didn’t show it. They occasionally recounted their college days and past tales of wartime service, but if anything, they mostly joked about their age.

“Show-off!” one member shouted as Lute Smith, an 86-year-old retired lawyer from Chicago, walked to the podium without the use of his cane. Smith became a medic in Italy.

“It’ll take me three minutes to get up there!” said Henri Le­Gendre, 87, referring to a three-minute time limit on speeches.

Prometheans Inc. has ended its run, but the veterans and their families said they will keep in touch.

“There is an opportunity for the story to still be told,” LeGendre said. “For me, it’s not final.”

Onstage, Smith spoke of the veterans’ bond. “Friendship never dies, it just fades away,” he said. “Keep this going. Go ahead and continue this by building a legacy of friendship.”

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