FIGHTING FOR AMERICA
Black Soldiers -- The Unsung Heroes of World War II
By Christopher Paul Moore
Ballantine/One World. 367 pp. $27.95
In "Fighting for America," Christopher Paul Moore starts by noting that World War II veterans are dying at a rate of more than 1,000 a day. Only about 70,000 of the 1.1 million blacks who served are still alive, Moore points out. His self-appointed mandate is to tell the stories of these black soldiers, whom he calls the "unsung heroes of World War II."
Last summer during the dedication of the World War II Memorial, that war's veterans finally got their due. But many African American veterans were too frail to make the trip and so were underrepresented in the crowds of thousands who descended on the nation's capital. Moore's book, in great detail, honors their service so that future generations will come to know their sacrifices.
Although Moore is a historian, he begins this book with his heart. A child of African American World War II veterans who served overseas, he dedicates his book to his parents and in the prologue tells a story of asking his father why he fought for a country that treated him as a second-class citizen. "Defending his country was his duty as an American citizen," Moore says of his father's response. "And, he said, who knows the importance of protecting and preserving the promise of freedom better than African Americans? If asked to fight for his country again, he would do it." Moore heroically pieces together the story of service against the backdrop of institutionalized discrimination.
Moore's labor of love leaves no stone unturned. Also a co-author of "The Black New Yorkers: 400 Years of African American History," he uses a wealth of material to help tell the story of these veterans. In addition to relating his own family history of service, which dates back to before the American Revolution, he documents just about every shred of African American involvement in WWII, including at Pearl Harbor, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of Nazi concentration camps. He tells of black soldiers in Africa, Iceland, Burma, Italy, Australia and other countries and writes of the nurses and black members of the Women's Army Corps who served overseas.
After a while the dates, countries and battles jumble together, but the theme remains clear: African American soldiers had to face more than the Axis armies; they also had to battle the racism and hatred in their own country.
For instance, Moore writes of Dorie Miller, a Navy steward who shot down four Japanese planes at Pearl Harbor: "Under a hail of strafing machine-gun fire from enemy planes, [he] carried several wounded soldiers, including his mortally wounded captain, to greater safety. He then took up a position at a .50-caliber antiaircraft machine gun. A naval messman, he had never been taught how to fire a gun, but he quickly figured out how it worked and began firing. . . . After continuing to assist in the rescue of shipmates, he dove into the harbor and swam to safety, part of the way underwater, beneath the burning oil leaking from the USS Arizona and other neighboring vessels."
But for all of Miller's heroics, it took three months before his name became known -- even though "newspapers carried stories and printed the names and actions of local white Pearl Harbor heroes." As Moore notes, "Except for one national story about the heroics of an unnamed 'Negro messboy,' all of the acts of bravery belonged to white Americans." Moore further explains that it took the actions of Lawrence Reddick, then the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (where Moore works as a curator and research historian) to finally give Miller credit. Reddick, "suspecting that the navy might purposefully have withheld the name of this black hero," wrote asking for the release of his name so the center could include it on its "Honor Roll of Race Relations."
This book is filled with heroes of whom Americans of all colors have never heard. Their stories will both inspire you and break your heart. One desperate black soldier wrote a letter from his Army post in Texas to the Philadelphia Afro-American newspaper in 1943: "We're not even as good as dogs, much less soldiers, even our General on the post hates the sight of a colored soldier."
"Fighting for America" is an important, engaging book that brings to light the often harsh yet heroic experiences of a generation of soldiers.