WORLD WAR II'S ECHOES : The Double V Campaign
Black Soldiers Battled Fascism and Racism
Veterans Remember Bitterness of Bias-Tainted Homecomings
By Nurith C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2004; Page B01
Fourth of five articles
A few months after the Allied victory in World War II, 24-year-old Capt. Harold Montgomery returned to the General Accounting Office at Fifth and G streets NW to reclaim his old job with the U.S. Post Office Department.
Since leaving 4 1/2 years earlier, Montgomery had led a heavy weapons company of the Army's all-black 92nd "Buffalo Soldiers" Infantry Division up the western coast of Italy through barrage upon barrage of German fire. He had watched wounded men die as shrapnel sliced through the plasma bags set up to give them transfusions. He had grinned and waved as cheering residents of liberated cities pressed flowers and bottles of wine into his hands.
But when the Washington native walked into the GAO's grand, high-ceilinged lobby, it was as though time had stood still. A large plaque honoring postal employees who had served in the war did not list Montgomery or any other African American veterans, he recalled. Worse still, a personnel manager informed him that he would not receive a pay raise given to returning white soldiers.
"To hell with that," retorted Montgomery, who resolved to find a different line of work.
Today, as the dedication of the National World War II Memorial approaches, the memory of their homecoming still gives Montgomery and many other black veterans a bitter twinge. At a series of events honoring the roughly 1 million African Americans who served in the war -- part of this weekend's salute to the World War II generation -- they will recall a fight waged on two fronts: against fascism overseas and against the racist laws and attitudes that oppressed blacks at home.
African American newspapers of the time called it the "Double V Campaign." And although the victory over the Axis powers was complete, the results of the second struggle were decidedly mixed.
The nation's unparalleled need for troops gave thousands of African American soldiers, including many in noncombat service units, the chance to prove their mettle in battle and put to rest the assertion by military brass that blacks lacked the courage, discipline and intelligence to fight effectively.
But black soldiers generally received few medals for their accomplishments. They were kept in segregated units, made to sit behind German prisoners of war during USO concerts and banished from the very streets they had liberated once white nurses moved in.
For James Strawder, one of more than 2,000 black soldiers who answered Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's call for black volunteers to replace white soldiers killed during the Battle of Bulge, the final indignity came after Germany's surrender, when the volunteers were immediately transferred back to all-black labor units as their white comrades in arms were being sent home or given more dignified assignments.
Strawder and the 200 other black volunteers at the Army post he was sent to refused to work. When their commanders threatened to court-martial and execute them for insubordination, the men marched to the stockade and dared them to go ahead.
"I had already risked death [in battle], I didn't give a john," Strawder, now 83, recalled.
The Army relented and allowed the men to return home on a ship bearing other combat troops. But President Harry S. Truman did not issue his order desegregating the military for three more years. At the war's end, Strawder saw little cause for hope.
"I was really disgusted with this country," he said. "I was angry, and I stayed angry for years."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company