WWII and the Limits Of Brotherhood
By Courtland Milloy
Sunday, May 2, 2004; Page C01
"The names . . . are a cross section of democracy. They fought together as brothers-in-arms. They died together and now they sleep side by side. To them we have a solemn obligation."
-- Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, from an inscription at the National World War II Memorial
You should know that the expression "brothers-in-arms" does not have quite the same meaning for the black soldiers who served in racially segregated units during World War II as it did for Nimitz. But what might surprise you -- and certainly surprised me -- is how black vets now view being a part of that global fight for freedom when the same freedom was being denied to them.
"Overall, the Army was a good experience for me," said David Wallace, 80, a retired physician living in Cleveland. He served as a medic with the Army's all-black 92nd Infantry Division in Italy. "It got me out of Mississippi and gave me the benefits of the GI bill."
Wallace recalled in a recent telephone interview what it was like for him to return to Mississippi in 1946, after helping to save and trying to save so many black soldiers who were wounded and killed on the battlefield.
"There was an election, and all I wanted to do was vote," he said.
After passing a literacy test designed to prevent blacks from voting -- which included reading Latin phrases in the Mississippi Constitution -- Wallace was about to cast his ballot. Suddenly, he recalled, someone said, "I challenge that vote." It was a white man using a last-ditch maneuver to confiscate his ballot. But it was too late. Wallace's ballot was in the box.
That night, he said, the storage shed behind his home just happened to burn to the ground.
During the war, Wallace worked at a medical aide station outside Viareggio, Italy. That's where another member of the 92nd Infantry, 2nd Lt. Vernon Baker, led a platoon up a mountainside on April 5, 1945, toward a German stronghold. In a heroic effort, Baker and his platoon routed the enemy.
In 1997, in a telephone interview from his home near St. Maries, Idaho, Baker, now 84, told me that the white commander of his regiment had withdrawn from the battle when the going got tough, claming that he was going for reinforcements.
"When he left, I told him, 'Okay . . . I'll see you later,' " Baker recalled. He never did. Baker said he learned after the war that the officer had reported to the battalion commander that "we were all wiped out." The officer ended up being recommended for the Medal of Honor.
In 1994, a study commissioned by the Army to determine why no blacks had received the Medal of Honor during the war found that military reports had been blacked-out and backdated to fit the higher command's harsh view of black soldiers.
Baker's own 92nd Infantry had been falsely described as "sluggish," and black infantrymen were said to have "lived in mortal fear."
In 1997, Baker became the only living black World War II veteran to receive the Medal of Honor. Six deceased black soldiers received the honor posthumously.
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