Nearly Forgotten Forces of WWII

The medal of honor that Congolese veteran Jean Tami earned for his service in World War II.
The medal of honor that Congolese veteran Jean Tami earned for his service in World War II. (Miguel Juarez (Accent Mark Over The A) - For The Washington Post)

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By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

WALIKALE, Congo -- While books and films have lionized the last surviving World War II veterans in recent years, a small, hand-painted sign along a dirt road in this remote village is just about all that points to a nearly forgotten group of them.

"Camp of Old Soldiers, 1940-1945," the sign reads in French.

Passing the late afternoon under the pink blooms of a sprawling pear tree, one of those veterans, Louis Ngumbi, recalled his brutal induction in 1940 into the army of Congo's colonial ruler, Belgium.

"I was getting ready to go to the farm," he said, estimating his age at the time at 16. "And then I saw the local leader -- he was Belgian -- coming with the police. He pointed and said, 'Arrest that young boy!' I didn't know where I was going."

It was not until after he was beaten, hauled off to the local prison, stripped of his village clothes and outfitted in a crisp uniform of khaki shorts, shirt and white socks that Ngumbi finally realized, "Ah, I'm going into the army."

African battlefields figure prominently in the history of World War II. But the story of the hundreds of thousands of African soldiers who served in campaigns mostly for British and French colonial rulers is only beginning to be fully told. Much like African American soldiers who served in a mostly segregated U.S. Army during the war, African soldiers served under racist colonial structures that were at times challenged by the urgencies of war.

When the war ended, though, African soldiers often received little compensation for lost hands, legs, eyes and other war-related disabilities. Some never got pensions. As waves of nationalism gave way to Africa's independence movements in the 1950s, the soldiers often turned on their colonial officers. In other cases, revolutionaries branded the old colonial forces as traitors.

References to Congo's involvement in World War II are usually limited to Shinkolobwe, the mine that supplied uranium for the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Mentions of Congolese soldiers appear here and there: in academic articles; in a bombastic account published in a 1941 pamphlet by the Belgian Information Society of New York; in an apology in Time magazine after it omitted the role of Congolese "recruited" by the Belgians for the war.

"These days, nobody thinks about us much," said Ngumbi, who now lives at a dilapidated camp for veterans, a stretch of mud-walled buildings populated mostly these days by their descendants. "We don't even have uniforms or boots."

As he began his story, Jean Tami, a former major sergeant who still carries a tarnished medal and his Belgian identity card in the pocket of tattered trousers, walked over to the pear tree, stood stiffly and saluted Ngumbi, before sitting down in a bent metal chair. Ngumbi offered a more lackluster wave.

Their service began, they recalled, in 1940. At the time, Adolf Hitler's forces occupied Belgium and the government was exiled in London, where officials were attempting to curry favor with the allies. To that end, Belgium offered up to the British several detachments of Congolese soldiers from the Force Publique, as the colonial army was known.

Congo was still under Belgian rule, having suffered perhaps the most brutal exploitation of any African colony during the reign of King Leopold II, who essentially enslaved the population to build his personal fiefdom. Though reforms were introduced by 1908, the old culture of brutality lingered in many ways.


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