This post follows She Humanized Him. Language and characteristics reflect the times, people and places.
The Second World War. I would’ve thought Jim Crow defined father. No, that he brushed off. Instead, Adolf Hitler yanked him and millions of others from preordained ruts in American life.
While father praised Roosevelt for his bravery, grit, willingness to experiment, his simple man’s outlook saw Hitler as a cauterizing savior who advanced American society.
Had the dictator not delivered on his promise of rampage and ruin, then doubling down by declaring war on the United States, the incremental rise of American blacks could’ve been measured in half steps rather than by relative leaps and bounds. Acquitting themselves as well as they had during World War II gradually shoved aside the servile hat-in-hand timidity which had marked until-then civil rights progress.
Spilt blood strengthened demands for enfranchisement. One recognizes the difference starting with the prewar Negro leadership. In postwar America, steeled people led a black movement.
Lacking eloquence, father plainly stated that later achievements were formed on the battlefields, more so than the home front. Given the situation’s desperation, millions of Americans like himself finally started being seen as fellow citizens instead of commonly catching disdain as “inferiors.”
By their actions, father and the rest of the black populace understood the crucible survived lifted their stature in America. That it took an acid test as depleting as total war, the nation fundamentality imperiled, for the pernicious racial strictures to weaken, and that they had passed, pleased him without end.
As a boy in Carolina, father had paid scant attention to Decoration Day and July Fourth. Black war dead were nowhere near as exalted as the dominant populace’s whilst all the exhortations about freedom rang hollow.
Once demobbed and restored to civilian life, father never failed attending annual Memorial Day parades in Quarropas. He also began adhering to Washington’s dictate of celebrating Independence Day through “noisy ruckus.”
After his death, I unearthed fuller accounting of father’s wartime service. These burnished what his reticence alive kept close. He certainly shared his generation’s most enviable trait. Modesty. What he performed as a young man still scares me today. It also begs the question whether I could’ve done the same. One hopes I too could’ve measured up to the prior era’s requirements. That he emerged unscathed exceeds fictional cool.
In my adolescence I asked him whether he’d seen dead people, had he killed any enemy. Looking back, maybe our generation is so comfortable with dispatching death because growing up all the killing on TV was so antiseptic. Aside from education, maybe that’s what had been the greatest difference between us. His entry into maturity had been unfiltered and remorseless.
Skipping any opportunity to lecture, or worse, hem and haw, father easily remarked he had seen dead, American and axis, that indeed he had killed enemy soldiers. Instead of whetting a boy’s curiosity, the flatness in his voice punctured mine. The topic never came up again. Had he answered with excitement, gotten wound up in order to garnish the telling, it doubtlessly would’ve incited my gruesome fascination.
Horror movie creatures or fiends never invaded my suburban dreams and turned them into nightmares. At an early age my parents made sure I knew such menaces were imaginary. But had father spoken about war dead they certainly could have shaken my maturing balance. Hearing such from him would’ve made carnage all too believable. He had no reason to relive wartime for my simple-minded edification.
So rather than weave “war stories,” he spun sister and me “army life tales.” In these everyone wore the same fatigues and seemingly rarely toted weapons.
Three incidents typified father’s service time.
The first occurred during stateside training maneuvers. This exercise required a company bivouac.
Rustic as he was, or as his company’s more urban inductees derided Southerners such as himself, “hayseeds,” father eyed the terrain. Then he gauged the horizon. He saw threatening clouds gathering and sensed any approaching storm a soaker.
While the rest of his company hurriedly pitched its pup tents, grabbed chow and started the inevitable craps game, father scoured his surroundings. He sought and found good-sized rocks.
Once he collected a suitable amount, he fashioned a rock bed. Father double-pegged his tent above the platform.
That night drenching rains accompanied by hurricane winds lashed the encampment. When reveille blew the next morning, the camp was in tatters. Wind had scattered tents and equipment everywhere. Those few tents still moored expulsed sopping occupants. Even the company commander hadn’t been spared. He dripped as much as his command. Oh, except for one private.
The c.o. got a gander at father then mustered his company. He ordered father out of formation, to join him at the head of the unit. Father rated this inspection because he was dry. So dry as to be crisp.
After exhibiting father’s immaculate condition, the c.o. questioned him how he’d avoided the unit’s otherwise common fate. Speaking freely, father explained his prudence to all.
The rocks had raised his tent floor by enough inches to keep his back dry. Water ran around his tent, not through it. Against the wind he’d not only double-pegged but driven the stakes deeper than ordinarily necessary.
The c.o. commended father’s enterprise. So much so that after maneuvers concluded he awarded father a three-day pass.
A second “army life tale” transpired during a Luftwaffe air raid over the Italian boot. Despite the attack’s proximity, the ubiquitous craps game continued apace. Against an outside wall, not inside an air raid shelter.
Father said normally the boys would’ve taken the game under cover but the bones were hot and the moolah too much to honestly shift indoors.
Bombing became so furious a white second lieutenant ventured outside from a nearby shelter and ordered the gamblers into safety. The players, all black privates, ignored him.
Here, I thought the story might veer into the penalties of insubordination. That perhaps this incident would extend some kind of cautionary lesson about hierarchy and obedience. By suffering their penalties he’d gained experiences which guided him the remainder of his days. No. Such would’ve been parable fodder. Catching possible imminent death required a real-life response.
Instead, the lieutenant glommed the money pile and asked in the game. The privates readily let him enter. Why not? After all, his military issued scrip was just as good as theirs.
Who knows. Maybe such gambling under duress helped speed integration.
Father’s last impressive occurrence took place somewhere earlier in North Africa. One day, he and another dogface trudged on a berm towards their next post. Other than a passing Arab in a donkey cart there wasn’t any traffic. Just them, dust and sore feet.
After a distance they heard a car. A sedan, it approached from behind. They stepped off the road to avoid whatever the tires kicked up and spat out. Except keep hoofing, neither did anything else.
The car halted about 50 yards ahead. Father and the other guy figured the driver stopped to offer them a lift. They double-timed.
A few yards before reaching the rear bumper, the driver popped out. He rushed to the rear passenger-side door and opened it smartly. Out climbed Dwight Eisenhower.
On this afternoon the future 34th President of the United States wasn’t crinkly, joshing, syntax-mangling “Ike,” but the supreme commander. Father recalled him as “a pink, tall, balding fellow.”
Eisenhower regarded the two soldiers contemptuously. And not because they were laggard in offering snappy salutes to a superior officer.
No. Eisenhower’s beef was of a distinctly late-1942/early-1943 vintage. Father and his buddy had failed recognizing and acknowledging a senior staff officer’s vehicle despite the insignia fluttering atop the front quarter panel. In essence they’d failed genuflecting to the general’s car.
At that moment Eisenhower harkened back to his Great Plains youth, his uncouth life before West Point transformed him into an officer and gentleman. Or before learning obsequiousness as MacArthur’s aide. He uncorked profanity so thorough the enlisted men found the reaming more instructive than humbling.
Needless to report for the duration of the war that father saluted any vehicle whether it ambulance or water truck.
Besides taking quiet pride in his service accomplishments, father carried three indisputable absolutes from his experience.
One: Frenchmen cannot drive. In North Africa, the Free French attached to the American forces constantly burned out truck transmissions. According to him the French never bothered shifting out of first.
Two: Italians cannot be trusted. Until their surrender, Mussolini’s troops were ardent fascists. Under allied custody they became more democratic than Roosevelt and Churchill combined. Worse than their two-faced espousals, Italian prisoners were lazy. Putting them on details required hawkeyed vigilance. Any provocation sufficed for paisans to begin loafing and gabbing. Mostly about women and vino.
Three: Germans are diligent. Unlike the Free French and Italian prisoners, German POW’s were useful. Not only did they drive properly, the right ones could even overhaul engines as well. Father said plenty of German mechanics filled the motor pool.
When assigned Germans for a detail, father never worried about any escaping or, worse, goldbricking. Their servility plumbed depths where he could issue orders, grab some shuteye, and be awakened upon those tasks’ completions.
Oh, they baked good bread, too.
Father, who rose to sergeant in a colored unit, but was later busted back down to private when necessity started integrating outfits, deployed no further than Northern Italy. Then, segregation was an accustomed condition, so rank reduction didn’t rankle him. Many miles need traveling before competent blacks could command any whites wearing the same uniform.
Father. Rome portrait studio. Summer 1944.
He said his only worry came after Germany capitulated. With defeating Germany the priority, those already inducted before December 7th knew they were Europe bound. Men who survived the European Theater feared transfer to the Pacific. Unlike the Japanese, the Germans had been regarded as comparatively civilized. Everybody knew “the Japs were bad.”
Revisionism has aroused debate over whether Truman’s use of atomic weapons justified. The mercy of late births makes the matter abstract. Born years afterward, those disfavoring Truman’s choice missed the fight.
Towards father’s end, when Hiroshima-Nagasaki commemorations started receiving outsized prominence, his usual unflappable nature edged into ire. As did a good many of others he knew who also had spent 1941-45 dodging death. The overwhelming majority of them shared these salient points:
- Without dropping nuclear bombs on Japan more Americans would’ve died. War imperatives would’ve compelled invasion of the Japanese home islands. Negotiated surrender is a fantasy spurred by contemporary critics of nuclear weaponry, very few of whom have ever been targets.
- If invasion had occurred, it was highly likely hundreds of thousands soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines conducting the operation would’ve been the current objectors’ fathers, grandfathers or great-grandfathers. Had any been invasion fatalities, how many of those today faulting Truman’s acts then would never have drawn breath later to condemn his decision now?
- Where were the selectively conscientious of father’s era on Pearl Harbor? Unsurprisingly, none of the former combatants could remember any of their contemporaries reserving any method which whipped the Axis. Listening to them, they regretted Truman not having dropped more A-bombs on Japan.
From those of us grateful to exist what argument could there have been?
Father had no connection with his favorite “army life tale.” Nor did it happen in World War II. It involved our cousin Aiken.
Age and mounting infirmities shaved our family’s history. More and more funerals instead of reunions became the basis behind visits “home,” as father and his siblings regarded their Southern birthplace. So ours was an intentional convergence when I finally met Aiken in the late 1980s. Since he was another relative old as the century, procrastinating might’ve rendered any later meeting short of one person.
Aiken had been a World War I doughboy. Yeah. Puttees and Sam Browne belts and everything else seen in Paths of Glory or Sergeant York. Upon their return, American Expeditionary Forces were promised a bonus decades hence. A five-hundred dollar bonus. Which in those days an 88-year-old said, was a good little piece of change.
When the Depression struck, the veterans thought it would help them and the nation if they received their bonus money sooner rather than the appointed date. Aiken joined the multitude which appealed directly to Washington D.C. Aiken was a Bonus Marcher. And yes, he resided in a Hooverville throughout the protest.
Although Aiken never met MacArthur, troops under the general’s command did their utmost to crack his black skull.
With Hoover ceding to Roosevelt, and Congress acting, Aiken and his fellow Great War vets received their bonuses in 1936. Rather than spend profligately, Aiken took his and improved the house standing on already owned coastal property. (Yeah. Many in that branch still own their respective 40 acres. Some of the old survey maps may also substitute for genealogical charts.)
By the day I saw Aiken’s house further renovations and expansions had obscured any 1930s improvements. Nonetheless his pride remained palpable. Doubtlessly it served as model aspiration for later generations.
Father loved letting the final part of Aiken’s realization linger. Having the land was a given, and that was fine far as it went. But placing an appreciable structure upon it? Soon enough he’d be up there with the Rockefellers!
After his own demobilization, father lived aimlessly for a while. It took army regimentation for him to realize how unfocused he’d been before induction. More than purpose, the army instilled direction.
Turning the wrong way might’ve made him some noir-ish character. The four-year conflict did not leave him moody, adrift or volatile. Moreover, returning well-adjusted kept the era’s fedoras from sinking low across his forehead. He was too pleasant for terse patter, too active to become laconic.
Father (right) with a running buddy after demobilization, preparing to get back on the beat.
Remembering his easy-going manner, behavior by the way shared with his three younger brothers, each of whom served in either France or during the Occupation, I wondered what effect of having to kowtow before strangers might’ve had on Waymon, their contentious much older brother. Age, dependents, and work in an essential war industry kept Waymon safe stateside.
Even war could not budge Waymon from the unassailable top of family pecking order.
Unto this hour, I can’t see or hear Waymon straightening up, staring forward, and barking, “Yes, sir!”