The Missing 57th Pillar In The National World War II Monument
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President Bush, throngs of political luminaries, hundreds of surviving World War II Vets and thousands of visitors will stand between 56 pillars at the dedication ceremony for the National World War II Monument on Memorial Day weekend. There will be emotional and teary-eyed tributes to the 16 million Americans who served in World War II and the more than 400,000 who died in what many still proudly call the world's last great war for freedom and democracy. The 56 pillars signify the states and territories of the U.S. in 1945.
But there should be another pillar to commemorate the bitter, and prolonged war, largely hidden from public view, that the black press, black leaders, and black servicemen fought for the right to fight the war on equal terms with whites. That war started before the first bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. The first racial battle was with the selective service system. Though three million blacks registered the first year of selective service operation in 1940, only 2000 were deemed eligible for service. They were rejected in droves by mostly white local draft boards. After the loud protests from the black press, and black leaders, more blacks were added to the boards. By 1942 nearly a half million blacks were in uniform, and by war's end nearly one million blacks would serve.
But even the national shock and rage at the Pearl Harbor attack didn't smash the rigid racial barriers within the military. Blacks were assigned to the dirtiest, low pay, menial labor jobs, housing, transportation and recreational facilities were rigidly segregated and only a handful of blacks became commissioned officers.
The U.S Navy typified the deeply embedded racism in the military. A Navy manual gently cautioned Naval officers about referring to blacks as "nigger," "coon," "jig," and "darkey." The sole duty of blacks was to cook, clean, shine shoes and do the laundry for whites. The Navy punished even the mildest complaints from black servicemen with threats of jailing, court-martials and dishonorable discharges.
At a White House meeting with black leaders in 1941, Secretary of Navy Frank Knox, when pressed to improve the status of blacks, was blunt, "In our history we don't take Negroes into a ship's company." Knox even shrugged off President Franklin Roosevelt's insulting suggestion that the Navy put Negro bands on the ships to get whites used to being around them. Navy officials ignored the pleadings of black leaders and even the White House to upgrade the status of blacks. A shipboard explosion in July, 1944 at the Port Chicago naval base in Oakland that killed more than three hundred ammunition loaders, the majority of whom were black, and the mutiny and court martial of fifty black sailors in protest of the racist and dangerous working conditions enraged black leaders. Embarrassed Navy officials finally capitulated and desegregated ships and shore facilities.
As the fighting intensified in Europe and the Pacific, the racial battles continued at home. Black and white GIs fought pitched battles at a half dozen bases, dozens of black officers were arrested attempting to integrate officer's clubs and black newspapers were confiscated, even burned, at military bases.
Still twenty-two black tank, antiaircraft, engineer, tank destroyer and field artillery battalions fought in the Battle of the Bulge and in six European countries, and black combat, engineer and ordinance units participated in the island hopping campaigns in the Pacific. More than 80 black pilots won the Distinguished Flying Cross for aerial combat. But their gallantry and heroism meant little when it came to handing out the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation's top military award. Though twenty-three black soldiers and sailors won the award during the Civil War, eleven during the Indian Wars, and seven in the Spanish-American War, not one black serviceman received the award for valor during World War II. It would take a half-century, and the relentless demands of black leaders, before President Clinton in 1997 presented the award to 7 (6 posthumously) black World II servicemen for their heroism.
The fight for equal rights and fair treatment in the military during World War II was the opening gun in the modern-day civil rights struggle. Though no pillar in the monument will symbolize that fight, there's some talk that in time the monument could be altered to commemorate the contributions blacks, women, Latinos, and Japanese-Americans made to the war effort. That's not certain to happen. But what is certain is that the war waged for freedom on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific, as well as the battlefield in America, must never be forgotten.
The National Association of Black Veterans, Inc. will conduct bus and walking tours at sites in and around the Monument and tour the African American Civil War memorial, the only national memorial for US Colored Troops during the 100 days of ceremonies to commemorate the opening of the Monument.
Information: www.nabvets.com or 1 877 NABVETS or 1 877 622-8387.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.