By William “Duke” Smither
And maybe I died in vain,
But if I were alive and my country called,
I’d do it all over again.” (From “The Unknown Soldier,” by Billy Rose)
The first thing one notices when visiting the Richmond National Cemetery, for U.S. Military Veterans, is the long, clean rows of marble grave markers smartly aligned, as if at “parade rest,” readied for military in-ranks inspection and review. It’s part of the nation-wide network of hallowed burial grounds for veterans. These particular grounds lie within the Civil War fortification lines constructed by the Confederate army in its defense of this former “Capitol of the Confederacy.” It’s also where the remains of my wife’s dad are interred, following his service during the World War II, D-Day assault and an exemplary civilian family life, afterwards.
The “Known” and “Unknown”
On Memorial Days, the second thing you notice is the large number of delicately placed, miniature stick flags with “Old Glory” proudly waving in the wind, pointing to the gravesites of veterans, known and unknown, in various conflicts, from the Civil War to WWII.
But, this time, during our annual visit, on the 2014 Memorial Day weekend, the third thing I noticed was a nearby, stick flag—the miniature version of our nation’s most revered symbol of freedom– laying on the ground. A veteran myself, I instinctively corrected the disrespectful, although likely unintentional, position of the flag to its proper, upright posture.
Leaning down, I couldn’t help but notice another gravestone marked “Unknown U.S. Soldier.” It was one of many marble and granite headstones, standing at attention throughout this meticulously-manicured graveyard. For a moment, it made me think about the vast number of black soldiers, not only “unknown” but still “invisible,” within the forgotten ranks and missing pages of military service– especially those sacrifices to our nation, on D-Day, June 6, 1944. That’s when the Allied forces invaded Normandy in World War II, during the largest seaborne invasion in history. It was also the real life, blood-‘n-guts application of U.S. military genius planning and execution. But, it was mostly carried out by the determination, sweat and tears of grunt soldiers, sailors and airmen of a nation, ironically, still at war with itself. It was a “war” the African-American soldier knew all too well—before, during and following WWII—in “Jim Crow” America.
Like many of the unsung African-American warriors on D-Day, my wife’s dad served in one of the all-black, stevedore battalions which played a significant role in “Operation Neptune,” codename for the massive airborne and amphibious assault on five Normandy beachheads– Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword Beach. His unit, the 499th Port Battalion, was at “Omaha Beach” and experienced a special kind of hell, unloading equipment and ammo, 24/7, while under direct, heavy German fire. Yet, like many vets, black and white, who survived the D-day carnage, he didn’t talk much about the invasion, at least, not to his family. But, he spoke often of his time in France, training and working in various roles, before and after the amphibious assault.
Archives reveal that, five days after the invasion, 326,547 troops, 54,186 vehicles and 104,428 tons of supplies were landed. And, just three weeks after the initial assault, over 850,000 men, 148,000 vehicles, and 570,000 tons of supplies had been landed. A better view of Port Battalion soldiers, through personal interviews with soldiers in his “sister company,” the 490th Port Battalion, is available within the History Channel’s Documentary, “A Distant Shore: African Americans of D-Day” (DVD, 2010) and the book, “Longshore Soldiers: Life in a World War II Port Battalion” (by Andrew J. Brozyna, grandson of a veteran of the 519th Port Battalion, Paperback, Apidae Press, 2012).
These may have been some of the American “Black Negro” soldiers I heard about from the French troops and civilian soccer club teams that I played against, and drank lots of “Pastis” (a French, licorice flavored liquor) with, during my years of being home-ported overseas, in Ville Franche-Su-Mer. They always spoke highly of the black troops of WWII, mostly from what they heard through their families. However, what I recalled mostly from those conversations was how we wound up being somewhat “numbed” stiff from the drinks, not “stoned.” You couldn’t just “walk off” the intoxication like when hooched up on bourbon whiskey back home in Kentucky; with this newfangled stuff, the more you walked, the stiffer you became.
Other Frenchmen (i.e., bar-owners and policemen) also spoke of certain exploits by “French Colonial” soldiers, who happened to be black. They called them “Les Africains.” I thought it must have been their liquor “talking” when I first heard about them, but later learned that France actually had a significant number of black troops in WWII. Many were killed by Nazis, when Paris fell to Hitler’s march through France. Many came from North Africa, who fought in the French Liberation Army, under the famed leadership of General Charles De Gaulle. Their descendants were some of the “French-Algerians” I became friends with and drank warm, home-made beer, chock-full of flies and all kinds of stuff. And, their sacrifices were “invisible” or buried among the reams of “missing pages” to classroom history books in France, just like in America. But, that’s a matter I might further pursue at another time. Perhaps, over some imported “Pastis” or warm, home-brewed beer.
Meanwhile, American military records reveal that over 2,000 African-Americans stormed Normandy’s “Omaha” and “Utah” beaches on that violent, bloody assault, on June 6, 1944 (an estimated 125,000 black troops served overseas in WWII). It was a day that the English Channel was said to be experiencing its worst weather in decades— foul conditions for air support. Military historians say some 160,000 men invaded Nazi-occupied France in the first wave. And, the invasion fleet of more than 5,000 ships and landing craft was the biggest armada in history.
The night before, according to military archives, thousands of troops were garrisoned aboard landing craft in the harbor, dogged with seasickness and the ever-present, unmistakable stench of vomit. On the following morning, when the landing craft moved in around 6:00 a.m., the waves were around 6 feet high and the winds had shifted, driving the landing craft into the beaches with the winds at their backs. The conditions were overpowering for many of the landing craft and they were swamped, some wrecked in mid-channel. According to one account, of the 32 tanks going to Omaha Beach, 27 were lost.
Even now, historians say the exact number of deaths on D-Day may never be known. But, some casualty estimates have ranged from 2,500 to over 5,000 dead on D-day, plus, for Allied forces, more than 19,000 French civilian deaths in Normandy, during the Allied bombing to soften up German defenses. Then, according to the D-day Museum, Allied air forces lost nearly 12,000 men in the two months of operations ahead of the invasion. Yet, it was only a portion of the 75,000 originally estimated deaths, if the element of surprise had not been used. But, a narrow, unexpected window of opportunity, with a break in weather conditions, allowed for the invasion to go forward, catching German troops off guard with their grounded planes and missing naval units. Ultimately, it changed the course of the war.
For black GIs who went ashore during the invasion, according to a recent newspaper article, “…their enemies wore not only the gray of the German Wehrmacht, but the olive green of the American army” (Miami Herald: “The African-Americans of D-Day,” by Glenn Garvin, Feb 23, 2007). For some black soldiers, it was worst returning to the United States where their sacrifices in the war were “invisible” and meant nothing at all. According to the Miami article, one soldier recalled that, getting off the ship from France, he wasn’t allowed inside stores on military bases. “The damn German prisoners was going in the PX,” he says. “We couldn’t go in the PX. It hadn’t changed.”
It was similar to other stories I heard from older black GI’s and veterans of WWII and the Korean War, listening to their narratives in colorful barbershop discourses, as well as late summer-night street-corner talks, while growing up in the Jim Crow South, hanging outside neighborhood taverns and juke joints. I was always amazed at the consistency of several stories, from different individuals, about how well the white, German POW’s were treated, compared to African-American GI’s in uniform. I still recall how one popular Marine Corp vet back home, nicknamed “Big John D…,” vividly recounted his experience, I believe somewhere in Georgia, where German POWs were allowed in segregated movie theaters and diners which remained off limits to black GIs returning from the war. It’s an image that still haunts my memories of listening to those disturbingly frank, but lively talks.
Overall, racial conditions had greatly improved, by the time I served in the Navy as an E-5 Radarman/ Combat Information Supervisor, during the Cuban Crisis and Viet Nam Era. Many times in my career, the sting of racism was not entirely foreign wherever I served. In fact, I was darn near grateful for experiencing it up close and personal, growing up in the South, since it tended to cushion the impact for several military-related incidents. Yet, the few years of being stationed in Southern France was long enough for me to appreciate why the French people seemed to think highly of the African-American soldier, as well as their “Les Africains.”
Gone, Not “Erased…”
Another book, “The Invisible Soldier: The Experience of the Black Soldier, World War II” (by Mary Penick Motley, Paperback, Wayne State University Press, December 1987), paints the picture of the experience of other African-American soldiers, during WWII. Through the 55 oral histories of black troops, it vividly reemphasizes the “importance” of white supremacy in America’s segregated, “Jim Crow” way of life, with one observer noting that, “At times it actually seemed that the white man would rather lose the war than give the black man the recognition he so clearly deserved.” Some 70 years later, stories are still coming to light for African-Americans killed in combat, during WWII. But, relatively few of the 900,000 black WWII veterans, until recently, ever received the medals for exploits during major WWII battles. None were awarded the coveted Medal of Honor, during WWII, until 1997 when President Bill Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor to seven African American, WWII veterans, all but one posthumously.
Throughout America’s hushed racial history, “Buffalo Soldier” units and/or the African American have served in every branch of the military, from the Revolutionary War to the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the creeping terrorism around the globe. Yet, the volumes of “missing pages” to their significant accomplishments, combat and support roles, remains a stain on the countless number of Memorial Day stick flags waving in the wind, on the lawns of our nation’s well-manicured, veteran cemeteries..
It’s why I was glad to be in place, this past Memorial Day weekend, to reposition several miniatures of “Old Glory” to its proper, upright posture. I felt that it was karma, my destiny, beyond our annual trek, to be at the Richmond National Cemetery that day. By some strange twist of fate, as if ordained, in addition to honoring the services of my wife’s dad, Joe E. Douglas (WWII, VIRGINIA PVT 260TH PORT CO 499TH PORT BN TC US ARMY), I was able to correct the posture of four “fallen flags” that day. Three belonged to: (1) Howard M. Woodson (WWI, VIRGINIA CPL, 10TH CAVALRY- U S ARMY), (2) Floyd N. Thornton (WWI, VIRGINIA PFC CO L, 807 PION INF USA), and (3) Daniel K. Struble (WWII, WEST VIRGINIA STAFF SGT, US ARMY).
The fourth flag, next to the least-inscribed headstone, probably had the most impact on me. It made my eyes tear up a tad. It was simply marked “UNKNOWN U.S. SOLDIER.” But, while adjusting this flag to an upright position, I thought of a few words from a poem I once heard- a tribute to another unknown soldier- by an unknown author:
“Soldier, here I stand and wonder, thinking of the distant thunder, Of the cannons that once shook the very dirt beneath your feet… None will know the fateful story of your patriotic glory, For your body saw a gory death, and nature showed no care. Hence the war will be remembered yet forget its hero’s fair, Unknown soldiers, don’t despair!”
I also thought of America’s other “Invisible” soldiers, of all colors, from all walks of life, gone- but, not erased– from our memories, still imprinted on our hearts, gently whispering, “We are forever grateful that you served…” Then, I prayed, “May God continue to watch over you and the courageous Commander-in-Chief, President Barack Obama, who serves us, today, as well as all of our Commanders-in-Chief, yet-to-come, within all of our tomorrows that Our Almighty God sees fit for us mortals to see. Amen.”