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DoD Film Reveals Black World War II

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 13, 1997 – An important, revealing piece of military history has lain hush in a corner of America's closet for more than 50 years. It was something never talked about, but it's finally coming to light, said Army Lt. Col. Tom Surface.

"More than 1.2 million African Americans served during World War II, and we're finally telling their story," said Surface, public affairs director of the International Commemoration Committee, an Army-sponsored group planned DoD participation in events such as the 50th anniversary of the Normandy invasion. "This is the first time DoD has done anything like this."

It's not just an armed forces story, Surface emphasized. It's a story about descendants of slaves who fought, many giving their lives, in defending the country that enslaved their ancestors. Most Americans, however, know little about African Americans' heroic battlefield contributions to the nation's World War II victory.

The story is told in the 65-minute documentary, "African- Americans in World War II: A Legacy of Patriotism and Valor," produced by Milton Thomas of the Joint Visual Information Activity in Alexandria, Va.

"We're working with the National Minority Museum Foundation and other organizations to distribute 10,000 copies to schools across the nation," Surface said. "We expect the film to be aired on cable television and hope the networks will pick it up. It will be available in DoD libraries and we'll provide copies to public affairs offices and equal opportunity offices on military installations and ships at sea."

The now-defunct World War II 50th Anniversary Commemoration Committee started the project more than three years ago. "The committee found a gaping hole in the history of World War II -- African-American contributions were ignored," Surface said. "They hired researchers to gather information to fill the gap. A script had already been written when Surface and Thomas took over the project in August 1995, but the two found many problems, mainly misinformation and unanswered questions.

"I got hooked on producing the film because it was chance to tell a story that needed to be told," Thomas, an audio-visual specialist, said. "I thought I was well-informed about World War II, but when we started looking at stock footage, I found a lot of things I didn't know." They decided to take the film to black veterans' groups for their scrutiny, and then invited service historians, public affairs offices, community leaders, retired and active duty general officers and many others to do the same, Surface said.

"The black veterans were severely upset about many inaccuracies,"

Thomas said. "So Tom and I decided to go back to ground zero. When I met those old guys, in their 70s and 80s, I was amazed at how impressive they were. They're people who have been wanting to tell their story for more than 50 years." Thomas said the aging black veterans bombarded them with facts, figures, names, times -- all kinds of information, particularly about African-American involvement in the Pacific and the 92nd Infantry (Buffalo) Division in Italy, Thomas said.

"The 92nd got a bad rap about their performance on the battlefield in Italy," Surface noted. "We explain the reasons behind their performance. Nobody was advancing in Italy, so why blame the blacks?"

Thomas added, "The 92nd were not given credit as a combat force, but when you see how they were trained, or not trained, the racial animosity [they faced], it's amazing that they were effective at all.

"For many years, the 92nd was blamed for the problems of the entire [U.S.] 5th Army," Thomas said. "We captured in the film what went on."

President Clinton awarded a Medal of Honor, Jan. 13, 1997, to Vernon Baker, a first lieutenant with the 92nd during the war. Baker is among more than 40 black veterans interviewed for the film.

The film also highlights the 761st Tank Battalion. "Those were the 'bad boys' and not many people know about them," Thomas said. "A movie should have been made about those guys." The 761st went into battle at Athaniville, France, on Nov. 8, 1944, and endured 183 continuous days of combat against crack German units. They spearheaded many of Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army drives, liberated Jews from concentration camps, burst through enemy lines on the refortified Maginot line and captured more than 30 towns.

African Americans also contributed to the war effort in support elements as ammunition loaders, supply truckers, Navy shipboard gun crewmen, communications specialists, postal workers, nurses, medics and combat engineers who built airstrips and roads through the world, Thomas said. For instance, he said, thousands of African- American soldiers labored on the Ledo Road that stretches more than 1,000 miles from Ledo, India, to Kunming, China.

"We found a World War II Army film about building the Ledo Road and there was only one scene showing one black soldier working on the road," Thomas said. "I couldn't believe it! I sat there stunned! That blew me away because about 60 percent of those working on that road were African Americans!"

They later found more film footage showing blacks working on Ledo Road, "out-takes of official footage!" Thomas said.

Black service members also helped build the 1,600-mile- long Alcan Highway to Alaska.

Overall, the film attempts to tell the story of African-American contributions to victory in World War II from the opening battles to the opening of the entire military to full integration after the war, Surface said.

"For instance, the Army was running out of replacements after the Battle of the Bulge," he said. "In January 1945, black platoons started showing up in what were previously all-white fighting divisions. They were called 'fifth platoons,' which they didn't like."

The film also tells the stories of African-American women in the military. These included women postal workers going to England and France, the first black women in the Coast Guard, and Army and Navy nurses.

"We talk about the Navy and Marine Corps integration. The Navy had only six black nurses by the end of the war," Surface said. "And we talk about the Navy's 'Golden 13,' the first black naval officers."

Surface pointed out that the Marine Corps didn't accept blacks until the corps established the "Montford Point Marines" in 1942. The Navy didn't start accepting black sailors, other than as mess attendants, until 1942.

Many members of the all-black 555th Parachute Infantry Company, the "Triple Nickels," volunteered for combat. Instead of being sent to fight the war in Europe, the black paratroopers became "smoke jumpers," fighting forest fires started by Japanese incendiary balloons on the West Coast.

Defense officials plan to release the film to the general public in May, before Memorial Day, Surface said.

"This film fills a void in military history that's been there for more than 50 years," Surface said.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Lt. Andrew D. Marshall served in the Mediterranean Allied Air Force and was wounded when German flak downed his aircraft during a strafing mission over Greece in October 1944. National Archives (Click photo for screen-resolution image.)  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAn American soldier helps a comrade remove metal fragments from his face at Normandy, France, June 8, 1944. National Archives (Click photo for screen-resolution image.)  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAn all-black gun crew aboard a Coast Guard ship in the North Atlantic on battle maneuvers aims low to knock off torpedo bombers skimming the surface of the sea. National Archives (Click photo for screen-resolution image.)  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA gun crew of the 598th Field Artillery, 92nd Division, moves a 105mm howitzer into firing position near the Arno River in Italy in September 1944. National Archives (Click photo for screen-resolution image.)  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageTwo pilots and a ground crewman inspect the damage to a P-51 Mustang caused by enemy fire over the Danube River. National Archives (Click photo for screen-resolution image.)  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAfrican-American Army nurses treat a patient in the surgical ward at the 268th Station Hospital, Milne Bay, New Guinea, in June 1944. National Archives  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Lt. Col. Tom Surface and Milt Thomas preview the film "African-Americans in World War II: A Legacy of Patriotism and Valor." The 65-minute film tells the previously untold story of African-American contribution to the U.S. victory. On the television screen is Vernon Baker, the only living of seven African- American World War II veterans who were presented Medals of Honor at the White House. Surface is public affairs director of the International Commemoration Committee. Thomas is an audio-visual specialist with the Army-run Joint Visual Information Activity. Rudi Williams  
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