“A Lot of Pleasure in Berlin” – Interview with Lawrence Johnson
Lawrence Johnson was born in 1921 in Cleveland, Ohio and was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942. In early 1943 he finished his training as a mechanic and was assigned to the 17th Automotive Maintenance Ordinance Company that was attached to the 1st Army. His company first spent several months in England and Scotland before entering continental Europe at Omaha Beach four days after D-Day. Johnson and his company moved through France, Belgium, and Holland and found themselves in the heart of Germany in May 1945, when the war ended in Europe. Following a short stay in France, Johnson served five months on guard duty in postwar Berlin.
In his account, Johnson does not relate many experiences of racial discrimination. He details many positive encounters with the civilian population in Europe, which are especially apparent in his description of postwar Berlin. Johnson was impressed by the German people, whom he describes as “highly intelligent,” “hospitable,” and “very courteous.” He recounts his impressions of the massively destroyed city, which he found fascinating, and recalls “a lot of pleasure in Berlin.” Overall, he assesses his experience in Berlin as a very positive one and asserts that the Germans he met did not discriminate against African-American GIs but welcomed them warmly.> more
“Plenty of Space to Exist In” – Interview with Charles Hanson
Charles Hanson was born in 1917 and raised in New York City. He attended City College as a Spanish major and later attained proficiency in five languages. In 1939, Hanson joined the New York Civil Service but was drafted shortly after America’s entry into the war in 1941. Upon completing training at Officer Candidate School in Fort Benning, Georgia, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant of Company C, 370th Regiment, 92nd Infantry Division. He served in Italy from 1944 on, where he was injured twice and lost his younger brother in combat.
Hanson’s account illustrates that the most severe discrimination existed not necessarily only in day-to-day situations but in the entrenched racist thinking of the Southern military leaders African-American troops had to serve under. Hanson outlines one particular speech by Colonel Sterling A. Wood to his black officers and recalls its blatantly racist undertones. According to Hanson, Wood introduced himself to his black officers with the words, “I understand colored people. I had a plantation in Alabama.”
Despite his confrontation with openly racist attitudes, Hanson never directly challenged racial discrimination. Looking back on his military experience and, subsequently, more than 25 years of a distinguished career in the U.S. Foreign Service as an African American, Hanson concludes, “Well, I couldn’t run for president, but it never occurred to me to run! Anyway, you get born into something and there it is! But there was plenty of space for me to exist in.” > more
“They Treated German POWs Better Than Us” – Interview with Jim Williams
Jim Williams was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1921 and grew up in Philadelphia. He joined the Army in March 1942 and was trained as a platoon sergeant in the 317th Medical Battalion. In Italy, where he served as part of the 92nd Infantry Division from 1943 on, his duties included medical work in field hospitals as well as the set up of prophylactic stations to tackle the problems of venereal disease. His battalion accompanied and shared the success of African-American combat troops fighting along the Arno River and into the Po Area.
Williams observes that especially in the medical battalion, where black doctors often outranked the white soldiers they treated, racial tension was commonplace. To Williams, one particular instance poignantly exposed racial inequality in the military: German prisoners of war (POWs) working in the mess line one day refused to serve black American soldiers, whereupon the Army “took them off the serving line.” Williams remembers that “it was our contention that well, what the hell, they're being treated better than we are.”
Altogether, Williams contends, the war left an ambiguous legacy. While their brave conduct in the Italian campaign proved to America that – as he puts it - “black soldiers kicked ass,” the existing discrimination often hindered African Americans from realizing their full potential. Williams concludes that “[the war] was a period of learning for me. […] Looking back over some of the people that I'd met was very gratifying […] and much of it saddened me, too, because I met so many people that had great expertise in all fields and they just couldn't take advantage of it because they were being held back.” > more
“I Put Blinders On and Shut Out Bad Things” – Interview with Joe Stephenson
Joe Stephenson grew up in Greensboro, NC, and studied science and history at North Carolina A&T. In February 1942, he enlisted in the Army and successfully completed training at Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning. Stephenson was sent to Italy in 1944 as an officer in the 365th Regiment of the 92nd Infantry Division. Injured by a land mine in February 1945, he received a Bronze Star for his brave conduct. Upon his return home in the early fall of 1945 he reenlisted and spent twenty years of military service stationed in the U.S., Japan, Korea, and Germany.
Illustrating the differing attitudes among black soldiers toward the struggle for racial equality, Stephenson states that he generally accepted the predominant military policies with regard to issues of race, was skeptical about any possibilities for change within the U.S. Army, and thus avoided instilling GIs under his command with a sense of entitlement because of their military service. As he explains, “I knew when my soldiers went back to their homes [after World War II] they were still going in the back door.”
Viewing the Army as the best avenue for personal success at the time, Stephenson reenlisted despite a continuing reality of discrimination, judging in hindsight that “I put blinders on and shut out the bad things.”> more
“We Structured the March on Washington Like an Army Formation” – Interview with Joseph Hairston
Joseph Hairston was born in 1922 near Pittsburgh. He enlisted in October 1940 at the Medical Unit in West Point – one of the only units that had any vacancies for African Americans at the time. In October 1942, he finished Officer Candidate School (OCS) and was among the very first black officers commissioned in the newly founded 92nd Division. Hairston was deployed to Italy in September 1944, where he served with an artillery battalion.
Hairston’s account includes numerous recollections of racial discrimination, which he encountered in his twenty years of military service. It was primarily through his knowledge of army regulations that Hairston was able to defend his rights – an experience that sparked his interest in the study of law. At the same time, he applied his military experience when helping to organize the March on Washington in 1963.
Convinced that protest could only be successful if it stayed non-violent, Hairston and Julius Hopson, the DC organizer for CORE who had served in Italy with him, imposed a communications structure like that of the military. As Hairston remembers, “the system we used, was an army formation. That is a regimental setup. And there was no violence.”> more
“I Saw People Stacked Up Five or Six Feet High” – Interview with Ogelsby Barrett
Ogelsby Barrett was born in Farmville, North Carolina and raised in Winston Salem (NC), where he was educated in a segregated school system. He was drafted toward the end of the war at the age of 18 and selected as a company clerk for the 643rd Ordnance Ammunition Company. After arriving in England in early 1945, Barrett spent several months in North Wales where his company unloaded ammunition shipments for the war in Europe.
He then continued on to France, Belgium and eventually Germany, where he entered a newly liberated concentration camp, seeing the horrors of the Holocaust with his own eyes. Though he returned to civilian life in North Carolina shortly thereafter, the terrible sight of bodies piled up high on the camp side remained barely comprehensible and continued to haunt him. He remembers, “I saw people stacked up five or six feet high that were dead, corpses and all. […] I couldn't believe it. And I hear people [have ]said now that it never happened. I know it happened. I went in one of them. I saw that.”> more
“I Saw The Walking Dead” – A Black Sergeant Remembers Buchenwald
Leon Bass volunteered as a soldier in the U.S. Army during World War II, and served in the 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion, a segregated unit. He took part in the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of the concentration camp in Buchenwald. Bass was one of the first U.S. soldiers seen by the survivors of the camp. Audio Interview and Transcript
(Pam Sporn, Educational History Center)Audio Interview
(NPR, 28 November 2008)Video Keynote Address Leon Bass
(Facing History Center, 2008)Documentary on the Life of Leon Bass
(Windsor Park Theater, January 2009)