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“I like this goddamn country, you know that? …It is the first place I was ever treated like a goddamn man.”

William Gardner Smith about the experience of black GIs in Germany, from The Last of the Conquerors (1948)

 




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.

“A Lot of Pleasure in Berlin”
Oral Interview with Lawrence Johnson
(conducted by Maggi Morehouse, University of South Carolina Aiken)
> View as PDF

 

Introduction

Lawrence Johnson was born in 1921 in Cleveland, Ohio. After finishing high school he worked in Chicago for a few years, from where he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 and sent to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland for Ordnance Training. 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. During the Allied advance toward Germany, one of his company’s main objectives was to keep the famous “red ball highway,” one of the important transportation and supply routes, intact. 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, Johnston served five months on guard duty in post-war Berlin. He returned to Cleveland, Ohio in November 1945, where he worked as a truck driver in the civil service for more than thirty years.

In his account, Johnson does not relate many experiences of racial discrimination. In fact, at several times in his interview he clarifies that instances of racist violence occurred, but that he was never personally involved in any of them. Furthermore, he did not see a connection of African Americans’ participation in the war in Europe and their struggle for civil rights at home.

Johnson also details many positive encounters with the civilian population in Europe. He remembers his black company making friends with the townspeople in Britain and being invited to dinner to be introduced to an English friend’s daughter. In Glasgow, too, racial discrimination was only a minor issue in his view, because to the Scots, as Johnson concludes, “we were all Yankees.”

This positive assessment of European reactions to African American GIs is especially evident in Johnson’s description of post-war Berlin. His account details his impressions of the massively destroyed city, which he found fascinating and recalls that “it was a lot of pleasure in Berlin.”

Johnson shares fond memories of his time in Berlin and was impressed by the German people, whom he describes not only as “highly intelligent,” “hospitable,” and “very courteous,” but also as “speaking English like we do.” At several times he was invited to German homes. He also recalls dating a German nurse for a little while. Overall, Johnson 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.

 

Interview Transcript

[On not seeing a Connection between his Fight in World War II and the Struggle for Civil Rights]
Morehouse:   Did you read "The Chicago Defender?"  The black press?

Johnson:   Uh, once in a great while I did.  But not much.  Because I mostly would read the daily paper. […] Well, when I was going to school, when I was in high school, I had occasions of meeting, well, even when I lived in Chicago I met veterans from World War I that would tell me about the things they went through in the war.  And to be honest about it, they sounded rather fearful to me.  So I, I really wasn't enthusiastic about the war or going to the war.  But it wasn't my choice that I went in.  And I didn't expect to be any hero.  I was in the service.  It was just a matter of circumstances that led me to it.

Morehouse:   Did you give the debate between some of the elite spokesmen, like A. Philip Randolph or W. E. B. Du Bois, about whether to integrate the military or that sort of a thing?  Or the whole victory at home?

Johnson:   At that time, from what I can remember, it was no issue.  It wasn't talked about.  It was, the situation that we faced, but we were accepting things as they were, you know, and it wasn't really talked about.  If someone, uh, talked about it it was just looked at and passed over, you know.

Morehouse:   Okay.  So there is a debate about democracy at home and democracy abroad.  And that wasn't something that you'd be at the barbershop talking about?

Johnson:   No.  No, I didn't hear that, no.


[On his Experiences in England]
Johnson:   I guess [we spent] about two months in South Molten, England.  Because we were there before Christmas, and I remember on Christmas day we had a big Christmas party where we met the civilians in South Molten.  Now Devonshire County, they told us at that time, they had a reputation of where the people didn't make friends right away with strangers, you know.  Until at Christmas time when we had this big Christmas party all the people it seemed like of the town came out.  And we all socialized and we became very good friends with them.

[…] Now we had set up our, our mess hall in an old market house building, a big building, a market building, market place I mean.  And that's where we had our Christmas party. […] We, my Company gave the parties and invited them.

Morehouse:   Oh, and you invited the towns people?

Johnson:   Yes.  Then my personal experience that I had with a family that I met there, they said they had a daughter that, oh, let me see, Bristol, Avon.  And they said she worked for the BBC.  And they said that she would be home for New Year's and they wanted me to meet her.  They said she was around my age.  So they invited me to dinner at their house for that New Year's Day to meet their daughter.  So I was there then and they were very sociable.  It was just the idea of meeting strangers and getting used to them.  So they were, they seemed to be so surprised that we could speak the same language they could speak.  Well, they said we speak American.  They said, 'You speak good American.'


[On his Experiences with Racial Discrimination in Glasgow]
Johnson:   Yeah.  U.S. military personnel, we could go anywhere we wanted to at that time.  Now there was a, one of the streets I remember in Glasgow that was so rough and so bad they put it off the limits to U.S. military personnel.  But that was our military law that put it off the limits to U.S. military.  I never will forget that street.  Sacahall Street in Glasgow.

Morehouse:   And it was off limits to both whites and black?

Johnson:   Yes, yes.  To U.S. military personnel.  Fortunately at that time they didn't separate us by race at that time.  We were known as Yankees everywhere we went.  Kids would run up to us and behind us and says, 'Any gum, chum?'  You know and so on like that.  You know, but at that time it was, we were all Yankees.


[On Berlin]
Johnson:   We got orders that we were assigned to the, well, they hadn't really set up the Army of Occupation so we had to do security guard in Berlin.  So, uh, we had orders to go to Berlin. […]But anyhow we went to Berlin to do security guard.  It was just like doing guard duty.  It went according to the roster, you know.  We didn't do, the same men didn't do it every day, you know.  It's according to our turn on the roster.  And it was, it was a lot of pleasure in Berlin. 

I liked the city, even though at the time we were there almost everything in Berlin was hit by something from the war.  And a lot of places I recognized in Berlin from the pictures I had seen of it.  Like the Brandenburg Gate.  I've seen pictures of it.  […] And a lot of places in Berlin I recognized.  The Unter den Linden and the Brandenburg Gate was the boundary between the British zone and the Russian zone.  But at that time there was no such thing as any wall in Berlin when we were there.  We could go anywhere we wanted to in Berlin.  And, uh, they had the, uh, they had the subway was running but it was called the U-Bahn.  And the U-Bahn, some places it was cut off because where it went under the river the tubes had been damaged, you know, from bombs, I guess.  And, of course, they'd repair everything, you know, many years ago, you know.  And, of course, they have all new trains.  But it was real nice.  And then they had, uh, well, I traveled out on what was called the S-Bahn, going around Berlin.  The S-Bahn was a rapid transit train and, uh, I rode it a lot, you know.  Because, like I said, I spent four months in Berlin.  It was, I never would really learn the cities because I got lost there a lot of times.


[On the German population in Berlin after the war]
Johnson:   I couldn't speak German but I could listen close to it and understand it, because a lot of words in German sound like English and mean the same thing in German.  And I remember one of the times I got lost in Berlin and, uh, I wanted to get back to my area before it was too late.  And the train stopped running at 10:00 p.m. and it was close to that time and I didn't want to miss that last train.  So I saw these two young ladies on the street and I was trying to ask them how to get to the train station.  And I thought I was speaking Deutsch.  And one young lady looked at the other, they looked at each other, and all of a sudden they burst out laughing.  Then I got real embarrassed and I said, 'Well, I must have messed up on something.'  So one of the young ladies said, 'Wait a minute, soldier.'  She said, 'You can't speak Deutsch.'  She said, 'Just ask us what you want to know in English.'  I felt this big.  So they gave me my directions and I didn't have any problem after that.

Morehouse:   So the Germans would, the Germans who were still left there, spoke to you and you didn't notice any, they didn't discriminate against you?

Johnson:   No.  They were very, one thing I liked about them was I guess they were brought up under a lot of discipline I imagine.  Because they believe in obeying the rules, they were very mannerly and even hospitable.  I remember one evening this young lady was passing an area where we were staying in Mariendorf and she was carrying a couple of bags of groceries.  And she had to go across some big fields, lots.  So I asked her if she wanted some help, if she'd mind, you know, having some help.  She said, 'No.'  I said, 'I'll carry one of the bags for you.'  So she said, 'Come on.'  So I thought it was going to be a short distance.  And, uh, I carried one of the bags for her.  And we went across, a long ways across some vacant lots until we came into a neighborhood, you know.  And this neighborhood street where she lived they had, it was all apartments.  All four suiters.  And they were nice, clean looking apartments.  So she said, 'Won't you come in?'  So I said, 'Okay.'  I went in with her.  She introduced me to her mother and she told me that her husband was a prisoner of war and he was in a POW camp in Oregon here in the United States.  Yeah.  So the mother was very friendly and she invited me to dinner.  So I stayed and talked with them.  They could speak English just like we do.  So anyhow I stayed there a pretty good while.  It was dark by the time I left there.  And I'm lost, I don't know how to get away from there.  So when I left there I saw this policeman on the corner.  Uh, they wear the same color uniforms almost like the soldiers do.  They were green, you know, uniforms.  And had his bicycle with him.  So I was asking him for directions to get to where I want to go.  He took his time and explained and showed me everything in detail.  They were very courteous, you know.

Morehouse:   But did you ever think that this was the enemy at one point and that they were, had been indoctrinated to discriminate against black people?

Johnson:   You might would think that.  But they were too highly intelligent for that. […]
I think they saw, they had a little, what I'd say divinity about them.  I'll put it like that.  That point come from where it looked like they were being forgiven.  If they, whatever they did wrong.  Like they accepted, and they were very friendly about it.

[Excerpts from Interview with Lawrence Johnson conducted by Maggi Morehouse, Cleveland, Ohio 1998]
 

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