Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Eyes on the prize in the skies

(Darrin Bell's poster brought to mind this recruiting poster from World War I, "True Sons of Freedom," which was (obviously) intended to encourage African-Americans to enlist. I originally found this to illustrate an oral history from the WPA that I found very educational for me, never mind the schoolchildren for whose edification I created the piece. And speaking of schoolchildren, the teens in the other pic here are from 1942 and are contemplating the memorial in Chicago to black veterans of WWI. I believe that, if there was a crowd watching yesterday's ceremonies from above, Mr. Andrew Johnson was certainly among them. Here is his story, collected in 1938.)

The news came that every male between the ages of 21-31 was to go to one of the numerous Local Draft Boards set up in every part of the country.

I registered with the Local Draft Board, Swarthmore, Pa. on June 5, 1917 and was given a card with the number 1493. If this number were drawn out of a large glass bowl in the Quarter-master General's Office in Washington, then I was told to report. This was the beginning of nearly a year-long period of reporting to one place or another, both in America and France.

All summer I anxiously scanned the daily papers for the list of numbers as published by the War Department. In September I accepted a teaching job in Virginia, but had been there hardly a month when 1493 appeared, so back I came to report to the Local Draft Board and claimed exemption because I was the sole support of my aged widowed mother and two sisters and a brother. Then, too, all teachers were supposed to be exempt from military service.

But my claims for exemption were denied. I found out later, that the chairman of the Local Draft Board had placed my name on the list of men to go to war because he had exhausted the exemptions allowed and was compelled to fill out the quota.

A special train came through one day in October and I said good-bye to my family and climbed aboard, with eight other colored men from my town. Every town the train passed through contributed its quota of young men, so that when we reached Admiral, Maryland, the train was crowded with wildly cheering, excited heroes-to-be.

Alighting from the train, we were told to line up and follow several military-appearing men. The contingent, composed of men dressed in old clothes and carrying suitcases, straggled up the road several miles until we came to Camp Meade, named after a Civil War general.

Here we were lined up again, told to file into a large mess hall where we found that the Army ate other vegetables besides beans. After mess we lined up again for medical inspection, then were marched off to a supply station and issued Army uniforms and equipment. Dress shoes and heavy hob-nailed field shoes, an O. D. tunic, shirt, trousers, underwear, socks, a necktie, handkerchiefs, towels and soap. Also two tightly rolled bundles of wool called spiral puttees.

This last almost made me quit the Army.

We marched back to some dormitories and were assigned a cot, blankets, and told to report to the parade grounds after changing into uniform. The building I was in had about 250 men, and each one of them was struggling with tunics with too-tight collars, or complaining about too-large shoes, hardly any one had been lucky enough to get a perfect fit. But every one was troubled by the spiral puttees.

How to get what looked like a roll of bandage wrapped around one's leg! That was the question.

While we were engaged in typing, lacing, and buttoning these strange garments which go to make up a U. S. Army uniform, an orderly told us to fall in at the parade grounds. We did. And such a sight. Imagine a thousand men, unused to Army life, gathered together on a parade ground and told to stand at attention when coat-collars were threatening to choke half of them into insensibility and the other half were entangled in spiral puttees improperly wrapped.

A group of 60 Negro officers stood to one side, each one of whom stood erect in freshly-pressed serge uniforms, Sam Browne belt shining to match leather boots.

One officer advanced toward us several paces and read from a paper. "General Order. You men will comprise the 368th Infantry Regiment of the Ninety-Second Division, U. S. National Army, composed of drafted men from Eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. You will now enter upon a training period which will fit you for duty overseas."

So in October, 1917, the 368th was formed and I stayed with that outfit throughout the war. The men in my barracks became Company "G" of the 368th, and we had three second lieutenants, three first lieutenants and our company Commander was Captain Queen.

Captain Queen sent for me the next day. The orderly who gave me the order told me to report to company headquarters. As I came up the walk, I passed an armed guard standing in front of a large flag, and he brought his gun to the ready and asked, "Hey, buddy, where's your manners? Don't you know better'n walk past the colors without saluting?"

He patted his gun suggestively so I turned toward the colors, as he called it, and gave the only salute I knew, a Boy Scout salute learned as a child. The guard looked at me rather disgustedly, and commented, "You're in the army now and we'll make a soldier out of you yet."

I reported at the door and was sent to Captain Queen. "You wanted to see me?" I inquired.

The captain cut in on me. "Soldier. When you are told to report to an officer, always salute until recognized, saying 'Corporal Johnson reporting, sir.' then stand at attention."

"Yes sir."

"I see by your draft board that you can use a typewriter. I'm making you a company clerk, with rank of corporal. You'll report to Lieut. Hinkson, in charge of headquarters platoon. Dismissed."

I managed a credible salute, turned on my heel and marched out. In the Army one day and already a corporal. I went over to the supply sergeant, drew my chevrons, and walked over to the barracks where I commenced sewing them on. Then, feeling very proud of my new rank, I reported to headquarters platoon.

This time I had everything right. I saluted as I passed the colors, had a soldier point out Lieut. Hinkson, walked over to him, saluted and said, "Corporal Johnson reporting for duty as ordered by Captain Queen, sir."

The Lieutenant gravely returned my salute, glanced at my sleeve and said "Corporal, your chevrons are quite new."

I answered proudly, "Yes sir, Lieutenant."

"Well, they're sewn on upside down," he snapped, "Go to the company tailor and have them adjusted properly."

Our officer, Captain Queen, had just completed a course of instruction at a fort at Des Moines, Iowa, along with a thousand other colored men, all of whom were given commissions as captain, or lieutenant, signed by the President, Woodrow Wilson, and which said that they were 'officers and gentlemen.'

Capt. Queen had been a top sergeant in the 24th Regular Army Regiment when they were stationed in Arizona and chased the Indians. His brother had graduated from the Officers' Training School at the same time, but was commissioned a lieutenant in the machine gun detachment of our regiment.

Captain Queen was younger than his brother, the Lieutenant, but now outranked him. So the older brother, the machine gunner, was compelled to salute his baby brother, the captain.

I soon learned the distinction between an officer and myself. I studied the Army Manual, The School of the Soldier, learned how to clean and care for a rifle, how to execute "order arms" without smashing my toes. I learned the difference between a canteen and a latrine. Being in the headquarters platoon, I was able to find out news of impending troop movements. In fact, I typed the order cancelling all leaves and ordering the men to report to the parade grounds with packs and in full marching order.

We were reviewed and inspected and then marched direct to a waiting train. Once on the train we were issued cards on which we wrote, "Am leaving for somewhere in France. Goodbye."

We detrained at Hoboken. When we arrived darkness had fallen and it was raining a little. In the drizzle we were marched up the gang-plank of a transport and told to stay below decks until we were well out to sea.

The next morning Captain Queen sent for me. I had on a life preserver, as did everyone else. The captain wanted the company roster as he was going to put us through Abandon Ship Drill. When I came on deck I was able to see other troopships, camouflaged with vertical stripes and pursuing a zigzag course, convoyed by eight or ten destroyers.

The North Atlantic was cold and dismal. In fact, the whole business was rather grim and uninspiring, but we reached Brest without incident, didn't even have one submarine scare on the way over.

It was in Brest that I saw some colored soldiers wearing red fezzes and tan uniforms, standing on one of the street corners. One of the men from my company, who came originally from a small town, crossed over the street toward them and inquired. "Where can I get some cigarettes?"

The red-fezzed soldiers glanced at him, spoke among themselves, then turned to him and shrugged complete incomprehension.

I saw that my friend was becoming angry so I crossed over. "What's
the trouble, bud?" I asked.

"These big boys act like they don't want to have anything to do with me. They're talking a lot of gibberish, won't answer my questions."

I had a little trouble convincing him that "those big boys" were FRENCH Africans, couldn't understand English and weren't trying to be high hat.

We went into intensive training and after six weeks we marched up to the town of Nancy in the Department of Douliard. We marched at night, rested in fields by day and noticed the almost solid lines of trucks headed toward the Front, and passed troops returning from a tour of duty in the front line trenches.

In each squad, in addition to the riflemen there were grenadiers who carried hand grenades. While we were marching we had the first casualty in our company. A grenadier, a belt of hand grenades strapped around his middle, stumbled and fell, the grenades exploded, everybody who could, jumped into ditches or flattened themselves on the ground. Total score, three dead and eight wounded. Of the dead we buried two, but the third, the grenadier was blown to bits, nothing left but a hole in the road.

We were in the Argonne Forest when the big push started on September 26, 1918 and we stayed in there five days, part of the time we were shelled by our own artillery in support, the 349th Field Artillery Regiment. We had no battle flags, no shears to cut barbed wire entaglements, our liaison men (runners with messengers) were all killed or wounded trying to get through with messages.

Lieut. Hinkson, dressed in a private's uniform and carrying a rifle as well as a sidearm (automatic) had stood up and shouted, "As skirmishers, guide center. Deploy" when a machine gun, hidden in the woods, cut him down.

Enemy airplanes flew over us several times, dropping pamphlets addressed to us. "Colored Americans. We have no quarrel with you. We are your friends. Throw down your arms and come over to our side. We will treat you better than you are treated in the South."

But I don't remember a single case of desertion.

After the Argonne, we went up into the Vosgen Mountains, where it was rather quiet. We needed it for we had been cut up pretty badly. Replacements were sent us, and I was promoted to Sergeant. The replacements were creoles from Louisiana. They spoke French and one became our company interpreter. So soon every soldier picked up a few words of French.

Armistice Day found us before Metz. We were waiting to storm a great walled city which would have cost us many men, as we would have to cross a level plain about two miles long.

In December 1918 we were marched to Le Mona, the central delousing plant of the A. E. F. Here we had our clothes taken from us, and I lost my sweater which had been knitted for me by my girl friend, we were plunged into baths, and when we came out the other end we were given clean clothes, and that was the end of the big gray cooties which had been our constant companions.

Back to the mud of Brest and here we embarked for home near the end of February, 1919, and after staying in Camp Upton a few days we were sent to Camp Meade, Maryland where on March 5, 1919 we were given a bonus of $60, an honorable discharge, and the 368th Infantry regiment became a part of history.


ronnie said...

He's an excellent writer. I wish he'd written a full book about his war experiences.

I had no idea the Germans were targeting propaganda at black soldiers as early as WWI. One imagines the actual reception and treatment black deserters would've gotten from them.

The Royal Newfoundland Regiment was better known a The Blue Puttees for the distinctive colour of theirs. Apparently they were damned nuisances to put on and, when caked with mud, to take off as well. Their used to be an original pair in a display case at a swank hotel in St. John's - no idea if they're still there.

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

He does tell his story well. Along with the mundane and the amusing, he saw real horrors, and he recounts them with such a simple, mild matter-of-fact tone. That's got real power for the reader.

Mike said...

I don't know of any deserters who have really been treated well, except those who became part of a propaganda ploy -- though we shouldn't conflate the Germans of WWI and those of WWII.

On the other hand, there was apparently an uptick of lynchings after WWI and certainly an uptick of bitterness from returning southern, black GIs who had never experienced the matter-of-fact decent treatment they received in France and came home thinking they didn't have to keep their eyes low when they walked down the street. There was a concerted and organized effort to make sure that didn't recur when they came home from WWII, and the result was the launch of the Civil Rights Movement. (WWII also saw a lot of southern black workers move north, go into defense industry jobs and pick up a sense of self-worth that they wanted to see continue after the war, adding to the impetus for the movement.)