Roy G. Berkeley
Shaftsbury, VTWho would guess that a new museum celebrating
the contribution of the 1.1 million African-Americans in the
U.S. military in World War II would be located in Vermont,
arguably the nation's whitest state? The museum's founder
and curator replies: "That's why Vermont needs such a
And who would guess that Bruce W. Bird, who opened this
museum, is white, a native Vermonter, without military
history (he was designated 4-F some 40-odd years ago) and
without first hand knowledge of that war (he was only three
years old when it ended)? Bruce Bird's dream -- now his
"retirement project" -- is this Museum of Black WWII
History, located in the small town of Pownal in the
southwestern corner of Vermont.
From 1988 to 1990, Bird was curator of the Vermont Militia
Museum, in Colchester, VT (museum of the Vermont National
Guard), but budget cuts ended that job. Before that, he had
been curator of the small display at the Vermont Veterans
Home, in Bennington, VT. And before that, he had done an
internship at the Navy Museum in Washington, DC.
Bird has a B.A. in history and
says, "Military history has fascinated me since I was
knee-high to a grasshopper, and I've never outgrown it."
Some 50 years later, discovering that blacks didn't have a
museum of their own to honor their service in WWII, he
determined to change this.
At the town dump one day, he learned from another Pownal
resident (an elected representative to the state
legislature) that the town could perhaps help him. A
day-care center was being vacated and according to the deed
by which the town had acquired the building, Bird could rent
it for $1 a year if it still served educational purposes.
Educational it is -- from the moment visitors enter and
confront the armed forces during WWII despite "the
discrimination and maltreatment inflicted on blacks in
American society in general and in the strictly-segregated
armed forces in particular." The purpose of this museum is
"not to glorify war or to denounce it, but to document it."
According to its Mission Statement, the museum wants to
"acknowledge the long-ignored role of African-Americans in
the largest worldwide conflict in human history." The museum
wants to be an ongoing center for teaching and research on
this broad subject -- drawing tourists, residents, and
The museum is a work-in-progress. Bird built half the
display cases and additional display cases were donated by
nearby Bennington Museum. His vast collection of artillery
shells is on display while informative captions accompany
his many photographs, and many models of tanks and warships.
"Did you know...?" statements adorn any other surface where
the eye might rest.
Among much else, visitors learn about the 761st Tank
Battalion for instance, which was in combat for 183
consecutive days in Europe, longer than any other tank unit.
"You'd never know how much Patton relied on the 761st," says
Bird, "if you only had Hollywood's poor portrayal of black
service in WWII." This battalion -- all black
some of its officers -- was important in the Battle of the
One of the great heroes of the 761st was Sergeant Rubin Rivers, who was ordered
to retreat, but didn't, and was subsequently killed in action. His white captain
recommended him posthumously for the Medal of Honor, but this recommendation
wasn't passed up the chain of command at the time. The award came through only
in 1997 and attending the ceremony was this same captain.
Then, of course, there were the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black 332nd Fighter
Group that escorted more than 200 U.S. bombing missions over Germany, never
losing a single bomber to enemy fighters. (The commander of the Tuskegee Airmen
later became the first black general in the U.S. Air Force.) Bird believes that
the extraordinary service of such groups as the 761st and the 332nd were crucial
to Truman's 1948 decision to desegregate the military.
Visitors also learn about the army's 93rd Division, reconstituted from the four
black regiments operating during WWI. During all of WWI, this tough division
didn't lose a single man as prisoner, and didn't give a single inch of ground.
The performance of certain black individuals during WWII was extraordinary. These
men, and women, should have been -- and perhaps now will be -- among our most
honored heroes. Some of them include:
Dorie Miller -- When Pearl Harbor was attacked, this mess attendant 2nd class on
the battleship West Virginia was ordered to get below deck, out of harm's way.
(Most blacks in the Navy were mess attendants, stewards and laundry-men.) Miller
stayed topside, working fiercely to pull many wounded shipmates to safety. Then,
wielding weaponry he hadn't been trained to use, he downed at least two Japanese
planes. He received the Navy Cross. "If he'd been white," says Bird, "he'd have
gotten the Medal of Honor."
Lt. Col. Charity Adams -- The first black woman commissioned as an officer in
the Women's Army Corps. She was the commanding officer of the first battalion of
black servicewomen to serve overseas during WWII -- the 6888th Central Postal
Directory Battalion (the "Six Triple Eight"), which did an extraordinary job of
redirecting mail in the European Theater of Operations. More than seven million
U.S. personnel were in the ETO then -- more than 7,500 of them with the name
Robert Smith! Charity Adams had her problems within the service, too. A visiting
general (white, of course) spotted some of the unit's women in bathrobes, and
even though these women were on their sleeping shift, he said to Major Adams,
"I'm going to send a white first lieutenant down here to show you how to run this
unit." Charity's response: "Over my dead body, Sir." At this, the general
considered court-martial charges against her. She, in turn, considered
court-martial charges against him (for stressing racial disharmony among the
troops, an action specifically cautioned against in a directive from SHAEF).
Within a few days, all legal plans were dropped, and when Adams ran into this
officer somewhat later, he apologized, telling her she'd been "quite an
education" for him "especially about Negroes."
This museum will be "quite an education" for anyone today who is unaware of the
unsung military role of blacks during WWII -- also unaware of the blatant racism
then. When the government was thinking about drafting nurses, there were some
250,000 trained black nurses in America, but only 479 were taken. To tend
wounded whites, only whites were wanted.
As to why blacks weren't put into more fighting positions, perhaps whites didn't
want to cope with blacks who knew their worth. "And once you were taken on the
Wehrmacht," says Bird, "nobody can convince you you're inferior."
Blacks had served in the military before WWII. The all-black 10th Calvary fought
alongside Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War. Many black
regiments served in the Civil War; and perhaps, too, in the War of 1812, but
what happened early in WWII was a significant change. When it became clear that
this war would need more soldiers, even the Marine Corps felt obliged to admit
African-Americans. A total of 19,168 blacks served in the Marine Corps during
WWII -- 12,738 of them overseas -- but only a portion of the two defense
battalions, 12 ammunition companies and 51 supply companies saw combat.
America is a wonderful country, indeed, when a group like the blacks during WWII
can give of themselves so heroically -- and when a man like Bruce Bird can give
of himself so enthusiastically about their service.
The museum is open Thursday through Monday from 10-5; admission is $5 for
adults; $3 for children 6-18, seniors and veterans. for more information about
the Museum of Black WWII History, call (203)348-6810 or visit
www.blackww2museum.org. To donate personal treasures -- artifacts, photos,
memoirs, memorabilia -- send them to 179 Oak Hill School Road, Pownal, VT 05261.
(To discuss lending such materials, call Bruce Bird during Museum hours.)
Tax-deductible funds in any amount would be most welcome. Charter memberships,
only $12, are still available.