Grand Opening 2007

New museum opens
-- and opens eyes --

Military
June 2007
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 museum."

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 tha
t, he had done an internship at the Navy Museum in Washington, DC.


A museum is born

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 students.

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
except for some of its officers -- was important in the Battle of the Bulge.

Revealing heroes

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."

History Lessons

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.