Digital Run Date: 1/13/2012
Bruce Bird's Museum of Black World War II History was a bit stranded atop a hill in Vermont, one of the whitest states in the union.
It seems to have found a place in Stamford, where Bird moved two months ago. Residents and businesses have offered their time and money to help open the museum, likely the only one of its kind in the United States.
But Stamford has something else to offer: eyewitnesses to history.
In "An American Town Goes to War, " history teacher and Trinity Catholic High School Principal Tony Pavia recounted the experiences of Stamford residents who served in World War II. Pavia interviewed soldiers David McKeithen, Robert MacDonald and Eugene Hart, and sailors James Dockery and Fred Johnson, who explained what it was like to be black in the segregated military of 1940s America.
Now Stamford offers up for history the opposite side of their story.
Sam Newman was a white officer who commanded an all-black trucking unit in Europe for most of the war. The 92-year-old Stamford man said it's time for such a museum.
"This story is fast fading from memory, " Newman said. "All the literature that came out after the war, all the World War II novelists, never wrote this story, never hinted at it."
The odd thing is that he was only somewhat aware of it himself, even as he lived it, said Newman, who grew up in the Bronx in the poverty that followed the Great Depression.
"I was 20, maybe 21. I was very focused on keeping the supplies moving. I was deaf to other things that were going on, " Newman said. "Could I relive it, I would tune in to it. When I look back I feel a little ashamed of the whole thing, of how demeaning it must have been for them."
Pavia's book provides a look.
Eugene Hart was a young Stamford man assigned to an Army trucking unit that transported supplies along the treacherous Burma Road from India to China. When his all-black unit was shipped out, "we saw segregation first-hand, " Hart said in the book. "Our sergeants didn't stay with us. They slept on a different part of the ship. They also confiscated all of our rifles when we boarded."
Robert MacDonald was delivering bullets, bombs, gasoline, dynamite and vehicles along the Burma Road about the same time. "Once the inspector general came out to see us, and he asked us if we were being treated all right. I said, ?Yes, but I wish I could join an infantry unit, ' " MacDonald said in the book.
Newman, whose trucking unit delivered supplies, often under German fire, to troops fighting in England, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, said he understands MacDonald's wish.
"Having a gun gave you a chance to do more than drive a truck with your head down while people shot at you. It was a chance to do something, " Newman said.
But that's not what usually happened for black soldiers.
Stamford's David McKeithen joined the Army, was selected to train other black soldiers and given the rank of second lieutenant. In Pavia's book McKeithen recounted how some of the black officers refused to sit at segregated tables and were thrown in jail. As further punishment, all the black officers in his unit were sent on a three-day march while the white officers rode along in Jeeps.
When the war broke out, McKeithen wanted to fight but he was told that he could not serve overseas. So he resigned his Army commission and joined the Marines, later taking part in the brutal battle with the Japanese to take Iwo Jima.
All the black men in Pavia's book told of their desire, as soldiers and sailors, for the opportunity to fight.
Newman said he now sees their frustration. He got a clue once but did not think much about it at the time, he said.
He prided himself on being a strict commander and when he selected his sergeants from among the black soldiers he chose those "who were more rigid, not so well-liked, so they would want only to get the job done, " Newman said.
At least one of his men interpreted that as racism, as Newman learned while censoring the soldiers' mail, which the Army required as a security measure.
"He wrote in a letter home that his commander was very bigoted, " Newman recalled. "Then he said, ?Don't worry. Maybe we'll get him when the fighting starts.' I wasn't fearful because there was a lot of talk like that."
It isn't surprising, given what Stamford's Fred Johnson explained about what happened when a black sailor tried to stand up for himself.
Johnson served on a Navy landing ship tank that carried troops, tanks, shells and bombs ashore during the bloody assaults on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Early in his stint, he was rewarded for a job well done with a promotion to Steward 2nd Class, when it should have been Seaman 2nd Class.
"If you were a steward, all you could do was cook or clean. In other words, be a servant, " Johnson said in the book. "I couldn't be a gunner's mate or a radio operator no matter what I did." He approached his commander. "Sir, that's not right, " he said, but the commander walked away.
Aboard the landing ship, all the black sailors were assigned to hoist ammunition from three decks down. If something happened to the ship, they were far below, surrounded by ammunition, and would have no chance to survive. So Johnson spoke up. "If we get hit we bleed red just like everyone else; we could die just like everyone else, " he told the gunnery officer. Eventually Johnson convinced the officer to rotate the positions.
Newman said other Army commanders would tell him that black soldiers got into much more trouble than white soldiers, so he asked for statistics.
"It showed they were totally the same, " Newman said. "Black soldiers were a mix of brave and not brave, good and bad, just like white soldiers."
In the Army of the 1940s there was "a great stigma" attached to commanding black units, said Bird, a lifelong military history buff with a degree in history who put his retirement savings into the museum after opening it in Vermont five years ago. He decided to move it to Stamford at the suggestion of his friend, Mabel Jorgensen of Stamford.
"People in the Army thought that commanding black troops put a damper on your future promotions, and most likely it did, " Bird said.
It was "an unwanted job, " Newman said. The Army tended to give it to Jewish commanders like Newman.
"The Army reflected society's prejudice against Jews, " Bird said.
For five years during the war Newman led his black unit as they delivered gasoline, ammunition, vehicles, food and clothing to troops at the front, with the Germans firing on them from above. Near the end of the war the unit brought food and clothing to Jews rescued from the concentration camps.
"It's hard to accept how the world's mind can be so twisted, " Newman said.
He would be happy to see Stamford open a museum to honor the 1.2 million black Americans who served in World War II, but he has a concern.
"Have we waited too long?" Newman asked. "The stories are gone and buried with so many people."
One is Stamford's James Dockery, an anti-aircraft gunner aboard the USS Intrepid in the Pacific whose crew was among the first all-black fighting units in the Navy. Nine of them died and six, including Dockery, were injured destroying a Japanese suicide plane as it dove into the Intrepid. The crew was credited with saving the carrier and promised the Navy Cross, the highest honor, but never got it. Dockery tried for 50 years, but was not awarded the medal until 1994, when he was dying.
The Museum of Black World War II history is seeking donations and a home, and temporarily needs 500 square feet of storage space. To help, call Bruce Bird or Mabel Jorgensen at 203-348-6810.
Angela Carella can be reached at 203-964-2296 or firstname.lastname@example.org.