During World War II James Dockery was among 15 seamen who stayed at their guns as a Japanese suicide plane dove toward their aircraft carrier, the USS Intrepid.
The seamen shot the kamikaze out of the air, saving the Intrepid. Nine of the seamen were killed by a wing ripped from the kamikaze plane by their bullets. For their bravery, Dockery and the other survivors were promised the Navy Cross, a seaman's highest honor. But they never got it.
In 1994, when Dockery, a Stamford resident, was in his late 80s and dying, a U.S. congressman intervened. Dockery finally received the Navy Cross aboard the Intrepid in New York. It's likely the award took half a century because Dockery and his fellow seamen were black.
In the American military of the 1940s, black troops mostly cooked, cleaned and drove trucks. They were kept from combat. Today few know the feats of those who were given the opportunity to fight.
So maybe Dockery would be glad to know that his hometown now is seeking to house a museum honoring the unheralded service of the black seamen, airmen, soldiers and Marines of World War II. Stamford officials are considering a building at the Edward Hunt Complex in the city park on Courtland Avenue as a possible home for the Museum of Black World War II History, founded in Vermont by Bruce Bird seven years ago.
In 2011 Bird decided to move the museum to Stamford at the suggestion of his friend, Stamford resident Mabel Jorgensen. Mayor Michael Pavia, a history buff, has been trying to help Bird and Jorgensen bring the museum to Stamford.
"We are on board," Pavia said. "Courtland Avenue could possibly be the site for a permanent museum. It's so close to I-95 and the Post Road, it would certainly work."
But the building in the park needs work.
"We want to do this, but we have to do it by the numbers," said Director of Operations Ernie Orgera. "There's asbestos flooring and whatever may be in the pipes. We may have to clean lead paint from the windows. It's probably about $100,000 worth of work, which the museum would have to pay for."
Jorgensen said some of the artifacts already are stored in Stamford but she and Bird must raise $5,000 to move the rest into the Courtland Avenue building.
"I think we can allow them to use the space temporarily for storage as long as they can provide an inventory and insurance," Pavia said. "It needs proper coverage. The risk manager will have to look at it. Right now we're saying, `Let's not let the project die or get derailed. Let's get the stuff here and keep it safe until we can figure out what to do.'"
Bird opened the museum in Pownal, Vt., in 2006. A retired factory worker and longtime student of military history, Bird had recently discovered a fact he never knew about the nation's wars -- 1.2 million black Americans served in World War II.
He said he was struck by the patriotism of the black Americans who wanted to fight for their country, even though the military and society were segregated.
Bird researched, for example, the story of the black soldier who was the driver for Gen. George Patton. The soldier took Patton safely through battlefield after battlefield, in horrible weather and under artillery fire, but was not allowed to carry a firearm as white drivers did.
Bird collected artifacts that help tell the story of a tough tank battalion, the mostly black 761st, known as the Black Panthers. When the battalion was taking German forts on the French border, one German commander slit his throat rather than surrender to black soldiers.
Pavia's brother, Tony Pavia, principal of Trinity Catholic High School and a former history teacher, told some of the stories in his 1995 book, "An American Town Goes to War," about Stamford soldiers, sailors and Marines in World War II.
Eugene Hart described how the Army confiscated the rifles from his all-black unit when they boarded a ship for India. David McKeithen told how he resigned his Army commission to join the Marines, which allowed blacks in combat after 1942. Fred Johnson told how he asked his Navy commanders again and again to make him a gunner's mate or radio operator, but all they would allow him to do was cook and clean or hoist ammunition far below deck where there was no chance to survive if the ship got in trouble.
"We can't let this stuff get lost," Pavia said of the research and artifacts Bird has gathered.
Jorgensen said she and Bird are "just trying to get the move done, trying to get everything down here in Stamford. After that we'll figure out the home for the museum. We are getting calls from people around the country who have memorabilia, but we have not been able to accept anything because we have no space."
Contractors have offered to donate their work, Jorgensen said, and volunteers have come forward. He and his staff are looking for "other opportunities," the mayor said.
"When people are planning developments, we say to them, `As part of public improvement, how about including space for a museum?' They say they like the idea. We just haven't hit the right combination of money, timing and location," Pavia said. "We are looking for private people to step up. Once all the artifacts get to Stamford, we can take it to the next step."
Donations may be sent to the nonprofit Museum of Black World War II History, 71 Plymouth Road, Stamford, CT 06906.
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