Black veterans honored as World War II liberators Bond with Jews seen in their role

November 02, 1992|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff Writer

Billy Keyes, 70, remembers with a blurred sense of horror the half-track pulling into Dachau concentration camp in Germany in the spring of 1945: the dead bodies, the lice, the starving inmates.

But he has a flash-frozen imprint of the joy he felt seeing the welcome in their faces -- prisoners jammed in bunks, holding out feeble hands to him, Billy Keyes, black American soldier. Rescuer.

"It was a wonderful feeling, one of the reasons we were there. It justified our existence," says Mr. Keyes.

He was 19 then, a member of the 3rd Army, 4341 Quartermaster Company. His company supplied ammunition for the tanks and infantry, but it was also among the first who marched into the German death camps.

"Outfits like that did a lot of the liberating," says William Snowden Keyes, a member of the American Legion-Cook Pinkney Post 141, a disabled American veterans post. "We followed right on the heels of the first tanks. We personally liberated a couple camps."

It is this fact that the African American-Jewish Coalition of Anne Arundel County hopes to highlight in a pre-Veterans Day Salute to black soldiers Nov. 10.

The role of black soldiers in the liberation of Jewish people has not been properly recorded, says Don Aronson, co-chairman of the coalition.

"The story has not been told sufficiently," Mr. Aronson says. "Neither [the black nor Jewish] community knows enough about this. As African-Americans and Jewish hands reached toward each other as the concentration camp walls came down, we still want to reach toward each other, but in appreciation, not desperation."

The program also will honor war veterans of all wars and races, as well as several Jewish survivors of the Holocaust who live in Annapolis.

Yesterday, the coalition held a news conference at the Mount Olive African Methodist Episcopal Church to announce the event.

"This is significant because it's an opportunity for both communities to underscore those bonds," says Carl Snowden, coalition member and Annapolis alderman.

For black and Jewish relationships to continue to improve, says Vincent O. Leggett, chairman of the coalition, "we must together demonstrate that Jews and blacks have more in common than is often portrayed."

Though black-Jewish relations continue to be strained nationally, the AAJC works to promote better understanding between them, he says.

Mr. Keyes, who is also a longtime public school teacher, keeps one photo of himself from the war -- a snapshot of him next to a half-track, surrounded by several of his fellow soldiers.

This weekend, he and Bill Lancaster, one of the other soldiers, reminisced about their war experiences.

They talked about leaving for Germany in 1944, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and crossing the Rhine.

They were squeamish at first at Dachau, the two recall. "We helped clean up the place and the people. The suffering we saw was horrible. We had to stay for a while," Mr. Keyes says.

Identifying people was hard, but the soldiers' company had a Jewish commander who spoke Yiddish.

"The prisoners were unused to being out and were unruly. Others were too sick to move. When they eat, they got sick because they hadn't been eating. They were starving," Mr. Keyes says.

"And the lice -- you've never seen lice like that. They were full of lice."

Having the chance to rescue fellow human beings was a privilege, Mr. Keyes says, but never getting the credit has been hard.

"In some 27 books of Life magazine about the war, you hardly see anything about blacks fighting. We were passed by. There's one or two pictures in all that."

There were no black correspondents, he points out, and little mention anywhere in the press of the million blacks who were then in the Army.

"We knew guys in the service who did remarkable things, came home and ended up nowhere. Times weren't right," Mr. Keyes says.

But he is not bitter. "I kept above the crowd," he says. "After you go to war, you come home and say, 'This is the best country in the world.' Even with the problems. We all have our problems."

He is grateful to receive public recognition for his service to the United States.

"It's late; most of the people with me were gone," he says. "But it feels good."

Mr. Lancaster, 72, of Capitol Heights, kept the company records. He remembers that the picture with the half-track was "one of our first times we had a chance to stand still long enough for someone to take our picture."

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