White vet teaches black history

February 15, 1997|By GREGORY KANE

My offering for Black History Month this year comes from a white male, if for no other reason than to show that BHM is not exclusively a black thing, as its detractors would have you believe. The truth, is Americans of every hue can learn from BHM.

Offering the history lesson is one Jack Flanagan of Severna Park, whose list of credits includes being secretary and historian of the 612th Tank Destroyer Battalion Association, vice president of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, a member of the Baltimore Round Table of American Military History and past president of the Baltimore Civil War Round Table. Flanagan studies and writes military history and served in Company A of the 612th tank battalion and in the Army Air Corps during World War II. What follows is a letter Flanagan sent me dated Jan. 30, 1997.

"Dear Mr. Kane:

As a WWII veteran and a student of military history on that war, I would like to relate two, but separate incidents (but in a way connected) that happened in 1943-1945 during WWII. These incidents have a much stronger importance now with the recent but long overdue awarding of the Medals of Honor to seven deserving Black American soldiers earned during the war. The soldiers were denied their medals at the time due to the color of their skin - an outrageous, unjustified action taken by the U.S. Army in line with its existing 'Jim Crow' policy toward our Black American soldiers.

The first incident was publicized in Yank magazine, the Army weekly publication. It was a letter sent to 'Mail Call,' the letters to the editor department. The letter was from Cpl. Buckingham or Birmingham (memories fade after 54 years) and I must paraphrase the following. But I assure you the gist of the story is accurate. Cpl. Buckingham related that he was part of an all Black U.S. Army unit en route on a troop train to someplace in the Southwestern part of the country - probably on the Santa Fe Railroad on which the Fred Harvey Co. ran the restaurants at most of the larger stations. The troop train with the Black American soldiers stopped on one of the tracks and the soldiers were ordered out of the train and fell into formation and were marched over to the other track and around to the back of the restaurant to a carry-out window where they each received a box lunch, then were marched back to their troop train.

As they marched around the front of the restaurant they observed German POW's seated in the main dining room being served by the 'Harvey Girl' waitresses. (The German POW's were traveling on the other train standing on the tracks.) What a blatant example of dastardly 'Jim Crowism' in the U.S. Army - how degrading and humiliating an experience for our black soldiers, simply because of the color of their skin - outrageous, unfair, discriminatory and a slap into everyone's face and sanctioned by their own army and government!!!

Now I would like to move ahead to 16 April 1945 for the second incident. Just outside the city of Leipzig, Germany where the Second Infantry Division of my 612th Tank Destroyer Battalion along with other American units were getting ready to attack the city. While waiting for the jump-off signal we had a brief respite and I was able to have a short talk with Lt. Goldstein (or Goldberg) - a platoon leader in the Third Battalion of the Ninth Infantry Regiment of the Second Infantry Division with whom our 612th Tank Destroyer Battalion was to cooperate with in the forthcoming attack on the city. The conversation turned to how the black American infantry replacements in Lt. Goldstein's platoon had performed in combat for the past two months. I He related the following to me with much conviction:

'I hope that I don't lose any more men with the war drawing to a close, but if I do lose some I hope they send me more black replacements, such as the ones I already have received. These men are excellent soldiers - well-trained and follow orders completely - they know their weapons and maintain them in good condition, and they carry and use hand grenades more than my white young replacements and they are always ready to help or assist any other member of the platoon that gets hit or is in trouble. Some of them have proved they have leadership capabilities and have advanced to squad leaders and are doing an excellent job.' "

The black combat soldiers came from service units and Flanagan stressed that 65 percent of them took a reduction in rank in order to fight for their country. The U.S. Army's belated use of black combat troops in previously all-white units came after our troops received heavy casualties in the Battle of the Bulge and other engagements.

Flanagan's letter shows once again how black history and American history are linked and raises an important question: How many American troops of all races would have had their lives spared had America abandoned its policy of segregation and deployed its soldiers in a nonracist manner?

Pub Date: 2/15/97

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