Hero emerges from struggles on and off battlefield

November 11, 2003|By Donna M. Owens

WHEN I FIRST met Mr. Kane several years ago at St. Francis Xavier Church, I had no way of knowing he was a veteran. At that time he was, to me, simply a kindly older gent, nattily dressed, always smiling, a twinkle in his eye that evoked a mischievous schoolboy instead of an octogenarian.

Once Mr. Kane learned I was a reporter, he hinted he might have a story to tell. But months would pass before I made it a priority to speak with him in depth and examined the dog-eared stack of documents he'd entrusted to my care.

I now feel fortunate to know a bona fide American hero, one whose story seems appropriate to share this Veteran's Day.

James Albert Kane didn't know much about war, but he knew hate. Not long after Japanese bombs rained down on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the East Baltimore resident faced his own storms as the first black welder at Bethlehem Steel. His was a daily dose of taunts and bitter harassment from white co-workers, some of whom went on strike rather than toil alongside a man with brown skin.

Uncle Sam didn't care about race, or so it seemed, when it came to war. Barely 21, Mr. Kane received his draft papers in December 1942 and was shipped off soon after to Fort Clark, Texas, part of a segregated, all-"colored" Army outfit.

All basic training is tough, but the white commanding officers seemed especially cruel to the young black draftees, remembers Mr. Kane. It was nothing for the men to be taken into fields, forced to drag heavy chains all day or beaten harshly for minor infractions. Off base, a uniform meant little to Southern cops who especially made examples of sassy Northern boys who didn't know the rules.

All that aside, Private Kane was proud to serve his country. One of 12 children raised in a tight-knit Catholic family on what was then called Carlisle Street, he'd watched an older brother proudly head to Officer Candidate School. Eventually, six Kane brothers would do duty in the U.S. armed forces - from World War II to Korea and Vietnam.

Assigned to the medical corps, Mr. Kane would end up at Fitzsimmons Hospital, near Denver, and then Colorado State College. He took courses through a specialized military program designed for high school graduates with strong IQs.

After maneuvers in Louisiana with the 370th Regiment, the all-black 92nd (dubbed the Buffalo Division, for the term American Indians long ago gave to fierce black soldiers who fought on the Plains), Mr. Kane was shipped out of Camp Patrick Henry in Newport News, Va., bound for Italy. He would be part of the Allied invasion of Italy.

Decades later, he can still picture the Liberty ships stretching as far as the eye could see. Twenty-six days were spent at sea before the convoy landed.

Not long after, Mr. Kane saw combat - German artillery fire everywhere. He was scared, but determined, rushing to administer everything from bandages to morphine to soldiers who'd been barraged by mortars, wounded and killed in the thick of battle.

Mr. Kane's personal battle would come April 5, 1945. As his platoon started its initial attempt up the Italian coast to La Spezia, he recalls a sergeant who was seriously wounded calling for a medic.

Mr. Kane moved to go toward the man, but never made it. He stepped on a land mine that blew his right leg into oblivion. The explosion also badly injured his right hand and the calf and upper thigh of his left leg.

He was fully conscious, so he grabbed his rosary, praying to survive. He would lie there in a makeshift grave for 26 hours, the scorching sun boiling his dehydrated body, a Red Cross flag draped across his eyes.

He said he felt no pain, only the will to live. Rescuers strapped his limp body to a canvas litter and ascended a steep hill to take him to a field hospital for an amputation.

Multiple surgeries followed upon his return to the States, and Mr. Kane spent years in various hospitals recovering. He would receive nine medals, including a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

Today, the 82-year-old widower and retiree (from the same steelyard where peers once scorned him) barely gives a second thought to the prosthesis he wears. He's vital, engaged in the community, drives every day and, as the ladies he knows will attest, still enjoys dancing and flirting at church socials.

Faith has carried him through, he says. Patriotism that never waned, even in the face of unequal treatment.

As conflict continues in Iraq and Afghanistan, as we become ever more aware of the sacrifices made by our military personnel and their kin, I hope we will take time to honor, appreciate people such as Mr. Kane.

They may never receive the fanfare of, say, a Pfc. Jessica Lynch. But their heads and hearts brim with meaningful stories of personal courage, valor and service. And in my mind, that makes them American heroes.

Donna M. Owens is a journalist who lives in Baltimore.

Columnist Steve Chapman will return Friday.

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