Unsung heroes

July 04, 2004|By Donna M. Owens

AS WE CELEBRATE America's birthday, as we mourn lives being lost in Iraq, there's a growing movement that, while not directly linked, has much to do with freedom, the costs of war and whether our nation is truly committed to mopping up the stains of its complex racial past.

It's time black veterans had a special memorial of their own on the National Mall, advocates say.

The endeavor by the Washington-based Black Patriots Foundation dates to 1986 -- having long ago received approval from both Congress and the National Park Service -- but remains far short of the $20 million needed (about $8 million has been raised thus far) in private and corporate donations.

The proposed 90-foot-long bronze wall of 65 images and a second engraved granite wall would be situated on an eighth of an acre. While specifically dedicated to the nearly forgotten 5,000 black men, women and children -- many of them runaway slaves -- who fought for freedom in the American Revolution, it would also serve as a beacon for all black veterans. Some say it cannot come a moment too soon, momentum spurred increasingly by feelings among many black veterans that their contributions have essentially been whitewashed from U.S. history.

It's a matter I pondered while visiting the newly dedicated National World War II Memorial in Washington, where I met veterans who shared encapsulated memories of war stories, life tales.

It was a powerful experience, surprisingly arresting and touching. I found myself contemplating the sacrifices of those who served during World War II in a way my generation of thirtysomethings and younger rarely considers.

Yet something -- or rather someone -- was missing from my experience: other faces of color in the crowd. I could count on one hand the number of black visitors at the monument, and only encountered one black World War II veteran during my time there.

I was not alone in my observation. A park ranger, a black vet who'd served in the Korean War, confirmed what I had noticed.

His theory? So few African Americans have made the pilgrimage to this already popular addition to the National Mall because many feel their wartime contributions have gone largely unappreciated by the government and public.

Philadelphia Daily News reporter Yvonne Latty deftly addresses the matter in her new book, We Were There, which chronicles in words and photos nearly 30 black veterans -- mostly unsung heroes -- from World War II to the present.

With moving firsthand accounts, the book offers information that few primary schools or even colleges are teaching about what blacks veterans weathered, achieved. Yet ignorance and misinformation aren't adequate excuses for a matter of principle. And this issue merits the nation's righteous, thoughtful response.

"I loved the movie Saving Private Ryan, but where were the black soldiers?" wondered Ms. Latty, referring to the Steven Spielberg blockbuster during a recent book signing at downtown's Enoch Pratt Free Library.

She had equally sharp criticism for anchorman Tom Brokaw's best-selling coffee-table volume about World War II, The Greatest Generation. "All those pages, and only a few black vets. Couldn't he find any more?"

Yet of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, 1 million were black. They were part of segregated units in every military branch. And though many believe only whites died on the front line, thousands of blacks were infantry soldiers as well as POWs.

Oh yes, African-Americans were there.

These warriors saw action in some of the war's most critical and violent clashes, such as the D-Day invasion, the Battle of the Bulge and in the Pacific on Iwo Jima.

In fact, 1,000 black men were estimated to have taken part in D-Day, and black armored tank battalions helped liberate German Jews from Nazi concentration camps, something cynics stubbornly dispute, despite accounts by survivors.

Black women cared for the wounded, despite white nurses who did not want to work alongside them. Besides nurses, members of the 6888th Central Postal Battalion of the Women's Army Corps were the only black women sent to Europe during the war. By the time they left in 1946, they reportedly had broken records for sorting and redirecting backed-up mail.

Such achievements, coupled with the racism, poor treatment and adverse stereotypes these warriors battled both overseas and on the home front, make them candidates for special recognition.

For black veterans, there has been relatively little military recognition. Seventy-eight black veterans have received the Medal of Honor, America's highest military honor for bravery. When seven black World War II vets were finally cited by President Bill Clinton in 1997, only one was -- and still is -- alive.

History may have inadvertently missed them, but a monument will stand for the world to see, a potential gathering place not only for all black veterans and their families and children, but also the entire nation. We the people should remedy this present state of affairs with all deliberate speed.

Rather than further stir the pot of this country's ever-tenuous, touchy race relations, it can serve as a teaching tool and a point to advance the cause of patriotism and national unity. All our hearts will beat just a bit more proudly.

This isn't about ethnic favoritism, just fairness.

Donna M. Owens is a Baltimore journalist.

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