Willie Henry Greene

World War Ii Buffalo Soldier Was Member Of A Segregated Infantry Unit Stationed In Italy That Inspired Book And Film

December 09, 2009|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly , jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

Willie Henry Greene, a retired Westinghouse employee and decorated World War II combat veteran, died of heart disease Nov. 26 at St. Agnes Hospital. The Mount Winans resident was 85.

The son of a blacksmith, he was born in Faber, Va. "He grew up on a self-sustaining, family-owned land with nine siblings," said his daughter, Aleta T. Greene of Baltimore. "He would tell how, at 15 years old, he learned to make mattresses at a factory. He made mattresses for the iron beds they shared, but to also bring in extra money to the household."

While cranking the Model A Ford to get a doctor to help his wife deliver twins, Mr. Greene's father suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage. Mr. Greene remained at home another five years and in 1940 moved to Baltimore, where he worked on the old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and sent home money to his widowed mother and younger siblings. He did so until 1988.

Mr. Greene lived in Mount Winans and soon met a neighbor, Gladys Boone Robinson, a teenager whose family owned a farm in nearby Cherry Hill. According to a family story, Mr. Greene asked his future wife what she could offer him. She replied, "a handful of pennies." They married in 1947 and he kept pennies in a jar on his dresser until he died.

He joined the Army during World War II and was assigned to an all-black infantry group, the 92nd Division, known as the Buffalo Soldiers. He was sent to Italy and was wounded while operating a machine gun south of the Arno River near Pisa. He was awarded a Purple Heart and left military service in 1946 as a sergeant.

Mr. Greene spent a year while in service in Italy and visited historic cities, including Florence. He kept an Italian-American dictionary until his death.

He used the GI Bill to complete a radio, television theory and mathematics course at a Baltimore trade school. He ran a TV and radio shop with his brother and worked briefly at Maryland Glass Corp. and International Harvester.

He then became a technician at the Westinghouse Aerospace Division in Linthicum. He worked alongside his wife, who was his union's president, and traveled with her to labor conventions.

"He was held in the highest regard by management and his co-workers for his ideals, ethics and gentlemanly ways," his daughter said. "They also had the resources to leave Mount Winans, but they made a conscious decision to stay in the old neighborhood."

In 2002 he became vice president of the 92nd Infantry Division World War II Association and helped organize its annual reunions. He also gave talks on the history of the segregated military unit. A 2008 story in People magazine featured him and others in his unit at the time Spike Lee's film, "Miracle at St. Anna," was released. He was also interviewed by author James McBride for his book of the same title.

In 1977, Dr. Harold A. Carter Sr., pastor of New Shiloh Baptist Church, named him a deacon.

Until this past October, Mr. Greene drove every day to 6 a.m. prayer services at the church.

A member of Electrical Workers Minority Caucus, he was chaplain of the Mount Winans Improvement Association.

Services were held at New Shiloh Baptist Church on Dec. 2.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include a son, the Rev. Darrell S. Greene Sr., pastor of Columbia's Martin Luther King Jr. Community Church, who resides in Lochearn; and a grandson. Gladys Boone Greene, his wife of 61 years, died in 2007. A son, Ernest A. Robinson Jr., died in 1995.

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