My father didn’t talk about his service in WWII that often, even though he liked to mention that he was in North Africa chasing Rommel, The Desert Fox. His company had been moved to Italy to offer support in the fighting there, and after VE day, they returned home to stand by to be recalled to offer support in the Pacific, where my uncle Nelson was serving.
I heard mostly about Italy, which he adored. The wine, the opera, the olive oil, the gratefulness shown to the Black soldiers made him swoon, he said.
Other details are not very clear to me; I was born when he was 43, and these facts had to compete with The Flintstones, hippies, David Bowie, punk, theater, horses, and moving about 7 or 8 times.
But one story he told me shortly before I was leaving for college seeped through my stereo headphones and cakes of black eyeliner to sear me:
After his company’s return (the troops were segregated, but lead by white officers) they were assigned to accompany German POWs via train to the American South.
In those days, you had to get off the train to eat, which was problematic, since the diners were also segregated.
So yes, my father, along with his cohorts were forced to sit on the train and eat cold sandwiches and drink warm water, while White guards accompanied Nazis into the diner to eat, smoke, laugh and relax.
Black soldiers who put their lives on the line to fight world fascism were detained on the trains; an eerie parallel to the gruesome discovery that had just stunned the world.
No wonder my father buried his energies into space, science, flight, physics, and distant galaxies. No wonder.
When I was cleaning out his study after he died, I found a dusty book stamped, “Property of US Gov’t. If lost please return to Supply Officer. Military Science Building.”
It was a book on calculus that he had brought with him overseas, no doubt to keep him focused. He carried it there and carried it back.
It still had neatly folded practice sheets filled with equations I couldn’t even begin to recognize. So many equations. He never returned the book.
Thank you for your service Daddy. I wish we could have done better for you.
This story is by a dear friend, reprinted here with permission, all images are © with All Rights Reserved. You can view the original Facebook post here, and the author’s Uncle Nelson wrote a well regarded history here of his service, but aslo involvement in the black radical movements. The original text has only been edited slightly for grammatical clarity.