D-Day 75 years later: You didn't have to shoot a rifle to shape history
J. Bernard Taylor did not storm the beach at Normandy, but he staggered past the debris of history.
He was 20 years old on D-Day, exactly 75 years ago, when 156,000 Allied soldiers attacked five ominously fortified beaches along a 50-mile stretch of French coastline and turned the tide of World War II.
It was the stuff of movies, books and legend — and Taylor was not there. He splashed ashore on D+3, three days later, meaning June 9, 1944. There were still snipers and cannons firing down from the cliffs above Omaha Beach, and land mines buried in the sand. There was noise and confusion and mayhem.
"It was rough," he says softly, and he stops for a moment to regroup. "It was war."
Joseph B. Taylor of Westland served as a Army technician in World War II and was on Omaha Beach days after the bloody assault to retake Europe. Max Ortiz, The Detroit News
Taylor is old now, the way any veteran of that campaign must be, but the images remain vivid. He wonders if others will still care by the 80th anniversary, or the 100th, as the ranks of witnesses dwindle and disappear.
At 95, he has had a full life since then, or really several of them: educator, minister, husband four times. Only five years ago, he drove to Virginia from his Westland condo for a D-Day commemoration, but if he gets out these days it's probably to see a doctor.
Sitting in his dining room and picturing the scene as he scrambled from the surf, he reaches up reflexively with an arthritic hand to adjust what used to be the burdens of a trim, agile soldier. His rifle, slung over his shoulder. His duffel bag.
Taylor was the company clerk. He was part of the Army's 502nd Port Battalion, 273rd Port Company. The 200 men of his company were longshoremen, essentially, loading and unloading ships, usually behind the lines and perpetually behind the scenes.
Taylor might be more proud of them now than he was back then, proud of the few who remain and the many who have departed, because you didn't have to save Private Ryan to have helped save the world.
And you didn't have to be treated equally to serve your country.
The 502nd was entirely African American except for the officers, who were all white.
"It was just the way things were," he says, and the troops didn't talk about it much.
They had jobs to do and lives were at stake, even if the lives weren't necessarily their own.
There were casualties, inevitably, even among the stevedores. On D+1, three men from the 270th Company drowned trying to make it to shore when a landing line broke, and 13 others had to be rescued.
One port company soldier was killed by a sniper — and then there was Lt. Col. James Pierce, the battalion commander. The day Taylor landed, Pierce was setting up a tent when he stepped on a mine.
He lost his leg, not his life. He was saved in a field hospital built and stocked with materials and supplies offloaded by a port company operating under fire and without anything purporting to be a dock.
"We loved that man," says Taylor, and in a slow-paced afternoon of reminiscing, a white officer is the only subject that brings tears.
Pierce was replaced, as it happens, by Maj. Martin Hayden, a Detroit News reporter in civilian life who would later become editor in chief.
Writing a month later to friend Edward Jeffries Jr., the mayor of Detroit, Hayden informed him that "If I ever needed it, I got complete proof of the fallacy of the theory that Negroes scare easier than other people."
One down, an entire war department to go. It was an uphill battle ... but the fight at home would be worse.
It seems an astonishing connection in 2019, but Taylor's father, Joseph, was a veteran of the Spanish-American War — which began and ended in 1898.
The father was a janitor who lost his job during the Depression and died in 1939 when the son was 16. The son, known as Joe in the Army and Bernard everywhere else, grew up in an all-black sector of Philadelphia.
He went to an all-boys, mixed-race high school of 5,000 students, couldn't afford college and settled on a business school, where he was one of only two men and where he learned to type.
That skill, and the time he spent at the library studying military aptitude tests, served him well after he was drafted.
Basic training was at Ford Meade, Maryland. Communication not being a hallmark of the Army, he and a trainload of other black recruits had no idea where they were going from there.
There was jubilation, Taylor says, when the train turned north, away from the oppressive heat and even more oppressive Jim Crow of the South.
He trained with the port battalion in Massachusetts, endured a queasy zig-zag across the Atlantic Ocean aboard the Queen Elizabeth, and ultimately found himself in Swansea, Wales, when the weather cleared at Normandy and the Allies descended on northern France.
His piece of the invasion began shortly afterward aboard what was known as a service vessel, a small ship loaded with ammunition and populated by maybe 20 cooks, clerks and carpenters.
They set out around the southwestern tip of England, crossed the English Channel as German fighter-bombers raked bullets across the deck, and pulled in next to a battleship lobbing massive shells toward the German positions deep in the countryside.
"What you have to realize," says historian Keith Huxen, "is that there were close to 200,000 people in the armada, sailing those guys over there and dropping them off. It was an enormous operation."
Huxen, the senior director of research and history for the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, puts the number of ships and landing craft at more than 6,400. Above them were 11,000 Allied warplanes.
"It was like moving a small city across the Great Lakes in a day," he says, "and dropping it on the other side."
Within five days, there were more than 325,000 Allied troops in northern France, double the invading force on D-Day. A month later, there were more than a million.
They all needed food, fuel, munitions and everything else that keep armies moving.
They needed the longshoremen, and the longshoremen needed their clerks.
Some 16 million Americans served in the Armed Forces during World War II, be it on Okinawa or in Oklahoma City.
As of September, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 496,777 were still alive, meaning 3%. By September, projections say the number will have dropped below 400,000.
California houses the most, at 51,567. Michigan, 10th in population at 9.95 million, is eighth in World War II vets with 15,898, behind Illinois and ahead of New Jersey.
The number of D-Day survivors is undetermined. Figure 2,000, tops.
No one bothers to work an estimate for D+3, but from the 273rd Company, Taylor can think of two — plus the clerk his buddies sometimes called "Slick."
Taylor says there was nothing crafty about his assignment, with its emphasis on mind over muscle. He just had the aptitude and the foresight to study.
As a clerk, he handled the company records and took attendance every day. Maybe he took a little grief with it, from the grunts doing the heavy lifting, but not too much — and here, he grins.
“Not if they wanted to get paid,” he says.
Author Andrew Brozyna says the norm overseas was three or four people behind the lines for every soldier up front. The norm among port companies, even decades later, was to downplay what they had done.
Brozyna, 40, wrote “Longshore Soldiers” because his grandfather, Cortland Hopkins, had been one. He interviewed several dozen of them "and they all started off saying, 'Oh, I didn’t do anything.'"
But there were shells and strafing, he says, constant improvisation, and frequent injuries to longshoremen both black and white.
White? Yes, though they were a decided minority.
The two were kept so much apart, Taylor says, that until he saw Brozyna’s book, he had no idea that any of the port companies were Caucasian.
Seven weeks after D-Day, the Allies liberated Paris. Nine months and 13 days after that, on May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered.
Taylor spent most of a postwar year in Paris, working for the American Graves Registration Service and hoping to outsmart the wintertime elements that made his first ocean crossing miserable. It didn’t work; he was seasick anyway.
He went to Temple University in Philadelphia on the G.I. Bill, earned a degree in business administration, and couldn’t get a $21-a-week, bottom-rung corporate job.
"What hurts is when you come back home," he says. "I was willing to die for my country," but the doors were closed "because my skin was black."
Into the 1950s, movie houses in his city were segregated. A friend became the first African American clerk at a downtown department store, but he couldn’t eat at the lunch counter.
At Overbrook High School, where a standout student for several reasons was Wilt Chamberlain, Taylor became the first black faculty member. Fifteen years later, he says, in 1968, he took over the business program at another school and became its first black department chair.
Then he quit.
At 58, he earned a divinity degree. Across the next decade or two, he broke more new ground, often becoming the first black preacher to command a pulpit.
In a tribute program at one point, a colleague named Richard Brondyke wrote of "this quiet, highly educated and almost formal man" rousing a Presbyterian congregation with "a whirlwind of words," an African American cyclone amid what had been generations of stodgy sameness.
There was sadness, inevitably, to go with the successes. Taylor’s first wife died of lupus, the second of ALS and the third of lung cancer.
As he’s tracking through memories, the former Beulah Warren comes to check on him. She maneuvers his hearing aid more firmly into his right ear, checks the left, and leaves him to reminisce.
She’s 82, a Metro Detroiter for more than half her life. They met online shortly after he lost his third wife and were married maybe eight months later, in 2009.
"I really wasn’t going to get married that fast," she says. "He said, 'I don’t believe in living together and all that stuff.'"
He had an apartment in Philadelphia. She owned a condo not far from the one they have now. It only made sense to come to Detroit, where a veteran with no children embraced a former security guard’s four kids and their kids as well.
With a bluntness that’s understandable in someone whose clock is ticking louder than most, Taylor says Beulah is the best of his wives.
She says they’re blessed.
He has rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis as well, along with congestive heart failure. He says the diamond anniversary of D-Day might be the last one he sees. The V.A. says 348 World War II veterans die every day, and he’s always been good with numbers.
The thought doesn’t bother him, he says, but he’s worried that people might forget what happened on that five-mile patch of sand so long ago.
He won't. He says he’ll remember forever — however long forever might be.