Opinion: Recognize black soldiers as part of the Greatest Generation
Hillard Holland Sr., my maternal grandfather, was a member of America’s Greatest Generation. But before you conjure up a mental image of how he looked, he was a proud black man.
A native of Columbus, Miss, living in 1930s Depression-era America, my grandfather’s opportunities were very limited. But he was able to join the Civilian Conservation Corps established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of The New Deal. When my grandfather left the CCC, he did like many Americans and joined the U.S. Army to fight in World War II.
After the war ended in 1945, my grandfather did the opposite of what most American soldiers did during that time. Instead of mustering out of the military with the GI Bill in hand, my grandfather chose to stay in the army. This may seem puzzling to some.
After all, he just spent two years fighting in a war, often living in base conditions, witnessing the horrors of massive death and destruction. He fought in a segregated military that transferred the indignity of being treated as second class citizens into being treated as second class soldiers. He was wounded and would carry pieces of shrapnel in his body for the rest of his life.
In 1947, there were just over 2 million soldiers in the U.S. military, according to the U.S. Department of Defense’s Selected Manpower Statistics report from 1997. That was down from the 12 million soldiers in the U.S. military in 1945, according to the Department of Defense statistics.
There were 901,896 black soldiers in the military during World War II, according to the World War II Museum in New Orleans.
It is difficult to quantify the actual number of black soldiers that opted to stay in the military after World War II.
Professor Maria Hohn, chair of History and International Studies at Vassar College, agreed it is difficult finding statistical data that tracked retention of black veterans. Hohn’s research focuses on black soldiers during World War II.
“Numbers are really tough to get, I tried for years,” Hohn said. “But all the black soldiers I interviewed for my research indicated that they decided to stay in because the military did offer better options for them and the opportunity to be ‘anywhere else in the world but the U.S.’
“Hearing that was a real heartbreaker for me,” Hohn added.
That’s probably why my grandfather had the vision and courage to look beyond his conditions at the time.
He was also mindful of the meager prospects awaiting him in Mississippi. The chances of finding a job comparable to that of a non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Army were non-existent. Not to mention the dangers for a black man and veteran with combat ribbons, battle-tested courage and a GI Bill.
Those dangers ranged from facing the daily rigors of racial discrimination to violence including the real threat of being murdered simply for being a black man.
Given all those daunting circumstances, my grandfather was confronted with a Hobson’s choice. But I think he made the right choice.
He parlayed his initial enlistment into a 22-year military career. He would face combat again during the Korean War.
He also experienced the transition from serving in a segregated military during World War II, to a desegregated one, thanks to President Harry S. Truman’s desegregation order of the military in 1948.
The Army sent my grandfather to language school to learn to speak Korean, which was part of his job while in Korea. In all he would earn two purple hearts, one in World War II, one in the Korean War. He traveled all over the country and the world, including a four-year stint in Germany during the Cold War.
My grandfather retired from the Army at the rank of master sergeant.
My Grandfather didn’t decide to stay in the army for notoriety, and I am almost sure it wasn’t to make any type of grand social statement. He was just simply doing what he thought was best for him and his family.
But this group of black Americans that voluntarily enlisted in the military during WWII hasn't truly been acknowledged in a collective way.
What they did was noble and courageous — a thankless job for a nation that devalued and oppressed its black citizens.
It brings to my mind a line from the 1995 HBO movie The Tuskegee Airmen, in which actor Andre Braugher portraying Lt. Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a West Point graduate and son of the U.S. Army’s first black general Benjamin O. Davis Sr., states: “…Do I love my country, does my country love me?,” Braugher said. “There’s no greater conflict within me.”
Well my grandfather loved his country, and I loved him. Thanks for your service Daddy.
Arthur Bridgeforth Jr. is a Detroit-based freelance writer, former reporter and longtime member of the Detroit Chapter of The National Association of Black Journalists.