We had no television during much of my childhood and certainly no internet or social media. We got our news through the radio, several of Boston’s daily newspapers, and the weekly newsreels at the movie theaters. And it was through those weekly newsreels that I learned about the horror of the World War II in Europe and Asia, especially Germany’s bombing of London and other major cities in the United Kingdom, known as the “Battle of Britain.”
We dehumanized the Japanese people (“Japs”), portraying them as slant-eyed, buck-toothed, bespectacled, evil, inhuman monsters who slaughtered innocent civilians. The German people, on the other hand, were portrayed less harshly. Adolf Hitler was a greedy monster who intended to conquer the world (Europe, that is). In our house, however, our attitude toward our next-door neighbors, the Weisenheimers was unchanged — warm, neighborly and respectful.
The war in Europe seemed far away to most Americans. Not so within Boston’s close-knit West Indian immigrant community. Like almost all British colonials, my family was deeply loyal to their Mother Country. By extension, our family was concerned by Germany’s subjugation of mainland Europe, and we harbored the real fear that an invasion of Britain was imminent.
We saw newsreels about the bombing of London and the Battle of Britain, but we had no idea about the extent of our family’s involvement in the defense of Britain. Later, we learned that my cousin, Betty, who was about my age, had been evacuated from her home in Cardiff, the capital of Wales, to the deep countryside to escape the bombing. Dad’s brother, Uncle Simon, was at sea in the British Merchant Marine. Another cousin, Berris Reid, was serving in the Royal Air Force.
Ma sometimes tried to use the war to get me to eat my veggies, reminding me, to no avail, that “children in Poland are starving.” It made no difference to me, of course. Dad often talked about the heroism of the British (“John Bull,” he called them) as they stubbornly resisted Germany’s bombing attacks by the Luftwaffe, its air force.
America, however, was not united in its concern about our engagement in what some termed “Europe’s” war. A 1940 Republican campaign slogan was, “No foreign entanglements.” To my parents, that phrase was code for turning your back on the Mother Country. Just like today, in which “All lives matter” is code for minimizing Black people’s struggle for equality.
DAY OF INFAMY
We had only one radio in our home. It was like a piece of furniture — a four-foot high, walnut–colored box with a huge circular dial in its front top center. I remember one Sunday in particular. It was dark outside. We were all in the parlor. It was the evening of Sunday, December 7, 1941. The radio told us of an attack on a place called “Pearl Harbor” in the U.S. Territory of Hawaii.
We had never heard of this place. Yet, in that instant, the world we knew was changed forever. Almost overnight, America took on a war mentality. Eastern Standard Time became Eastern War Time. There was rapid mobilization, a burgeoning defense industry (and jobs for Blacks), food rationing, blackouts, air raid warnings, Victory Gardens, and V-Mail. A popular neighborhood roller-skating rink at the corner of Walnut Park and Washington Street was converted into a ball bearing factory. Like the Boston Navy Yard, the factory operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Ration books for food and clothing (eggs, meat, butter, silk, shoes and gasoline) were issued to each family. We didn’t have much to begin with, so we weren’t significantly impacted by the rationing program. Sadly, a criminal underground black–market system flourished.
The threat of attack upon Boston by Germany was real. German U-Boats (submarines) were periodically sighted just outside Boston Harbor. Blackouts were instituted and strictly enforced by white–helmeted air raid wardens. In school, just in case, we were taught First Aid for setting broken bones, stopping bleeding, recognizing and treating shock and so forth. We were taught about the relative strengths and limitations of German fighter planes and how to distinguish one from others – wings.
The war was all around us and, yes, death became our new normal.
For Dad, the war was a path out of his dead-end janitorial job with The El. He was hired at a better-paying sheet metal worker’s position at the Boston Navy Yard, helping to build what he called “my” aircraft carrier. I was nine years old. For Ma, it meant getting her U.S. citizenship as soon as possible so she, too, could get a better-paying position at a factory making gloves for the U.S. Army.
One Sunday Dad took me along with him to Open House at the Boston Navy Yard. It was to be a great father-son bonding afternoon. Dad could show me his work on “his” aircraft carrier. I would actually walk the flight deck of this behemoth of a ship. I was dwarfed and thrilled by the carrier’s mammoth flight deck, which was as big as three football fields placed end-to-end. But then I took a flight elevator the size of a basketball court below deck — and didn’t see a single fighter plane. I was crushed, despite Dad’s explanation that they would come aboard later. I couldn’t disappoint Dad by telling him that this father-son trip didn’t quite meet my expectations.
I put that experience to use many years later, while training child abuse prosecutors for the challenges of interviewing children, who failed to mention seeing a single cartoon character after touring the training facilities of the Phoenix Suns. The children’s question, “But where are the players?” had a familiar ring.
For my older brother, Calvin, it meant finishing a tumultuous high school career and eventually serving in the famed 366th Infantry Regiment, part of the all-Black Buffalo Soldiers, who had seen service since the World War I. I still remember his serial number, beginning ASN 313…, which was required on all soldier’s correspondence. During Calvin’s first visit home, he proudly informed us that the 366th was the only all–Black outfit in the U.S. military with an entirely Black officer corps.
Blacks generally sought combat assignments as a matter of racial and personal pride. Strongly supported by the NAACP and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, they sought “Double-V,” equality both here and abroad. They wanted to prove their mettle in combat with the enemy, rather than being relegated to traditional menial support roles. Many white soldiers derisively referred to my brother and other Black outfits as “Eleanor s niggers.”
After completing advanced infantry training at Camp Atterbury in Indiana, Calvin proudly told us that his outfit was cleared “combat ready.” We were proud, too, but fearful for his welfare. Would his name appear on the dreaded casualty lists? Would we be visited by the “Angel of Death,” the Western Union Telegraph messenger?
Calvin saw extensive service overseas in North Africa, guarding the Tuskegee Airmen; in Italy, helping break the Gothic Line in close combat with the German Wehrmacht; and the Philippine Islands, preparing for the fearfully anticipated invasion of Japan. The 366th Infantry suffered massive casualties and was mistreated during the Italian campaign. Today, YouTube has a moving tribute to 38 of the 350 soldiers of the 366th infantry regiment killed in action in Italy during WWII. https://youtu.be/9bwMIdNurAM
RHUBARB AND THE HOME FRONT
For Eleanor and me, still in school, it meant collecting wastepaper, crushed tin cans, and purchasing War Stamps for as little as ten cents to help finance the war effort. Every penny counted in those days. It was a total commitment for everyone, no matter what your race or status.
We were encouraged to raise our own food by planting Victory Gardens, thereby making other food available for the military. Several acres of land in nearby Franklin Park, were reserved for this purpose, and individuals and families tended small parcels there.
Dad decided to use part of our backyard for a Victory Garden, devoted solely to rhubarb. Rhubarb. Ughh. It was rhubarb soup, rhubarb salad, boiled or fried rhubarb. It seemed like all we ate was rhubarb. Dad was proud of his produce. I hated the stuff. Even today, my wife, Connie, teases me about it. Why rhubarb? I have no idea whatsoever. To me, it was a hardy, weed-like stalk that grew like crab grass. Maybe it was just easy to grow and required no care at all.
One day, while Calvin was overseas, his diploma from the High School of Commerce unexpectedly arrived in the mail. I later learned that the school had withheld Calvin’s diploma to punish him for his behavior problems. Why now? I have no idea, but looking back, I suspect that, because young men in the military were dying by the thousands overseas, an administrative decision was made to grant him his diploma should he lose his life in service to our nation.
Casualty lists regularly appeared in the lower right-hand corner of our daily newspapers. Bordered in black, they blandly said the equivalent of “John Doe, 18, son of Mr. & Mrs. Jack Doe of Roxbury, MA, killed in action, somewhere in Italy, June 5, 1944.” The thought of those dreaded casualty lists saddens me deeply to this day.
Unlike today, death notifications were delivered by Western Union telegram, “The Secretary of War regrets to inform you that your son ….” No one, I repeat, no one wanted to see the Western Union messenger come onto his or her street during World War II.
The casualty lists became personal for me when, one day I returned from school to find Ma weeping uncontrollably. Bruce Dane, whom she had helped raise as a child, had been killed during Operation Torch in the Battle of North Africa. Bruce was a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army armored tank corps, and his tank had been destroyed by a German Panzer tank. Bruce managed to escape but was machine–gunned when he went to rescue a fellow tanker who was trapped in his own burning armored tank.
HEROES: OURS & THEIRS
One day, in the fifth grade, at my teacher’s invitation, I named a wartime hero for the class — Dorie Miller, a Black ship’s steward aboard the USS West Virginia, whose actions at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 earned him the Navy Cross, America’s second highest medal for valor. It became clear very quickly that my white teacher knew nothing about this American hero, a Black man. She dismissed me and my offering of Dorie Miller, a Black American hero, with a brush of her hand and her patronizing and dismissive comment, “Oh, Lloyd.” The class laughed hilariously. To them it was a great joke about a Black American hero, at my expense. I was humiliated.
My most painful and memorable recollection of World II was the day in November 1942, when I returned home from school to find my stoic Dad crying like a baby. His younger brother, Simon Vickers Johnson, had been killed when his British cargo ship, HMS Ocean Vanguard, was stalked and sunk off the coast of Trinidad by U-515, commanded by a German war hero, Lt. Commander Werner Henke. Uncle Simon was a “greaser” in the bowels of his ship. Thirty-four survived the attack, but Uncle Simon and 13 others did not escape the sinking ship.
Years later, as part of my genealogical research, I learned that Henke was captured by the U.S., imprisoned in Fort Hunt, a clandestine prison for “high–value” German POWs outside Washington, DC, and killed during an aborted escape attempt. Ironically, Henke is buried in a specially designated plot for German commissioned officer POW’s at Fort Meade, Maryland, only about ten miles from our then–home in Bowie, Maryland.
Following Uncle Simon’s death, his daughter Betty was returned to Cardiff by her mother. In the years that followed, Betty (Johnson) Campbell and I met several times. She had a distinguished career of public service and became the first Black headmistress of a school in the history of Wales. A statue honoring Betty is to be constructed in Cardiff’s City Centre shortly.
The enemy became even more real to me sometime in 1944, following the surrender of Italy and while Calvin was stationed overseas in Italy. Word spread throughout our neighborhood that a number of Italian prisoners of war, that is, POWs, were working in nearby Franklin Park. Curious to see what the “enemy” looked like, several of us hopped on our bicycles and pedaled a couple of miles to the park. There we saw about 200 Italian POWs, men who were partially responsible for the deaths of thousands of American servicemen. Other neighbors were at the park gawking, too.
The POWs had the huge letters “PW” emblazoned on the top, bottom, front, and back of their blue denim work jackets and pants. They were guarded by no more than ten lightly-armed soldiers as they casually raked, shoveled and otherwise tended a plot of land in a lightly-fenced-in area. The scene was so casual that we weren’t bothered by the lightly-armed soldiers. Escape seemed the farthest thing from anyone’s mind. The POWs seemed quite content and looked like any group of the landscapers so common around American lawns today.
While we expected these POWs to be treated humanely, we weren’t expecting what else we saw. We saw a big, celebratory family reunion. The POWs and many of our neighbors were speaking Italian and engaged in warm, animated conversations and gestures. We children were stunned beyond words. Clearly, the Italians’ shared heritage and perhaps relationships trumped the then wartime hostilities.
I was outraged by this apparent contradiction. Calvin was overseas in war-torn Italy; he could be killed. How would he, a Black man, be treated if he were captured by “Jerry” (the soldier’s nickname for German soldiers at the time)? Here in Boston’s Franklin Park, in my own backyard, Italian POW’s were greeted warmly with “paisano” and similar words of friendship and connection. I could not understand this inconsistency.
Eventually, I came to understand that war is a death-struggle between competing ideologies. But ideologies don’t fight wars; it’s the ordinary people on both sides who do the fighting and must pay the price of war in so many ways. My understanding of this truth came to me over time, from watching the Korean “Conflict,” as it was called, and the Vietnam War, in which I lost several friends. In 1972, I traveled in Occupied East Berlin and noticed a group of laughing kids, all dressed in green uniforms; they were Russian soldiers.
In wartime Boston, newspapers contained detailed news articles and maps describing the progress of the war. There were maps in almost every classroom, and the war and well-being of family members overseas dominated even casual conversations.
I became a prolific reader and student of maps in those days. An early riser, I would go to the store across the street each day before leaving for school and buy and read two newspapers about two topics — the progress of the war and my beloved Red Sox. Each classroom at my school had a huge 4– by 8-foot plastic-covered map of Europe and each day our teachers would update the map and the progress of the war.
I remember D-Day — June 6, 1944 — like it was yesterday. Dad was returning home from the graveyard shift (midnight to 8 a.m.) at the Boston Navy Yard, walking up our street in one direction while I was walking to school in the opposite direction. He held up the newspaper with a big smile. The front page said it all. “INVASION OPENS.” After months of anticipation, the Allies had landed in France to take Europe from the Germans. Nothing else was disclosed by the censors. Later that day, President Roosevelt led the country in prayer. We had no idea of the massive casualties of the Normandy invasion and D-Day.
Years later, I learned that a neighbor, Malcolm Tarlton, had been one of 300 elite U.S. Army Pathfinders. His assignment? Parachute into France six hours before H-Hour when American troops hit the beaches; he was to set up beacons to guide American gliders. Things did not go well. Later, he described the horror of watching gliders crash and listening helplessly to trapped American soldiers scream for their mothers. Malcolm Tarlton was 19–years–old at the time.
My brother Calvin, we would learn later, was among the American troops approaching Rome on D-Day.
The war in Europe came to an end on May 5, 1945, a day that was called V-E Day. Many American soldiers began returning home under a point system based on their length of service, time overseas and so forth. We anxiously awaited word from Calvin, who used to write home every couple of weeks. Six weeks passed. No word. Then in early summer, we received a letter from Calvin with the dreaded phrase “Somewhere in the Philippines” written in the upper right-hand corner. Calvin, now battle-hardened, would likely be at the tip of the spear of the forthcoming invasion of Japan with casualties projected to be in the millions.
HE WAS TEN FEET TALL!
The Atom Bomb was dropped over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, saving many Allied lives that might have been lost in an invasion. It was the day after my 13th birthday. The loss of thousands of Japanese lives was secondary to the happiness I felt on that day. The war would soon be over.
The surrender of Japan in September was anti-climactic for our family; we were still waiting for my brother. In mid-December 1945, we heard Calvin’s voice for the first time in almost two years, when he called us from Fort Lewis, Washington. In mid-January 1946, at about 11 in the evening, with no prior warning, our doorbell rang. I answered the door and, bounding up the stairs, in shiny combat boots, with several ribbons and his Combat Infantryman’s Badge, came my big brother.
He was ten feet tall! The war was over. Little did I know at the time that wars of another kind involving Calvin would dominate our lives for the next fifty years.
Looking back, I grew up a lot during World War II. Racism was no longer an abstract. It stings to this day that my fifth-grade teacher refused to acknowledge a World War II hero, who happened to be Black, that she put me down publicly (something no adult had ever done to me before), and that I was humiliated before my classmates.
I experienced the ravages of war up close and personal through the Home Front, Calvin, casualty lists, POW’s, rationing, and the loss of Uncle Simon and others. I learned that there was a huge world beyond Linwood Square.
My life was changed forever.
Tags: 366th Infantry Regiment, Dorie Miller, Home Front, prisoners of war
Next: Dudley School
© 2020 Lloyd A Johnson,LLC. All rights reserved.