World War II is thought of as the ‘great’ war, the one that Americans fought for global freedom, and those that fought are often referred to as the ’great’ generation. When I was a kid growing up, it was the stuff of many a fantasy; valiant Americans slogging across beaches under withering enemy gunfire, or slugging it out in jungles and on tropical islands with an enemy that showed no mercy. WWII was the war that made us all proud to be American.
As I grew older, though, and learned more of history, our own as well as the rest of the world, another image of WWII grew in my mind. It was the last segregated war Americans fought. It was the last time Americans donned the uniform of their country to go abroad to fight for the freedom for others that a large portion of that force didn’t enjoy at home. The last time that German prisoners of war at POW camps in the American south were treated with more dignity than the black soldiers who captured them. The last time citizens of Asian descent were herded off to internment camps just because they were of Asian descent.
When I grew old enough to serve in the military, I raised my hand and enlisted. I knew what my own country had done to me and many of my ancestors, but behind that image of discrimination, the greater motive for the great war was still in my mind. Yes, my step father and older brother had served in segregated units, limited in how high they could rise in rank, and restricted to menial support tasks because it was believed that blacks couldn’t fight. As the war went on and the demand for manpower to defeat the Axis powers grew, they were given a chance, and passed the test. From the battlefields of Europe to the Pacific Theater, they fought and died as valiantly as their white counterparts, even though they were not allowed to serve in the same units.
Holdovers from the segregated army were still around when I began my service, and most of them no longer believed what they’d been taught from childhood to believe. They knew better. They knew that the color of a man’s skin didn’t matter in battle. He bled the same color, and died the same way. More importantly, when he was treated as a comrade in arms, he fought for his fellow soldiers without asking them their race, religion, or political beliefs.
World War II meant the beginning of the end of colonization; it meant the rise of the United States as a global power; but, for me, the most important thing was, it meant that I could serve my country with my head held high.
Causes Charles Ray Supports
The Nature Conservancy
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial