The anniversary of D-day today offers an opportunity for Americans
to remember what we fought for and who fought for our country. Although
they were not seen in Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan," African
American soldiers were present at Omaha Beach. Serving in a segregated
military, they were there unloading the ships and feeding the combat
troops. Our nation was fighting the Nazis with a Jim Crow army. Without
their vital support, the Allies would have been beaten back to the
beaches by the fierce Nazi counterattack.
Composing half of the transportation corps in Europe, black soldiers
contributed to the success of the invasion in a crucial way. In the D-day
invasion, veteran Timuel Black recalled, "We were really stevedores . . .
. I went into Normandy with combat troops. We serviced them."
Support work was especially dangerous. "The Germans aimed at our
supplies," said Black. "We were direct targets. I'd been on 6x6 trucks
many nights when the Luftwaffe was strafing us, dropping those small
bombs and firing those machine guns at us."
Black soldiers advanced beyond the beaches, feeding an enormous army
in movement. "We were in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge," Black
boasted. "We were at one time feeding 3 million soldiers: the First, the
Third, the Ninth and the British Seventh armies."
Altogether, 1 million African Americans served in uniform to defend a
democracy that had excluded them. One of them explained why many black
men and women enlisted. In a letter published in the Pittsburgh Courier,
Jan. 31, 1942, James G. Thompson wrote: "Being an American of dark
complexion and some 26 years [old], these questions flash through my
mind: 'Should I sacrifice my life to live half-American? Would it be
demanding too much to demand full citizenship rights in exchange for the
sacrificing of my life?' " Thompson insisted he would fight, but only for
"double victory"--victory over fascism abroad and victory over racism at
Our memory of World War II continually contours the cultural landscape
of our identity as Americans--who we are as Americans and what our nation
stands for. But how do we remember this past? Whose stories of heroism
and sacrifice do we remember and retell?
When told more inclusively and hence more accurately by historians and
also by filmmakers, the story of D-day and the winning of World War II
shows that African Americans shared what Lincoln called "our mystic
chords of memory, stretching from battlefields to patriot graves."
Offering hope that a diverse American people can still become one
nation, this larger memory of the war gives all of us ties that bind in
our still unfinished struggle for "victory" at home.
Ronald Takaki, a Professor of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley, is the Author of "Double Victory: a Multicultural History of America in World War Ii" (Little, Brown, 2000).
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times