When Americans pay tribute to those who fought and died for them this Memorial Day, journalist Yvonne Latty hopes they'll remember that those sacrifices crossed racial lines. The Philadelphia Daily News reporter has published a new book called "We Were There: Voices of African American Veterans, from World War II to the War in Iraq." The book contains more than two dozen first hand accounts, along with photographs by Ron Tarver. A traveling photo exhibition based on the book recently opened at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
The name Waverly Woodson may not be familiar to many Americans today, but after the D-Day invasion in June of 1944, the black media called the army medic "Hero Number One." His story is included in Yvonne Latty's new book, We Were There, and his picture hangs in the photo exhibition it inspired.
"I worked really hard to find an African American who served on D-Day, because I saw the movie Saving Private Ryan, and not one black man even so much as passed through the scenes. And Waverly not only was there, but he saved more than 200 mens' lives on the beaches, even though he was wounded. His ship was blown out of the water. This is the face of a hero," she says.
We Were There includes profiles of African American veterans spanning half a century, from one of the famed Tuskeegee Airmen of World War II, to Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, a top media spokesperson during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Author Yvonne Latty is the daughter of a World War II veteran, and she says that war marked a turning point for blacks in the U.S. military. "It was the first time we were allowed to be in the infantry, to be in tanks, to fly planes. But it was still segregated, and there was so much discrimination. The book actually gives you a look at the history of this country in the last 60 years, how much we have changed. Every war things were a little bit better," she says.
The book also reveals the huge price black veterans paid for their military service. "People in this book lost limbs, were left crippled, deaf by their experiences, went through things that left them with nightmares for the rest of their lives. There's post traumatic stress, Gulf War syndrome in the book. These are very big sacrifices people are making for this country," she says.
The photo of Stephen Hopkins shows him standing by a memorial for Korean War Veterans, his cap bearing a former prisoner of war insignia. He joined the U.S. Army in 1950 and was captured by Chinese troops a few months later:
"For two and a half years I was in captivity," says Mr. Hopkins, who remembers the long march from Korea to a prison camp in China as one of the hardest parts of his experience. "We went through villages where the people threw stuff at us and spit at us. After the first week or so I did do a lot of dreaming about what would happen when I got back home. And that's one of the things, besides prayer, that helped me to survive." He also recalls the bonds he forged with white prisoners, at least for a while. "We all stuck together until we got to the big prison camp, and even there the Chinese segregated us like everybody else. But when we got home, you could see the hatred come back to the other fellows, some of them began to show their true colors again.
African American women fought their own battles to find a place in the U.S. military. Author Yvonne Latty points out the photo of World War II army nurse Margaritte Gertrude Ivory-Bertram. "At Fort Bragg where she was stationed, a whole bunch of men were brought in who fought in the battle of Normandy, and no white nurse would help her care for these men. They did not want to work alongside a black nurse. So she had to care for these men all by herself," she says. "She cleaned them, she bathed them, she got them dinner. She said, 'They didn't care what color I was.'"
James Brantley remembers what it was like to serve in a controversial war that inspired protests throughout the United States. In 1965, he was drafted and sent off to fight in Vietnam. "I thought it was something I had no input in starting and no real value in my life personally. It was a call of duty."
Now an acclaimed painter, Mr. Brantley worked as a radioman during the war, living in a rice mill that had been converted into a barracks. He says racial tensions sometimes verged on erupting into violence in the barracks, and some U.S. soldiers passed their prejudices on to the Vietnamese. When he returned home, no cheering crowds were waiting for him. "It was in the wee hours of the morning, it was dark. There were no receptions. There were no parades. We weren't welcomed back. We were not heroes," he says.
But if his service seemed to go unappreciated at the time, James Brantley believes bigger issues were at stake. "The bottom line is that we're Americans, and anything worth having is worth fighting for. There were certain idealistic and patriotic principles that we aspire to and especially being African Americans, when you think about the history of our people here in this country, for the people that we stand upon [the people who've helped us get to this point], we won't give up," he says.
Yvonne Latty says many African Americans have also used the military as a stepping stone to opportunity, getting job experience, an education, or the money they needed to buy a home. And while opportunities in the civilian world have grown over the years, Ms. Latty says black Americans have continued to play an important role in the military, right up to the war in Iraq. "The military is heavily African American. There's a higher percentage in the military than the percentage of African Americans in this country. And we're in every role. We're the generals, we're cooks, we're on the front lines. And when you see the pictures of the dead, usually one or two of those faces is the face of an African American," she says.
This year brings two milestones in U.S. military history, with the dedication of the World War II memorial on the Washington Mall over Memorial Day weekend, followed by the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in June 6. Yvonne Latty wants to see African Americans playing an active role in those events, reminding the world that they not only fought to defend the United States, but to bring about racial equality in the U.S. military.
"We Were There" was published by Amistad, a division of HarperCollins, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, New York 10022.