Remembering and Honoring the Unremembered on Memorial Day
Today will be the formulaic recitations of “freedom isn’t free” all across the land. For people of color, sadly, no one knows better the steep price of freedom.
An old friend shared an image of a black soldier with a caption that indicated people of color have fought for a nation that has never fought for them. It prompted some thought.
I disagree with that. Living here in Maine, you can’t hide from the Abolitionist influence on the Civil War. An unserious reactionary asked, “are you seriously saying they fought the Civil War for blacks?” Of course not, but to discount the abolitionist pressures on the Lincoln administration was to ignore Lancaster’s own Thaddeus Stevens, Harriet Beecher Stow, Julia Ward How (who wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic). There were many, many people motivated into service on account of the “plight of the Negro,” and that included my own Civil War ancestors, who joined the Corn Exchange Regiment (the Pennsylvania 118th) because of their disgust with slavery. It wasn’t perfect, but to say “never” is to discount that abolitionists faced far more violence and danger in their advocacy than today’s rooty-poot “allies.”
Interestingly, three Jews frequently joined John Brown during his “Bleeding Kansas” raids, including one who was a veteran of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution. Our old synagogue featured the “Isaac Mayer Wise” social hall. This progenitor of American Reform Judaism was generally pro-slavery, a sad blemish on today’s social justice-oriented Jewish movement, but highlighting how complex all of our relationships to slavery and blacks were.
“Never fought for you” is an awfully strong statement, one that is historically incorrect. But I digress. There is still a repeated marginalization of black veteran contributions, and other injustices we need to talk about (not today). We’ll make a Band of Brothers mini-series, which is fine, but we need to start making films about the 333rd Field Artillery, or the 761st Tank Battalion, just a few of the all-black regiments in the segregated Army of WWII.
My wife’s Uncle Leon Kashub, z”l, in his survivor testimony, talked about his rescue at the end of WWII. This was a man that survived Auschwitz and was taken, as an able-bodied male, to Dachau. When their train taking them from Mauthausen was abandoned by the Nazis, the Americans that liberated him were a curious sight – an all black unit.
This would have been the 761st Tank Battalion. For my wife’s uncle, freedom came from a unit whose very existence represented the segregation and Jim Crow of America. Their liberators were themselves not fully emancipated.
And there have been questions in later years about the 761st’s role as a liberating unit, in spite of reunions between liberators and liberated. The 761st Tank Battalion and 183rd Combat Engineer Battalion, which participated in liberating Buchenwald, are not credited as liberating units. In fairness, they generally only recognize divisions with units that arrived at camps within a 48 hour window. But black regiments, who were seldom organic to divisions, but rather attached, get the shrift. What do we say when we have survivors who distinctly remember being liberated by blacks, but people have put considerable effort into denying these soldiers a role in liberation?
Thankfully, the Holocaust Museum doesn’t shy away from recognizing the 761st. And here’s a great combat chronicle about this amazing unit. You’ll also read how late in coming their recognitions were.
The 333rd Field Artillery fought bravely in the Ardennes Offensive, at the Battle of the Bulge. In a signal of the value placed on black soldiers in WWII, the more famous Malmedy Massacre was widely reported, but the torture and murder of 11 black soldiers at Wereth was widely ignored.
By the time Army Capt. William Everett examined the 11 bodies, they had been on the frozen ground for more than a month, covered only by a shroud of snow.
“On 15 February 1945, I personally examined the bodies of the American Negro soldiers listed below,” Everett wrote. In a single-spaced, one-page memo, the assistant regimental surgeon chronicled their wounds. Most had been killed by blows to the head with a blunt instrument, probably a rifle stock. They had been stabbed repeatedly with bayonets. The finger of one man was almost completely severed. The soldiers had been shot multiple times.
It wasn’t until 1994, when a witness to the atrocity placed a cross at the site of their murder, that these soldiers were given the attention they deserved. Their wives and children had been told they died in combat, not that they were brutalized and murdered by the SS after their positions had been overrun.
Memorial Day is a tough day for a lot of us, but when it comes to remembering the people I care about, their heroism, their selfless service, there’s an embarrassment of riches in terms of the people who carry their names on. There are foundations in their names, parents, siblings, Jewish War Veteran posts, who will perpetuate their memory.
But for black soldiers, history itself has often ignored them. Memorial Day is a good time to think about their particular kind of sacrifice, when the way they had to serve was very much a reflection of American culture at the time.