5:27 | The men of the 92nd Infantry Division had to fight on three fronts. They had to fight the Germans. They had to fight the racial animosity of their fellow soldiers and commanders. And they had to fight Congress, which wanted to maintain segregation in the Army. Lyle Gittens made it through all that with an undampened spirit.
Keywords : Lyle Gittens Congress segregated segregation Harry Truman Douglas MacArthur Black African-American
Harlem in the Roaring Twenties was a great time. Then came the crash. It meant that Lyle Gittens' father was out of work and the immigrant from Barbados, like all the men in the neighborhood, was unable to support his family.
Back in Harlem, Lyle Gittens played stickball and baseball. When he moved to the Lower East Side, there was a new game, basketball, or, the way it was played there, murder basketball.
Five years after he graduated high school during the Depression, Lyle Gittens finally got a good job at the YMCA. He wanted to be a basketball coach but he lacked a degree. He was a talented player and he went south to join the team at Clark University in Atlanta, where he encountered two things he never experienced before, segregation and southern hospitality.
Lyle Gittens had just arrived from New York City and was looking forward to joining the basketball team at Clark University. At the first practice, he was surprised to find the place was packed. They had turned out to see the new guy. He was even more surprised at something else he saw in the crowd.
Lyle Gittens was nearly ready to graduate college and get married when he got drafted in 1941. He went to the draft board to seek a deferment. Not only was it denied but he encountered some particularly vile racial hostility. He resolved to serve out his year and get back to his life but the attack on Pearl Harbor changed all that. (Caution: strong language.)
The 92nd Infantry Division was training at Fort Huachuca but it wasn't clear that they would get into combat because of the racial policies in the Army. The War department forced the issue on sending candidates to OCS, fighting it's own commanders who wanted segregation to continue.
The Atlantic crossing was 33 days and Lyle Gittens was seasick 33 days. He was in the 92nd Infantry Division which was the only black unit to see combat in the war. He describes the heartbreaking living conditions he found in Italy, where children begged for table scraps and lived on the street.
After the German surrender, the Army organized some sports teams to give the men something to do while they waited to go home. Lyle Gittens was a gifted athlete and they assigned him to a baseball team. Too bad. He hated baseball and would much rather play basketball. It didn't matter how well he played, he wasn't welcome in his segregated Army's own canteens.
When Lyle Gittens got home from the war, there were no jobs to be found. It was like the Depression all over again. He tried his hand at a variety of sales jobs, but it was tough.
He was hitting rock bottom. Lyle Gittens had returned from Europe to a job market with few opportunities for minorities. He even swallowed his West Indies pride and asked for a loan, which was denied. Finally, his luck turned for the better.
The men of the 92nd Infantry Division had to fight on three fronts. They had to fight the Germans. They had to fight the racial animosity of their fellow soldiers and commanders. And they had to fight Congress, which wanted to maintain segregation in the Army. Lyle Gittens made it through all that with an undampened spirit.
He bunked with regular B-17 crew members, but Bill Livingstone was a gunnery instructor who was there to keep skills sharp. He was also there to substitute for any crew member who was not able to fly. His very first mission turned out to be a memorable one. Part 1 of 5.
Robert James was propped up against a bulkhead, going in and out of consciousness. The kamikaze had destroyed the starboard gun mounts and there were many dead and wounded. He was grateful when someone gave him some morphine to ease the pain from multiple shrapnel wounds. This was the beginning of a painful journey to healing. Part 2 of 2.
Hannah Deutch was a teenager when the Kindertransport rescue effort became her means of escape from Germany. England was taking in thousands of Jewish children and she got her papers in order and left. Right away, as the oldest one in the large group, she became the leader on the journey.
The first assignment for the USS Reeves was escort duty on a huge convoy to North Africa. Frank Stovall recalls that there were no problems with submarines on that trip, but the rough seas made almost everyone seasick. He was surprised at the relative modernity of Casablanca.
Rufus Dalton was at the Maginot Line bouncing mortar shells off an old citadel. His unit was suddenly pulled and sent to take Patton's place in the line after the general was summoned to the Bulge. Once they got there, a fierce ten day battle ensued due to the last major German offensive, Operation Nordwind. Part 1 of 2.
Bill Adair was suffering from the effects of a concussion when the battle for the Philippines came to an end for him. Along with thousands of others, he was forced to surrender and was facing the prospect of joining what would become known as the Bataan Death March. Then fate intervened in the form of an ambulance without a driver. Part 1 of 2.
When his ship was drydocked in preparation for going to the Pacific theater, Frank Stovall left the crew to go to radar school. This was fine with him because he was now married. He was in Washington DC working as a field engineer when Japan surrendered. His last job in the Navy was testing acoustic torpedoes.
Wes Ruth was eating breakfast when he saw the planes coming in. He thought they were ours until the bombs started falling. As he drove frantically to his hangar on Ford Island, he saw the USS Arizona hit. The Japanese had made their move. As a photo-recon pilot, he was dispatched as soon as the attacks ended to search for the enemy fleet.
It was a fierce week long battle for the city of Heilbronn. Even though they were only delaying the inevitable, the Germans weren't beat, yet. Forward Observer Rufus Dalton went into the demolished city looking for a rifle company he was instructed to find. It was an eerie setting with the city in flames all around him. Part 2 of 2.
Bill Adair may have been the luckiest man in the Bataan Death march. With a commandeered ambulance full of casualties, he threaded his way through the ordeal thanks to luck and guile. At the end, though, there was a camp waiting for him just like all the rest. Part 2 of 2.
When he had to bail out, Jim Wicker was literally sucked from the cockpit when he released the canopy because of his high rate of speed. He was just a hundred miles inland a few days after D-Day and the Germans caught him almost immediately. As he sat in solitary confinement waiting for interrogation, he was comforted by his faith.
A week before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Frank Stovall was told in his Navy ROTC class that the Navy was on alert for a Japanese attack. A week later, he was mystified that the attack was not anticipated. After graduation, he became an anti-submarine warfare officer and was assigned to a destroyer escort.
Bill Garrison was standing in a chow line when a man up the line suddenly dropped, shot dead by a sniper. That was only one hazard at the air fields in China; the others being Japanese air raids and infiltrators. (This interview made possible with the support of COL ROBERT W. RUST, USMCR (ret.) in honor of LtGen Lawrence Snowden & LtGen George Christmas.)
On his first raid in North Africa, reconnaissance platoon leader John Souther captured a hundred Germans with no losses to his own unit. His job in the 1st Armored Division was to be out in front with his eyes open, and he was doing just that when a huge amount of enemy was spotted. Rommel's big push had begun.
Near the end of the war, the food supply in Holland had been disrupted and there was widespread hunger. Henk Duinhoven was lucky to be in the countryside, where gardens had been harvested. When he heard the sound of Canadian tanks, he knew that liberation was finally at hand.
B-24 flight engineer Bill Toombs was over Germany when bad went to worse. One engine was shot out. Then an 88 round went right through the number four wing tank. It didn't blow up the plane, but they lost all the fuel for that engine, so now they had two engines out. They made a desperate run for Brussels, which had been liberated.
Robert James was in the shower aboard ship when the alarm went off. He scrambled to his gun mount to man the 20 mm gun and then the threat became apparent. Kamikazes had broken through the air cover and were headed for the convoy. He heard some firing from another gun and turned around just in time to see a horrifying sight. Part 1 of 2.
John Souther was on reconnaissance patrol when he nosed his halftrack up over the edge of the gully in the Tunisian desert. A round from a German 88 immediately tore through the engine compartment, but left him unhurt. They paid mightily for that shot. With his radio, he began spotting artillery on their position, under fire the entire time. He was awarded the Silver Star for this action.
Two engines were out, a third smoking, and they were were losing airspeed and altitude, but they were flying level and pointed home. Then time ran out for the B-17 and Don Scott had to slip down the hatch into the slipstream. Part 2 of 3.
After a nerve-wracking mission to bomb Tokyo and a typhoon, B.E. Vaughan and the destroyer O'Brien suffered a second kamikaze attack which killed all three of his hometown pals who served with him on board. Then, began the grim task of collecting the personal belongings of the dead and preparing them for burial at sea.
The first operation for the 4th Division was the landing on Roi-Namur. Lawrence Snowden remembers that, though it was an easy victory, valuable combat experience and important lessons were imparted on the Marines.
It was their third mission over Berlin and they were heading home. Four German fighters pounced on the B-24 and it was engulfed in flame and going down. Clyde Burnette fought for consciousness as the other crew in the back of the plane bailed out. He woke in free fall with no idea how he had made it out, and soon he was in German custody. Everyone made it out of the plane except George "Danny" Daneau, the nose turret gunner, who went down with the aircraft.