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.
They were like knights in armor. B-17 pilot George Stamps describes the multi-layered suits and flak protection used by the crew. He recalls a mission to East Germany which was just about at their maximum range. When they got there, the target was obscured by clouds and a secondary target had to be found. it was a very good one, especially if you were in the Russian infantry.
It was on his 7th mission that B-17 flight engineer Marvin Russell watched his aircraft get riddled with bullets from a German ME-109. As the pilot tried desperate maneuvers to escape, he watched the fire along the wing grow larger and larger until there was no other choice. They had to bail out.
After the failed assassination plot which narrowly missed killing Adolf Hitler, it was learned that a building in Recklinghausen, Austria was the Gestapo headquarters where the search for the conspirators was being managed. B-17 pilot George Stamps was part of a flight that was dispatched to destroy it.
The Germans had radar so the gunners on the B-17 would dump bundles of chaff, which drew the AA fire away. Pilot George Stamps describes this tactic and recalls two other memorable missions late in the war, when the Germans were retreating.
His missions completed, B-17 gunner Clint Henderson returned to the States and began an assignment he did not care for, as an instructor. He talked his way out of that and moved to another job that entailed managing a laundry operation. At least there he could secure a lifetime supply of khakis.
It was the day to practice bomb but there were no practice bombs available. The crews were allowed to take a pleasure flight anywhere they wanted. Marvin Russell's crew headed up to Atlanta, but they never got there after a close encounter with a tree.
He was flying spare. George Stamps and his crew were in the extra plane that was along a mission in case one of the squadron had to drop out. None did, so, he was returning to England when something amazing caught his eye, a vapor trail going straight up moving faster than anything he'd ever seen.
Red Cross Parcels were not a regular thing at Stalag 17B and, when the prisoners did get some, the guards liked to puncture them with their bayonets. Marvin Russell was interned there and he has a couple of stories you may not want to hear, one about the cats in the camp and one about the lack of toilet paper.
He had a short flying lesson while in high school and George Stamps decided on the spot that he would be a pilot. World War II was raging and as soon as he was eighteen, he set out to become an aviation cadet.
At the end of the forced march was a clearing in the Alps. Guard towers had been constructed but white flags started appearing in the nearby town. Soon, a lone US tank came into the camp. The following day, trucks with food arrived and each prisoner, including downed airman Marvin Russell, got his own loaf of good American bread. Liberation day had come.
When B-17 pilot George Stamps was promoted, the orders were signed by Jimmy Doolittle, the new commander of the 8th Air Force. He was already a legend, not only for the Tokyo Raid but for personally designing many of the components necessary for instrument flying.
The southern route across the Atlantic required extra fuel tanks on the aircraft. Flight engineer Marvin Russell had to repair one of them after the first leg of the flight. Eventually, they got to England where they went out to a pub and were greeted by a German rocket.
It was dangerous in pilot training. George Stamps recalls how cadets were killed in each phase of his training. He nearly had a disaster himself when a plane he was flying on a long distance training mission developed a problem. He was too tall for fighters, so he became a B-17 pilot.
The Russian Army was approaching, so the prisoners of Stalag 17B were forced onto the road where they could hear explosions coming from Vienna. They marched for six weeks with little food except what they could forage. At one point, they passed a group on the road that was even more pitiful than they were and who were headed to a much worse fate.
It may have been unusual in Brooklyn, but Murray Leff developed an interest in guns and owned a rifle as a young mn. This gave him a leg up on the firing range during his infantry training. Something else unusual about him is that he actually enjoyed the trip across the Atlantic on his way to join the war in Europe.
In the prison camp, cigarettes were currency and the guards loved them. Marvin Russell didn't smoke, so with his packs from the Red Cross parcels he could get more D-bars. Next to his compound was the Russian POW compound, where conditions were nightmarish and grizzly.
The locals in France were friendly and engaging. Murray Leff had taken French in school, enough to communicate, and this sparked a lifelong interest. When he got to the front, it was a mere sixty miles from Germany itself.
Marvin Russell was taken to the interrogation center in Frankfurt, where he was struck by a German major when he refused to provide anything except his name, rank and serial number. Then, they showed him a dossier with surprising contents.
In Metz, Murray Leff was fed an extra special meal before he was thrown into the Battle of the Bulge. He had close calls with a machine gun and an artillery shell, better luck than one of the new guys who had just arrived.
It was a simple headache. Aviation cadet Clint Henderson went in search of an aspirin and wound up forced into bed in the dispensary. He missed the 25 mile bivouac and had to start basic all over again. When he got to the next stop, it was gunnery school. This meant he was not going to be a pilot.
If you enlist together, you can serve together. Like so many others, Marvin Russell and his buddies joined up, only to be split up almost immediately. He went to aircraft mechanic school and became a flight engineer on a B-17 crew.
The crew picked up a brand new B-17 and flew to Northern Ireland, where gunner Clint Henderson thought that the locals were the friendliest people in the world. Soon, he was over the very unfriendly skies of Germany, where he was greeted by lots of flak.
Murray Leff well remembers his first day inside Germany itself. He was on his face in the dirt and stuff was falling on him. Then, one of his own sentries nearly killed him. He looked at Stars and Stripes one day and found out about this thing called the Bulge. That's where he was headed next.
Clint Henderson had an uncle in the Navy who was stationed at Pearl Harbor. He came home on leave and the Japanese attacked the very next day. So, the uncle only had one night at home and he was off to the war. Young Clint was still in high school and, once he was of age, he was accepted as an Aviation cadet.
The infantry and artillery worked together, with a spotter plane overhead. Artilleryman Bob Polich recalls how a method was devised to clear out German pillboxes. As his unit moved into Germany, they stayed in a series of civilian homes, being careful not to cause any damage.