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.
Everybody wanted a Luger. The Germans were surrendering in droves and throwing their weapons in a big pile. Since the MP's were keeping the GI's away from the pile, Jesse Oxendine and some pals came up with a way to get some pistols.
He was taken from college ROTC, sent to basic training, then sent to another college as part of the ASTP program. It seemed the Army just couldn't make up it's mind about what to do with bright students like Jim Murphy. Then it decided. It was off to the war for them.
After liberating a concentration camp, Jesse Oxendine's unit returned to France and were there when the war ended. They were rewarded with a plum assignment, representing US forces in occupied Berlin. They quickly discovered the night life.
Jesse Oxendine never really had any close calls with the Germans in combat, but he came close to getting injured by his own comrades. He recalls the time a buddy got shot because of carelessness. The enemy did have a clear shot at him when he was helping some civilians recover their belongings. They didn't take it.
Rufus Dalton well remembers the first bath he got after going into combat in France. It was the end of November and the water was pumped from a cold creek. When you got clean and got back to the line, the hazards were much worse, as a loader on his mortar crew found out.
49 years after he was billeted in a Berlin apartment, Jesse Oxendine returned and sought out the building. The locals were delighted to meet him, including the country and western fan who was living in his apartment.
It was a tree burst that wounded Rufus Dalton. A piece of shrapnel penetrated his helmet, but not his head. He was only out of action for a day and then it was back to constant German counter-attacks as the GI's took hill after hill.
As the pilot revved up the engines on the C-47, one of them sounded really bad. Flight engineer Fred Eichenbrenner pointed out that the plane could fly just fine on one engine. That was a good aircraft. You needed one to fly over the Hump to China.
Get involved with your government and be very careful how you are led. That's what Jesse Oxendine advises after witnessing the evil of the Holocaust first hand. German officers and townspeople were made to witness the hellish conditions of the concentration camp he had helped liberate. He wondered, could I have done this?
While staying in winter positions near the Maginot Line, FO Rufus Dalton tried going out on patrol, just to see what it was like. Nervous is what it was like. In March of 1945, it became a game of chase the Germans for the men of the 100th Infantry Division. It was at the city of Heilbronn that the enemy turned and made a stand. Part 1 of 2.
Some got passage on a luxury liner but Fred Eichenbrenner sailed home from India on a slow troop ship. He had been a flight engineer in the Army Air Corps, so he tried to pursue a similar civilian job. Unfortunately, so was every other discharged flight engineer. He came home uninjured except for a painful shoulder.
The action was just about over when mortar Section Leader Rufus Dalton and his men holed up in a German house. He had seen a house burn from a German rocket so he ordered his men to dig foxholes, which they weren't crazy about. Then the war was over. After a bit of occupation duty, he went home on the same ship as his brother.
The men of LST-340 thought it must be more LST's in one place than ever as they assembled for the landings on Saipan. Then they found out about Normandy, which was happening at roughly the same time. Ship's officer Tom Dill describes his vessels cargo. LVT's, which were carrying Marine artillery, and a few "Ducks."
While at the Rhine River, a couple of guys found German machine guns. One of them was smart enough to take the ammunition out of it. The other one nearly made a casualty out of Jesse Oxendine. Then it was on to the Elbe River, where they prepared to take the town of Ludwigslust.
The radio shop at Camp Elliott was in a cramped space in a big warehouse building. They weren't allowed to expand but an enterprising tech sergeant scrounged some lumber and built a loft space. Norman Kling was staining the railing above when the company commander walked up just beneath him.
Crawling under machine gun fire was something he had done several times in training, so when Jesse Oxendine got to Cologne and heard gunfire, he thought they were making him do it again. No, that's the real thing. Those German machine guns had a distinctive sound.
Norman Kling was working in a drug store at the soda fountain when a friend announced he was leaving to join the Marines. That got him thinking. He had a job lined up as a cutter in a dress factory but he didn't see himself spending a lifetime doing that.
The British Army made an ambulance driver out of Elizabeth Tilston. Her father had taught her to drive so it was a good assignment for her. She tells two tales about two of her more interesting rides, one with the most important VIP from France and the other with two German prisoners.
The 325th was confined to base on the coast of England, waiting for passage across the channel. That didn't stop Jesse Oxendine and his buddies from going to a USO club nearby. They managed to get out and back in through the wire without getting caught. The trip to Le Havre was in an old French freighter, not a pleasant ride.
Rufus Dalton was called up from college where he had enlisted in the Army Reserve. It was 1942 and he was eager to get into the war. Basic training was in sweltering hot Alabama, where everyone suffered prickly heat.
British Army nurse Hannah Deutch was stationed right next to Buckingham Palace when the place was bombed out. They were cheered by a visit from Winston Churchill. She was a Jewish refugee from Germany and was a regular at the Jewish Forces Club. That was where she met a very special Canadian.
Uncle Sam came for him as soon as he graduated high school. Jesse Oxendine was needed in the big war, along with nearly every other boy in his class. His basic training was cut a little short because the Battle of the Bulge had depleted the ranks of more than one unit.
After his basic training, Rufus Dalton was put back in college in the Army Specialized Training Program, or ASTP, where he was to get an engineering degree and serve later. It frustrated him so much that he got hives. He wanted to fight. Finally, that program ended and he joined an infantry outfit and became a mortarman.
After basic training, it was off to radio operators school. New Marine Norman Kling still had to drill while learning this job. When a sergeant from the Air Wing was put in charge of the detail one day, it soon became apparent that they didn't do a lot of drilling in the Air Wing. (Caution: coarse language.)
Jesse Oxendine was sent to a replacement center near the Belgian border. It was in a marvelous old fortress and it was there that he was assigned to a glider infantry unit, part of the 82nd Airborne. He really liked the jump boots but he noticed that nearly every soldier had a Purple Heart.