by CHARLES M. BLOW
My grandfather spoke to me. That would’ve been unremarkable if not for the fact that he died four years ago.
I had ducked into a movie theater to escape the maddening debt-limit debacle. I chose ”Captain America: The First Avenger.” Surely that would reset the patriotic optimism.
But as I watched the scenes of a fictitious integrated American Army fighting in Europe at the end of World War II, I became unsettled. Yes, I know that racial revisionism has become so common in film that it’s almost customary, so much so that moviegoers rarely balk or even blink. And even I try not to think too deeply about shallow fare. Escapism by its nature must bend away from reality. But this time I was forced to bend it back. It was personal.
The only black fighting force on the ground in Europe during World War II was the 92nd Infantry Division: the now famous, segregated ”Buffalo Soldiers.” My grandfather, Fred D. Rhodes, was one of those soldiers.
The division was activated late in the war, more out of acquiescence to black leaders than the desire of white policy makers in the war department who doubted the battle worthiness of black soldiers. It was considered to be an experiment, one that the writer of the department’s recommendation to re-establish it would later describe as ”programmed to fail from the inception.”
For one, as the historian Daniel K. Gibran has documented, the soldiers were placed under the command of a known racist who questioned their ”moral attitude toward battle,” ”mental toughness” and ”trustworthiness,” and who remained a military segregationist until the day he died. In 1959, the commander commented in a study: ”It is absurd to contend that the characteristics demonstrated by the Negroes” will not ”undermine and deteriorate the white army unit into which the Negro is integrated.”
Sergeant Fred Rhodes. WWII Hero and Charles Blow’s Grandfather.
Yet they did show great toughness and character, including my grandfather. This is how his 1944 Silver Star citation recounts his bravery:
”On 16 November, while proceeding towards the front at night, Sergeant Rhodes’s motorized patrol was advanced upon near a village by a lone enemy soldier. Sergeant Rhodes jumped from the truck and as a group of enemy soldiers suddenly appeared, intent upon capturing the truck and patrol intact, he opened fire from his exposed position on the road. His fire forced the enemy to scatter while the patrol dismounted and took cover with light casualties. Sergeant Rhodes then moved toward a nearby building where, still exposed, his fire on the enemy was responsible for the successful evacuation of the wounded patrol members by newly arrived medical personnel. Sergeant Rhodes was then hit by enemy shell fragments, but in spite of his wounds he exhausted his own supply of ammunition then, obtaining an enemy automatic weapon, exhausted its supply inflicting three certain casualties on the enemy. He spent the rest of the night in a nearby field and returned, unaided, to his unit the next afternoon.”
Astonishingly, his and others’ efforts were not fully recognized.
My grandfather’s actions were the first among the Buffalo Soldiers to be recommended for a Distinguished Service Cross, according to surviving records. That recommendation was declined. In fact, only four enlisted soldiers from the 92nd were recommended for the service cross. They were all denied. It was given to just two black members of the unit, both officers, and only one of those officers received it during the war. The other received it nearly four decades after the war was over because of the investigative efforts of another historian.
As the 1997 study ”The Exclusion of Black Soldiers from the Medal of Honor in World War II” pointed out, by mid-1947 the U.S. Army had awarded 4,750 Distinguished Service Crosses and only eight, less than 0.2 percent, had gone to black soldiers and not a single black soldier had been recommended for a Medal of Honor. (Roughly 1.2 million blacks served in World War II and about 50,000 were engaged in combat.) Until 1997, World War II was the only American war in which no black soldiers had received a Medal of Honor. President Bill Clinton changed that that year by awarding Medals of Honor to seven of the men who had been awarded the Distinguished Service Crosses, the only ones whose cases were reviewed for the upgrade. Just one of them, Joseph Vernon Baker, a lieutenant in my grandfather’s regiment, was alive to receive it.
Even when this news of the Buffalo Soldiers was making headlines in the ’90s, my grandfather never said a word. There’s no way to know why. Maybe it was the pain of risking his life abroad for a freedom that he couldn’t fully enjoy at home. Maybe it was the misery of languishing in a military hospital for many months and being discharged with a limp that would follow him to the grave. Or maybe it was simply the act of a brave soldier living out the motto of his division: ”Deeds Not Words.”
Who knows? But it wasn’t until after he died that I learned of his contributions. My mother came across his discharge papers while sorting through his things and sent me a copy. On a whim, I Googled his name and division, and there he was, staring out at me from a picture I’d never seen and being extolled in books I’d never read. My heart swelled, and my skin went cold. I wanted to tell him how proud I was, but that window had closed.
It illustrates just how quickly things can fade into the fog of history if not vigilantly and accurately kept alive in the telling.
That is why the racial history of this country is not a thing to be toyed with by Hollywood. There are too many bodies at the bottom of that swamp to skim across it with such indifference. Attention must be shown. Respect must be paid.
So as ”Captain America” ended and the credits began to roll, I managed a bit of a smile, the kind that turns up on the corners with a tinge of sadness. I smiled not for what I’d seen, but for what had not been shown, knowing that I would commit it to a column so that my grandfather and the many men like him would not be lost to the sanitized vision of America’s darker years.
This is my deed through words, for you, Grandpa. You’ll never be forgotten.
Charles M. Blow is a New York Times Columnist and nationally-known commentator: “I invite you to visit my blog By The Numbers, join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.”