They are known as the greatest generation – the military men and women who served during World War II. According to Veterans Administration statistics they are dying at the rate of a thousand a day. Sadly, one of the veterans who died this week was a pleasant former Air Force B-29 gunner I met briefly on a humid summer afternoon last year. I learned of this former warrior's death today when I saw his four line death notice in the Raleigh News & Observer. I have the daily newspaper delivered to my door each morning and read the entire paper. This is a good thing otherwise I would not have known that Durell Russer, Sr, 89 had passed. Russer was a Georgia native, who served in the Pacific during World War II.
I interviewed him last summer for a book I am writing. Russer walked with a cane, was stooped with age, and appeared frail. Yet he was a gracious host who gladly welcomed me, a stranger into his home. He told me he was hard of hearing and his memory was failing, nevertheless he seemed eager to talk to me about the war. I had a list of questions I wanted to ask him but after several minutes of yelling back and and forth I realized this was not working. Instead, I just turned on my tape recorder and let him talk. Just inside the front door hanging on his wall was an 8 X 10 portrait of former First Lady, the late Eleanor Roosevelt.
“I met Mrs. Roosevelt,” he said. ‘Oh really’, I replied and waited for him to explain. “She came to Tinian when I was there," he said. Tinian is the Pacific island where the B-29 bomber named Enola Gay took off from to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I wanted to know how he felt about that but could not ask questions as he couldn't hear me. Instead, I waited for him to tell me more about meeting Eleanor Roosevelt.
During her visit Russer said the first lady ate lunch at his table – which Russer considered an honor as the men at his table were all African American. These men did not expect the first lady to single them out to share a meal with them because they were black, according to Russer. "She told us President Roosevelt wanted us to know he liked the job we were doing," Russer said.
I got the impression Russer and his comrades needed to hear these encouraging words. They had been conditioned to believe they were invisible, much like the narrator of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, The Invisible Man. Ellison's narrator, who is black explains that he is not invisible because of science but because others refuse to see him because he is "a negro" – that day Russer and his comrades became visible.
I believe Eleanor Roosevelt was willing to recognize men such as Russer along with the other 1.2 million African American men and women of the greatest black generation who served during World War II. Here's to you Durell Russer -- invisible no more.
Copyright ©Sharon D. Powell, 2009 all rights reserved