What did military service during World War II mean for "Invisible Warriors"? To be invisible meant they were unseen, unnoticed, imperceptible and believed to be ineffective. The narrator of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man explains that he is not invisible because of a scientific experiment but rather because of others unwillingness to notice him, as he is black.
This was the plight of black service members during World War II. And like the narrator in Ellison's book, invisible warriors needed to make others recognize them.
Invisible warriors rarely appear in official images from that war, but they were there. Almost 900 black Montford Point Marines took part in the battle of Iwo Jima, including former marine and retired Navy Captain, Thomas McPhatter. The North Carolina native who landed on Iwo Jima with the Eighth Ammunition Company complained loudly in 2005 when director Clint Eastwood released Flags of Our Fathers, a movie chronicling the invasion. No black marines appeared in the movie, much to McPhatter's distress.
McPhatter says he provided a piece of pipe used for the first flag up on Iwo Jima. This detail did not make it into the film. "Of all the movies that have been made of Iwo Jima, you never see a black face," says McPhatter. “I feel like I have been denied. I have been insulted. I have been mistreated. But what can you do? We still have a strong underlying force in my country of rabid racism."*
McPhatter was one of the first blacks accepted into the Marine Corps and trained at Montford Point, a segregated camp in North Carolina. Now a retired Naval Reserve Captain living in a San Diego nursing home, McPhatter says he complained to Eastwood's staff about the movie and black actors were added to opening shots of the landing.
The institutional racism of the military in the forties meant there were not many black service members of the 16 million Americans who served during World War II, only 1.2 million were black. Yet they proved their loyalty to their country by serving during a time of need, thus making it possible for future generations to serve their country, too. The black service member's story is no different from the story of the white service member. Some were heroic, and others not so heroic. Some were qualified to do their jobs while others were not, just like any other ethnic or racial group who joined the military. There was one major exception, which made the black experience unique – black service members such as McPhatter, and so many of his peers had limited opportunities. Nevertheless, they discredited the prevailing stereotype of "unfit to fight." Case-in-point, Missouri native, Stewart B. Fulbright, Jr., who became one of the first black men trained as a military pilot helped debunk the stereotype of "unfit to fight."
Today’s black service members stand on the shoulders of invisible warriors, including those of the truck drivers of the Red Ball Express, the convoy system used to supply forces moving through Europe following the D-Day invasion of beaches in Normandy. The shoulders that hold up today’s generation also belong to the first all-black crew of a U.S. Navy ship, and the men of the 761st Tank Battalion who helped liberate at least one concentration camp and the Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division.
These invisible warriors came home, demanded equality, invigorated the civil rights movement, and forced open doors for future generations.
Copyright © 2008 by Sharon Dense Powell All rights reserved
*Absent from history: the black soldiers at Iwo Jima guardian.co.uk, October 20 2006 by Dan Glaister in Los Angeles