In the chaotic days after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor hundreds of patriotic American men rushed to recruiting stations – ready to defend their country. Others waited undecided about how they should respond.
On December 7, 1941 in Indianapolis future army medic and West Virginia native, Frank James was at work in the autopsy room of Indianapolis City Hospital. "I was listening to my radio and it was interrupted. There was a special announcement that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. This left me quite disturbed but at the time I didn't even know where Pearl Harbor was," he writes in his 2007 memoir titled Capers of a Medic.
James knew his life was about to change. He writes that he had experienced discrimination but still felt a fierce love for his country. "It stirred my patriotic blood and I knew from the very moment I heard the news that I simply couldn't sit at home and know our country was being attacked by an enemy."
That night James went home and told his wife, Ada he was going to join the army on Monday morning. "Ada was upset because I was going to volunteer, so I told her maybe I would not be accepted. Maybe I would be classified as a 4Fer, (anyone classified as disabled or unfit to serve in the military) but I simply must go down tomorrow and volunteer and wait and see what the result will be." James writes that he did not get much sleep that night.
In a historically black university (HBCU), Johnson C. Smith University, in Charlotte, North Carolina, a pre-theological student and future marine, Thomas McPhatter, was just another college freshman with a reputation as a radical. He would barely escape expulsion for his role in a campus protest after a coed was mistakenly accused of "un-lady-like behavior," remembers McPhatter. December 7, 1941 would change his life – he would soon become a Montford Point Marine – the first black men allowed to become marines.
In San Diego, California, James (Pete) Ludlow who as a young boy often stood outside the fence at Naval Air Station North Island watching ace navy pilots, all Caucasian, wheeling in formation in Curtis SA-3 Seaplanes, or Scout Seaplanes and dreamed of flying. When the war started he would rush to the nearest Navy Recruiting Station to enlist only to learn blacks could not become navy pilots.
In Richmond, Virginia, news of the attack would mean another college student at Virginia Union University, freshman Samuel L. Gravely Jr. the son of an army veteran would soon trade his newly earned Greek letters as an Alpha Phi Alpha for Navy seaman strips.
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"UNCLE SAM WANTS YOU (IF YOU ARE WHITE)!"
The response to the attack was immediate, on Monday morning; men began lining up outside store front offices with signs in the windows that read, "Uncle Sam wants you!" What the signs did not say was "except if you are black," as many young black men quickly learned.
Young and some old men throughout the country began flocking to recruiting stations. Black men were often turned away. In an Indianapolis Army Recruiting Station, one young man who was ready to fight was Charles T. Kelly but when he spoke with an army recruiter, he was disappointed to learn the only jobs available for him were digging ditches or building bridges. "I didn't want to dig ditches," he said. He decided to try his luck with the navy.
Frank James was met with the same disappointing words when he went to enlist even though he worked as a hospital orderly. In spite of the mistreatment by recruiters, he would enlist and struggle to get the opportunity to become an army medic.
In Raleigh North Carolina John Hope Franklin, a young college professor was ready to leave his teaching position at St Augustine's College in order to serve. In an interview for a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) documentary he said, "I went down to the recruiting office, the navy to volunteer. I volunteered in response to the call they made specifically for men to operate the offices. The recruiter for the navy said, 'What can you do?' I said, “Well, I can, run an office. I can type. I can take shorthand if that’s needed.” I said, “And, oh, yes, I have a Ph.D. in history from Harvard. I wondered what he was going to say. He said, 'You have everything, but your color.' And, I said, “Well, I thought there was an emergency, but obviously there is not, so I bid you a good day. And I vowed that day that they would not get me, because they did not deserve me. If I was able – physically, mentally, every other kind of way, able and willing to serve my country – and my country turned me down on the basis of color, then my country did not deserve me. And I vowed then that they would not get me," historian and author, John Hope Franklin, >http://www.pbs.org/thewar/at_war_democracy_african_american.htm<.
Those who were accepted soon learned life in the military was no different from life on the outside – with few exceptions they would become stewards, cooks, domestics, or stevedores, not pilots or infantrymen or office clerks.
Copyright © 2009 by Sharon Dense Powell ALL RIGHTS RESERVED