Until recently, many African-American veterans have fought alongside their comrades but received little to no recognition for their courage. For some World War II veterans, the recognition has finally come — after death.
Under slate gray skies, former Navy Chaplain Thomas McPhatter, 88 and African-American, is buried in Lumberton, North Carolina, with military honors. McPhatter’s daughter, Mary Elizabeth say’s, “I’m sorry that, in the flesh he cannot see this.” That’s because McPhatter, one of 900 blacks who fought on the Japanese island at Iwo Jima in the then segregated US armed forces, never saw the recognition he’d earned.
In life he bemoaned Hollywood’s versions of the brutal battle in which 6800 comrades died from the “Sands of Iwo Jima” to “Flags of Our Fathers,” where blacks never even appear.
At the American cemetery in Normandy lie the graves of almost 10,000 World War II soldiers equal in death but not equally remembered.
French Professor Elise Mills is trying to recover black veterans’ history. She says, “I was surprised not to see any pictures of black people on D-Day memorials or in museums, in archives”.
She has uncovered thousands of photos of black soldiers in Normandy deep in the US National Archives, including the all-black 320th anti-aircraft battalion. Sergeant George Davison from Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, manned a barrage balloon, part of a curtain of helium balloons strung above the beaches, exploding on contact with German fighter planes.
Mills found George’s son, Bill, back in Pennsylvania, who says his father never spoke much about the war but left a diary on the horror of the D-Day landing. Some of its entries included “Bodies being blown to bits. Parts of men flying through the air like birds”. His father died in 2002, never even receiving a combat badge. Bill says, “They were on the same boats with the Rangers. They should have gotten more recognition than they did”.
But at least in Normandy these days, thanks to Mills and others, the first faces of black veterans are finally appearing in D-Day exhibits, their lost stories becoming part of the public memory.