A story for the 4th – More than 75 years later, a Black Army man gets his officer commission
Carol Ozemhoya| OW Contributor | 6/29/2018, 11:44 a.m.
The New York Times revealed a remarkable story today about a Black Army solider that never received his officer commission, apparently because he was Black. More than 75 years after he should have been recognized by the military, his family finally got the Army to commission and honor a man who served his country in battle. Rachel L. Swarns reveals the story in a compelling story that honors the man’s service yet once again points out the struggle of people of color who were willing to sacrifice their lives for a country that treated them as second-class citizens. Marion Lane discovered a faded photograph after her stepmother died, crammed in a closet with her stepmother’s Sunday dresses. She unrolled it and there was her father, young, handsome and grinning amid a unit of soldiers. She was stunned: “It looked like a graduating class of Army men,” she told the Times. Her father was a longtime mail carrier who loved his family, fishing and his beloved, gleaming Cadillac. He never spoke about his service in World War II. On the day she found the photo, he finally told her why. Her father, John E. James Jr., graduated from the Army’s Officer Candidate School in Fort Benning, Ga. in 1942, but was never allowed to serve as a commissioned officer. Instead, he was shipped overseas as a corporal with an all-Black battalion at a time when racial discrimination in the military derailed the dreams and careers of a generation of African-American soldiers. Today (June 29), the Army will finally make amends, promoting Mr. James to the rank of second lieutenant, two weeks after his 98th birthday. The ceremony at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia will be attended by a deputy assistant secretary from the Army, a retired four-star general and Senator Bob Casey Jr., the Pennsylvania Democrat who championed the case. “It’s unbelievable,” said John James, who descends from a long line of military men dating back to the Revolutionary War. “I thought it would never happen.” It almost didn’t. Although she discovered the photo in 2001, Ms. Lane, a retired public school administrator, only learned in 2015 that her father could request a correction to his military record from the Army Review Boards Agency. She enlisted the aid of Senator Casey and his staff. The campaign took nearly three years. They sent more than a dozen emails and letters, made two appeals and encountered so many dead ends and disappointments that Ms. Lane half-jokingly wondered whether the Army was hoping her father would “kick the bucket” so that no one would have to acknowledge wrongdoing. “I was ready to throw in the towel,” Mr. James admitted. But after decades of silence, Mr. James was ready to tell his story. As a young man, he had never met any Black officers and he had never seen any either. But after he was drafted in 1941, he heard that the Army wanted to recruit Black officers. He applied and was accepted in 1942 to a class at Fort Benning that included 21 men of color. He slept in segregated barracks, but for the first time in his life he also ate, trained and studied alongside his white counterparts. He still remembers joining the jubilant Black and white officers-to-be in their march, after they had completed their training in December of that year. They all expected to be promoted the next morning. The African-American graduates would join the military’s tiny, Black elite. Less than one percent of Black soldiers in the Army were officers in 1942, according to Army records. But later that day, Mr. James said, a white officer pulled him aside. Instead of receiving his commission, he was going to be shipped to another post. “I wasn’t going to be getting my bars,” Mr. James said. Ms. Lane suspects that her father was denied his commission because he would outrank some white officers in the battalion he would be assigned to, and Black officers were not supposed to supervise whites. Meanwhile, military records show that options for newly graduated Black officers were becoming increasingly scarce. By the end of 1942, the number of Black officers had begun to exceed the number of available assignments, according to a book published by the Army’s Center of Military History in 1963. Some commanders said they could not house African-Americans who were barred from sharing barracks or mess halls with white officers. Others were more explicit. The Mississippi congressional delegation requested that “no Negro officers be stationed in Mississippi at all,” the study shows. Mr. James didn’t know why he was denied his promotion, but he said he knew better than to complain. So he swallowed that injustice and the indignities of racial discrimination and segregation that dogged the rest of his service, including three years as a typist with the 242nd Quartermaster Battalion, which supplied the front lines in some of the fiercest battles in Italy and northern Africa. Mr. James said he didn’t pray about it, didn’t dream about it and didn’t talk about it, not even to his wife after he returned home from the war in 1945. It was his daughter who worked for years to get her father recognized, and today, James will don a dress officer’s uniform. His two daughters will pin epaulets on his shoulders, and John Jumper, a retired Air Force general and chairman of the Museum of the American Revolution, will administer the officer’s oath.