African American World War II veterans share stories of war amidst segregation
By Pamela McLoughlin, Journal Register Staff
One is about patriotism, dedication and becoming war heroes. The other is of doing the same thing, but in a segregated military where black troops fought in different units than white troops, with whites at the highest ranks, even though their blood spilled the same.
The Greater New Haven branch of the NAACP will honor black World War II veterans from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday at a Veterans Day program at Criterion Cinemas, 86 Temple St. For tickets, call the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People office at 203-389-7275 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Tickets are $25
In addition, the NAACP will showcase an oral history project, featuring the veterans, created by Hillhouse High School.
In the earliest days, blacks often fought and died alongside whites in an integrated environment in the North American colonies until the War of 1812, and would not fight in integrated units again until the Korean War.
In 1948, President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order 9981 ordered the integration of the armed forces shortly after World War II. Using the order meant that Truman could bypass the U.S. Congress because representatives in the South, white Democrats, would likely have stonewalled related legislation.
In 1951, the 8th Army in Korea adopted an unofficial policy of integrating black soldiers who could not be effectively absorbed into segregated black units. Later that year, the U.S. Department of Defense announced that all basic training in the U.S. would be integrated. In April 1951, Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, head of the United Nations Command in Korea, asked the Army to allow him to integrate all blacks under his command.
The following are three stories of World War II veterans who served in the segregated military and are among those who will be honored by NAACP in the program titled, “Remembering Our Past, A Divided Fighting Force.”
Morris Bishop, 87, grew up in the Virginia, where he wasn’t allowed in most restaurants or toward the front of a public bus.
So being drafted into a segregated Army in 1943 didn’t feel foreign to him, although the injustice of it was not lost on Bishop or his comrades in the 92nd Infantry Division, a unit formed of black soldiers from all states. Most officers above captain were white.
“I had grown accustomed to it. It built resentment, but I hope not bitterness,” he said.
Nicknamed the “Buffalo Soldiers,” the segregated unit was the only black infantry division to see combat in Europe during World War II, as part of the Italian campaign from 1944 to the war’s end.
Bishop, who recently received a belated Bronze Star for valor, was one of them, serving in Italy on the front lines.
“I wanted to defend the country, but it’s complicated — trying to remain a loyal patriot with all the segregation,” Bishop said. “When we went to fight we hoped there would be more social justice. But I give all that credit to the civil rights movement.”
Bishop, a machine gunner who went on to finish college after leaving the service in 1943, had a long career at the former Milford High School, much of it spent as director of guidance.
One of the ironies of it all is that Italy was not segregated and neither were the armies of Brazil, Britain and others the unit fought alongside. Bishop remembers having a vacation from combat where he could enjoyed all the freedoms of Italy, but had to sleep in a segregated area of the military base.
“Being in Europe was much better for us,” Bishop said.
Bishop said black and white soldiers were all the same in the foxholes, but it was U.S. headquarters and policies that were flawed.
He said the Buffalo Soldiers’ white general is on record as telling the black soldiers he didn’t send for them, but that the NAACP, Urban League and others, “wanted you to fight.” He also “guaranteed” the soldiers they’d have their share of casualties.
Bishop also notes that while the troops were not integrated, it was a black physician, Dr. Charles Richard Drew, who through his discovery that blood plasma lasts longer than whole blood, made it possible for blood transfusions on the battlefield. It was Drew’s discovery that created the modern blood bank.
While in college, Bishop met his wife, Rosemary, and together they have five children and eight grandchildren. The couple, longtime Milford residents, came to the area because Rosemary was from New Haven.
He said race relations have improved over the decades, but the problem is far from solved.
“Even now, if we’re honest, there’s no lack of discrimination in the country. It’s something we try to eradicate,” he said. “I don’t think it’s nearly as blatant as in former years. Now people don’t want to be regarded as racist.”
Asked just how far he believes America has come, Bishop said, “Let’s put it this way — we have a black president.”
Marcus McCraven, 86, of Hamden was drafted during his first year of college and later sent to the Army Engineering Regiment, composed of all black troops and white officers.
“That’s segregation at its peak,” McCraven said. “We realized as a unit that we were being discriminated against.”
But for McCraven, retired vice president of United Illuminating Co., the discrimination issue was separate from his patriotism.
“My feelings were: This was the country I was in and we were at war. I always felt I was American, but I was discriminated against,” he said. “What I did know is I was in a black outfit providing a service for fighting soldiers.”
McCraven’s engineering regiment was in a war zone in Papua, New Guinea, backing up the fighting troops by building bridges and providing supplies. Although he was classified as an expert rifleman, McCraven wound up as supply clerk.
“I look back now and it was a great thing, because I never had to kill anyone,” he said.
Born and raised in Iowa, McCraven returned to college after the war, became an electrical engineer. He worked at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory as an engineer and then at the University of California. Not too many years after being treated as a second-class citizen by the military, McCraven would become a key part of the team that built and tested the hydrogen bomb. His area of expertise on the project was diagnostics — he was in charge of a group of number systems — and McCraven had a key role in many tests, including Bikini Island and Nevada, but he won’t reveal specific details even after all these years.
“The whole time I worked there, I never saw another black engineer,” he said.
He was one of five workers who remained near Bikini during the nuclear test. Everyone else was evacuated. Group leader of nuclear systems development, his story is told in a soon-to-be released documentary detailing his historic role with the H-bomb.
He later came to Connecticut to work on peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
“The best thing we can do is get rid of them,” he said of nuclear weapons.
Married to Marguerite McCraven for 63 years, McCraven, is the father of three, including Paul McCraven, vice president of community development at NewAlliance Bank.
He said the oral history event is a great idea.
“It shows the contributions made by African-Americans, but what comes out are the barriers they faced in World War II. People were being sacrificed to preserve the nation and at the same time they were being discriminated against,” McCraven said.
Paul Wiley, 88, of New Haven never saw college as an option because of the cost, so in 1942 he enlisted in the Army with an eye toward becoming a career officer.
He was assigned to the 92nd Infantry Division, but unlike Bishop, was not accustomed to segregation, as he grew up in the Oak Street area of New Haven, where he said Jews, Poles, Russians and blacks lived harmoniously.
Wiley knew the military was segregated and while he certainly didn’t support that, he believed troops worked with each other for the same cause.
“I never let it affect me; I accomplished as much as any other” enlisted man, Wiley, a widower, said. “Maybe I don’t fully accept it (the effects of segregation) — I’m just an American.”
Wiley felt the sting of segregation after he left active service and attempted to lead a reserve unit.
“I fully expected I’d join the U.S. Army Reserves,” said Wiley, a first lieutenant at the time.
But there were no Army Reserve units a black officer could command.
Wiley’s only option was to start his own unit. So he and a friend began tracking down candidates for a black unit.
“That was a little bothersome. It caused me a lot of extra work,” he said.
Wiley’s Quarter Master Service Co. was formed, and in a letter dated Aug. 2, 1948, Wiley was recommended by Lt. Col. Joseph F. Conroy to be appointed commanding officer.
The letter, in part, reads: “Much study has been given to this unit. After several conferences with varied colored officers, I strongly recommend that (Wiley) be appointed commanding officer of this unit.” The letter continues, “There are no captains, colored, available in this area for assignment.”
Handwriting on the typed letter indicates there is a list of “negro E.M.” — E.M. stands for enlisted men, attached.
Wiley loved the military and said he would have made it a full-time career, but his wife objected, so he started a successful cleaning company. He stayed in the reserves, retiring in 1981 as a major.