The last week of May through the first week of June is an emotional Everest for our family. My wife lost her father, our beloved Nanu, six years ago June 5. My father passed away on the 31st of May thirty four years ago. June 5 is also my brother’s birthday, May 26th is my youngest son’s, and May 29th is mine. The day my father died feels like one continuous day encompassing my college graduation, my birthday and his passing.
We try to keep our fathers in memory my wife and I. It is difficult, but to lose those essential connections is unthinkable.
My father would sometimes recount to my siblings and I — in bits and pieces and partial stories — his memories of the second world war. Any given thing could bring out Daddy’s stories — a question we would ask, a documentary, a book one of us was reading, music on the radio, a rainy day at home.
The media obsession with the “D-Day” event and the particular narrative promoted, which persists in being white Anglo middle/upper class, brings his stories back to mind. The photo in this post is from a page from one of his journals, sometime in 1942/43.
My father was 18 when the event now known as “D-Day” occurred. He was a sailor aboard LST-400, a ship that transported soldiers and tanks and other material to some Normandy beach on the morning of June 6, 1944.
He was a Black man-child from Atlanta, one of nine children. He had enlisted in the Navy as a 15 year old. I always liked to think that it was partially just as a way out of the extreme racism and poverty that he found himself situated in. The Great Depression had barely subsided — or at least that is the history book mythology that I have accepted — I really doubt that he or my uncles and aunts experienced any dramatic improvement in their standard of living in the 1930s an 40s. Their father, also a veteran, had died in 1938 from the deep psychic wounds of the First World War.
My mother recounts that my father and a friend had hopped a freight train to Detroit and enlisted there. The Navy had sent my grandmother papers to verify that Daddy was a few years older than he really was (15). It seems that the U.S. had no problem taking child soldiers. I remember him talking about having to jump 100 feet into a tank of water. How was the basic training, what obstacles did he face? Who were his friends? How were Black sailors treated? Was it any better or worse than every day life in 1940s Atlanta?
What did he think as the ship sailed from Virginia across the Atlantic? He would talk about a battle off of the North African coast. How they had to pull badly burned sailors off of a sinking ship. I think that this was a landing in Tunisia called Operation Torch.
I know now from the ship muster rolls that there were Filipino sailors on LST-400 as well. What were there names? How did they spend the hours from one engagement to the next. How did they keep their mind away from the madness. Were they equally as young, conflicted in having to fight for one imperial power against another? Did they will themselves to see hope? Did they come with a dream of U.S. citizenship for their service, or was it simply enough for them to envision a Philippines free of Japanese or U.S. control?
He loved Billie Holiday. Did they allow him to play Billie and Duke aboard the ship? In his journal was an entry listing London clubs to visit — a place called the West Indian Club in London caught my eye. Was jazz played there? Did he spend evenings listening to local musicians playing a melange of jazz and Caribbean rhythms? What was Black London like in 1943?
He would talk about a landing, an invasion I suppose, that they made in Sicily. I looked at the ships logs from that operation recently. It was a small town named Gela, Sicily. According to the logs, other ships in their group had been badly damaged. They were strafed by Luftwaffe Messerschmitt aircraft and by the Italian air force. Their home port was Bizerte, Tunisia. Many of the Tunisians would I meet since his passing had the same toffee brown skin. Did he ever consider just slipping into the crowds headed to Tunis?
After the invasion, did they go ashore to Gela? Who did he meet in Italy, what did they say? He mentioned being involved in providing food and other basics to the people of that town. Were there conversations, encounters that made an impression, made him think differently, informed the compassionate person I knew?
He would tell us about how thick the sky was on June 6, 1944 with aircraft. About soldiers falling in the surf. I remember his stories of attending to starved German soldiers, most younger than him. Were those among his thoughts when he would look off into the distance at something I could not see?
He passed away 34 years ago. I lament that the images that we see as D-Day is “celebrated” (it is a strange word for a period in which 27,000 people were being murdered each day) do not capture what he experienced. Celebration is a strange word for a tragedy that was enabled and abetted by the inability of all countries involved to confront injustice head on. Like the Billie Holiday song, it was bitter fruit.
There are so many questions that remain with me:
What was it like to be a Black teenager thrust into adulthood on a ship, thousands of miles from home?
What did you do after those days after the landing? What did you fear, what did you hope for?
What were the things that gave you hope? What were the soul wounds that you had still to heal from?
My wife, children and I were in Paris during the “Victory in Europe” anniversary this year. I believe that is the day that when most of the savagery came to an end — but how does one ever leave the images and pain. I remember hearing bells ringing. I wonder if it occurred to him to stay, to just find a quiet, humble town in France to just be free.
What difficulties did you face getting the benefits to which you were entitled? The book “When Affirmative Action was White” details the discrimination that Black veterans faced in getting the home and business loans, healthcare, and other benefits provided to white sailors. Was the G.I. Bill just one of the many half-truths you faced? Who heard your frustrations, how did you reconcile them?
You never had a peaceful sleep all the days that I had with you. What were the visions that would not leave? Did anyone delve deeply into them and unlock and free you from the demons of having seen what you did? How does it feel to be free now?
So much of why I try to remember, to keep the questions in mind is simply that he not be erased.
I have over the last thirty years spoken to people who survived this period in forced labor camps, who were child soldiers in the German army, people whose parents lived in India, China, Russia. For many “war” was not a place you went, but a condition that knocked upon the door daily. None of their stories of this time seem to fit into the neat script. They all testify to loss and living with both hope, brokenness, kindness and acknowledgement that some wounds do not heal.
I just hope that the stories live and guide us so that the pain will not be repeated.