Six of the few remaining African American veterans of World War II, residing in Berks County, recently shared their memories of the time they served their country. The digitally recorded interviews are part of a project by the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum. The author was invited by Frank Gilyard, president of that museum, to participate in those interviews in preparation for this article.
The Double Victory – Double V Campaign
When the United States entered World War II on December 7, 1941, many aspects of life in our nation continued to relegate African Americans to what amounted to a second class citizenship--not the least of which was America’s official policy of racially segregated armed services. In 1942, The Pittsburgh Courier, at that time one of the country’s leading black newspapers, originated the “Double Victory - Double V Campaign” which encouraged African Americans to participate fully in the war effort. Its goals were, "victory overseas, and victory at home,” so that African Americans would overcome the second class citizenship.
Berks Countians Robert Quarles, Joseph “Bud” Haines, and Calvin Summers, were among the approximately 909,000 African Americans to serve in the Army during World War II, while Bobby Johnson, Al Washington and Ira Bates were among the approximately 167,000 African Americans who served in the Navy during the war. Their experiences were representative of other African Americans in the service at the time. Each of the army veterans served in all black units that were in support of combat operations. Judging from the experiences they related, the functions performed by their units were not only of great importance to combat operations, but also frequently exposed members of the units to great risks.
Johnson, Washington and Bates were assigned to jobs that navy policy, at the time, categorized as “suitable” for black servicemen. They each performed support functions important in their own way. Bates' service as a musician, entertaining troops, provided psychological support. Some degree of hazard was also involved in the performance of their duties. Johnson loaded ammunition onto ships, while Washington and Bates spent a great deal of time at sea in the Pacific, where Japanese submarines were always a risk.
Each of the men drew assignments that were governed by racial policy of the services at the time, which included a restriction, not changed until later in the war, that black servicemen would not be assigned to combat responsibilities. Despite these restrictions, each man contributed to the war effort and was proud to have served his country--even while experiencing some painful incidents because of racial prejudice in the course of that service.
It would not be until July 26, 1948 that the services would be officially integrated, when President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 998 which, “declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.”
Robert Quarles: 920th Air Base Security Battalion
Reading resident Robert Quarles, now 93, was a Corporal with the 920th Air Base Security Battalion, when it landed on the Pacific island of Guadalcanal two weeks after the initial landings by the marines on August 7th of 1942. Drafted in early 1942, the twenty-four-year-old Quarles (who “felt like an old man around all the 18-year olds” in his outfit) remembers his initial time on Guadalcanal as, “[A] lot of bombing… and artillery shelling.”
Quarles explained that the purpose of the 920th was: “[G]uarding airfields…once the marines took an airfield, they would move away and we would move in and secure the airfield so the Japanese couldn’t come back and sabotage the planes.” Guadalcanal was finally secured on February 7, 1943.
After Guadalcanal, the next stop for Quarles and the 920th was Bougainville, in the Solomons Islands, where the campaign for that island had begun in November 1943. (The Japanese would finally surrender their last outpost on August 21, 1945.)
Quarles remembers the 920th serving on Bougainville, for “quite a long while.” He related: “Battalion knew that the Japanese were around…They said an airfield was secured but it wasn’t really secured… [T]he Japs were still from one end of the island and trying to come back and get it. It was our job to keep them from coming back and getting to the airfield again. But, they never made it back. The marines kept them out--actually ran into the ocean…that’s what they did. But they were a determined lot, those Japanese, determined lot. Very difficult.”
The 920th was comprised entirely of black troops (except for white officers) and was restricted to a non-combat support role due to the policy of segregation by the United States armed services at the time.
Quarles described his frustration at the time: “The marines were up there (at the front) fighting like hell... [T]hey would come down through our area and they’d see us taking showers and playing football and I felt a little guilty about that. But that’s the way it was. It wasn’t my doing.”
Bougainville was the first campaign of World War II in which black troops were introduced into combat, when elements of the all black 93rd Infantry Division (other than white officers) were committed on Bougainville in March of 1944.
In summer 1944, the 920th was sent to the island of Leyte in the Philippines to guard recaptured air fields. Quarles remembers how happy he was with the change: “It was wonderful relief because of getting out of the jungle… We had actual barracks rather than just tents in the jungle. Those islands looked beautiful from the ship, but when you land on them they’re smelly with the decomposing of the vegetation. It was wonderful for us. We were happy.”
Quarles related how, “The Filipinos were glad to see us coming… The Japanese had treated them badly. I got along with (the Filipinos) well. As a matter of fact I had a girlfriend there. I felt that she was interested in me for what I could do for her and her family. ‘Milk. More meat. Vegetables.’”
Quarles was discharged from the army in 1946. Encountering problems in finding a job in Reading, he left there and worked as a waiter at the Parkland Hotel in Boston, Massuchusetts for several years, then in Hollywood, California, where his jobs included working private Beverly Hills parties in the homes of movie stars. (Quarles remembers one party in particular where he eavesdropped on a quarrel between Bettie Davis and her husband Gary Merrill--she was upbraiding him for being “wishy-washy.”)
From Hollywood, Quarles moved back east where he spent 16 years working as a waiter in New York–first in the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem at a job he describes as “best job as a waiter I ever had; the tips were terrible, the music wonderful, and the dancing fantastic,” and then later at the Manhattan Hotel where “the tips were better.”
Returning to Reading in 1974, Quarles opened up “The Rib Joint” at Rose and Walnut Streets, which he operated successfully until he retired and sold it 1984.
Quarles remembers being very aware of the slogan “Fighting for the Double V” that was a rallying cry of Civil rights leaders during World War II. He recalled, “I thought my service would be a passport to first class citizenship. Everyone was concerned about going home. I thought things would be different when I returned. Unfortunately, they weren’t….But I was elated when I heard Truman integrated the armed services even though I was out by then.”
He added, “When I walk around Reading now, I see young people who have opportunities--who have jobs--that they never would have had when I was their age. I see a lot of progress.”
Joseph “Bud” Haines: 10th Army Company B 81st Signal Heavy Construction
Also providing security for air fields in the Pacific Theater was Reading native Joseph “Bud” Haines, now 89, who served as a Staff Sergeant with the 10th Army Company B 81st Signal Heavy Construction during the invasion of Okinawa in 1945.
Haines had been blinded in one eye as the result of an industrial accident several years before being drafted in 1944. Sent to Fort Lee, Virginia, Haines was examined by doctors in the base hospital. He related, “They knew I was blind in one eye. They kept me.”
From Fort Lee, Haines went to Camp Crowder, Missouri for basic training with the 10th Army Company B 81st Signal Heavy Construction, an all black regiment (except for white officers). The purpose of that unit was to safeguard airfields. Haines explained: “We would put these 90-foot poles up and string wire around because sometimes [enemy planes] would come in low and strafe the planes on the ground. It was a defense. So this way they couldn’t come in low…or they’d hit that wire and the poles.”
Company B was shipped to Honolulu, Hawaii for 90 days of additional training before being committed to service. Then on May 9, 1945, it arrived at Okinawa, the invasion of that island having begun on April 1st. The battle for Okinawa would last until the end of June, costing more American casualties than any other battle in the Pacific theater.
Haines described the intense Japanese bombing: “We had two air raids a night: one at 11 o’clock and one 5 o’clock. The 11 o’clock, we called a ‘Bed Check Charlie;’ the 5 o’clock in the morning, we called ‘Pit Chore Charlie.’”
Recalling how one member of his unit generally refused to leave his bunk and go to the shelter, but was persuaded to go one night, Haines laughed, “When he came back, a piece of shrapnel about as big as my fist had come down through the tent, went right through the dents in the cot, and stuck about six inches in the ground. Now if he had been in that cot, he’d have been dead…From then on, the first time [he’d hear the alarm]…he was gone, believe me!”
Company B engaged in several night “skirmishes” with Japanese attempting to sabotage the airfields where the unit was stationed. Haines described one such incident: “I’m out there shooting and I ran out of clips, and I asked a guy ‘give me hand grenade.’ I said, ‘When I holler ‘fire in the hole, hit the ground’. I was throwing a hand grenade like a baseball. I pulled the pin and yelled, ‘Fire in the hole, hit the ground!’ So we found about three or four dead Japanese the next morning.”
Haines related how the only man killed in his unit, died as a result of what he called, “horseplay.” Two men were carelessly rough housing, when Haines, as staff sergeant, told them to, “Knock it off!” The men continued their antics out of sight of Haines, until one picked up the other’s rifle and pointed it. The other man grabbed the bottom and pulled it, causing it to discharge, killing him.”
Most of the fighting on Okinawa ended late in June, though isolated Japanese remained in caves on parts of the island for some time. Haines remembers the smell of death everywhere, with decomposing bodies throughout the island.
Haines also remembers the devastation wrought by “Typhoon Louise” which hit the island on October 9, 1945 sinking 12 ships, grounding more than 200 others, and causing huge devastation to buildings on the island. Although American casualties were relatively low considering the magnitude of the storm (36 dead, more than 100 seriously injured), Haines recalls a grisly scene of “bodies floating out in the water” in the storm’s aftermath.
Following his discharge in 1946, Haines returned to the job he held at American Chain and Cable. In 1969, he was named a foreman at Brush Beryllium Corporation, where he worked for fifteen years until his retirement.
Haines has been a leader in the Reading community for years. He served many years as a director of the Berks Council on Chemical Abuse and formed the West Side Concerned Citizens Association to fight drug dealers once operating in the 6th Ward. Haines proudly says, “We ran the drug dealers out…We got the neighbors and police working together.”
He also formed a marching unit for teenage boys--the Berks Lodge Junior Herd. Haines stated: “We got awards and traveled to lots of places: New York, Atlantic City, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Elks national conventions. The kids come up to me today and thank me for keeping them off the streets.
In discussing his experiences with discrimination, Haines made a point that he was the only black child as a student at Northeast Junior High School in the 1930s, and that he had no problems with race during his time at Reading High School. Haines also stated that “…the schools here did not teach you anything about segregation…”
Haines said that he wasn’t aware of institutional segregation until he took a train to Fort Lee, Virginia at the time he was drafted, and found that in Lynchburg, Virginia, there were separate “White” and “Colored” waiting rooms.
His education on segregation continued on the train carrying him from Virginia to Texas. He was walking through the dining car when: “[T]his regular looking old woman says, ‘Where are all these n----- coming from?’” At this point, another soldier in his unit told him to just, “‘Keep going- don’t you start [no trouble] down here.” Haines continued: “He knew all about [segregation], and frankly most of the guys in our outfit were from the south, so they schooled us, where you can go, where you go. And that’s where I got my education.”
Haines also related a painful incident in Honolulu: “There was a bunch of kids following us. I asked, ‘Why are you kids following us?’ They said, ‘Well those white fellas told us that if we keep following you when the sun goes down your tail comes out.’ [They said] we were monkeys. Now these are guys fighting the war just like we are…I stayed on the base the rest of my time there.”
When asked about the “Double V” slogan, Haines responded, “I was fighting for the United States. It was my country. My family was born here; I was born here. That was what I was fighting for.”
Calvin Summers: 10th Cavalry (Trucking Section)
Calvin Summers, now 85, was 18 when he was drafted in 1943 and travelled from his home in Reading to Camp Ellis, Illinois. Originally, Summers was assigned to a Quartermaster Laundry Unit. However, he became a cavalry man when he was assigned to the 10th Cavalry, Trucking Section. Summers explained, “They no longer needed horse cavalry; so, they broke the 10th Cavalry down into trucking outfits, sports battalions, and different service outfits. I wound up in the trucking section.”
Summers had some experience in driving trucks as he had had a part-time job driving beer trucks for Tony Moran. He explained with a wry smile, that Moran, who ruled Reading’s mob activities at that time, promised Summers’ mother that Moran would not involve the young man in anything other than delivering beer, flowers, or soda, and making sure that Moran’s car was clean.
Summers’ outfit landed in Tunisia in June of 1943, stayed in Algeria for several months, and then was shipped into southern Italy shortly after the invasion by the Allies in September of 1943, attached to the 5th Army.
Summers related, “My unit was in Italy for18 months. We were hauling supplies…hauling supplies up to the front, back and forth.”
Land mines planted by the Germans were a major danger to trucks. Summer recalled: “A number of drivers in my outfit lost their lives running over mines. I came out without a scratch. I was one of the lucky ones.”
He described his closest call: “We were in a convoy in Italy and we ran into an ambush where we were forced off the main road onto a side road that turned out to be mined. Several trucks ran over mines with the drivers getting killed. My own truck ran over a mine and I was blown right out of the truck. I landed right in a big mud puddle. I was a little sore, but was okay. As a matter of fact, I was back on duty the next morning. But a number of other guys lost their lives. Like I said, I was one of the lucky ones.
In May of 1945, Summers’ unit was shipped to the Philippines. According to Summers, “We didn’t get a chance to do much of anything because it wasn’t too much longer after we arrived there that the war ended.”
Arriving home in Reading after the war, Summers was unable to return to his former job. Tony Moran had been shot to death in 1945.
He recalled: “I’d say for the first four or five years I believe I had a little chip on my shoulder because of the fact that I came right back to the same thing I had left. A lot of segregation and stuff like that you know was still there. But being young, I was only 21 when I came out, I felt as if the world owed me something ‘cause it seemed like I lost three of the best years of my life from 18 to 21…I was real angry about it, but I knew there was nothing I could do about it, just go along with the program, just like everybody else. And that’s what we did!”
As to the slogan of “Fighting for the Double V,” Summers said: “We were fighting for survival. I was fighting to get back home. I had just gotten married 6 days before I went in the army. I had never seen my daughter. We were in a war and we were doing what we were ordered to do. We had a job and we did it. That is how we were raised, I guess. To do as we were supposed to do. What we were hoping for was that when we came back that things would be better for black people. For the most part, they weren’t and we had a resentment to come back home and see that it was the same. We did have training opportunities as veterans, but the bonus you got wasn’t that much.”
Summers eventually found employment in Philadelphia as a water treatment plant operator for twenty-five years, after which he and his wife retired and returned to Reading.
On display in Summers apartment are medals he was awarded for his service, including European African Ribbon, the Asiatic Pacific Campaign, Victory Medal, Good Conduct Medal, and a number of others. Summers related how it took fifty years to receive the medals: “I kept applying for them and asking for them, and asking for them and then I stopped asking and finally I went to Representative (Dante) Santoni here and I think he did a little talking to somebody and got things moving and I finally got my medals. It took about 50 years, but I’ve got them!”Bobby Johnson: US Navy, Ammunition Handler
Bobby Johnson, now 83, enlisted in the navy at age 17 in 1944. He received his basic training at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, outside of Chicago, Illinois, his birthplace and home until his family came to Reading in 1935. After completing basic training, Johnson was assigned to Seattle Naval Air Station, where he worked in a machine shop, but in six months was assigned to a naval magazine base in Bellingham Marsh where his new assignment was “ammunition handler,” loading ammunition onto ships. Johnson related that after about six months there, he was then assigned to a new base in Bangor, Washington, where he continued as an ammunition handler.
With the ammunition handlers working in three 8-hour shifts, according to Johnson it would take about six weeks to load a ship. Johnson related, “You handle the ammunition with care, you won’t be blowing things up.…Take your time and get done things right. If you weren’t careless and you’re doing things right, then there’s no problems.” Johnson pointed out that when there is a rush in the operation, “that’s where the carelessness comes in.”
Characterizing the operation at his base as “strict on handling of ammunition,” Johnson referred to an ammunition explosion that occurred in Port Chicago, California on July 17, 1944, where 300 sailors and civilians were killed and almost 400 were injured (most of the dead and injured being African American), as an example of the hazards of that kind of operation. (The Port Chicago explosion was the source of great controversy, including a mutiny by African American sailors on that base, a naval investigation, and trials of the mutineers where sentences were eventually reduced.)
When the war ended, Johnson recalled, with a laugh, how many of the same ships his group originally loaded returned with those very same loads to be unloaded. Johnson returned to Reading after his discharge in April, 1946 and worked in construction until he retired.
Reflecting his time in the Navy and the circumstances of his service, Johnson said, “What you do is you make the best of your situation, like I said, we had a good base there. Certainly, there were officers from the south but they had to go by what the commanders said so we didn’t have too much problem there. Other than that, everything ran pretty good.”
Albert Washington, Jr.: U.S. Navy, USS Hanford
Reading resident Albert Washington, now 89, was drafted into the Navy in 1944. He went to basic training in Bainbridge, Maryland, where he was assigned to cooking school. From there he became a cook on the USS Hanford, a troop transport ship, where he served until the end of the war.
According to Washington, the Hanford ran troops “all over the place in the Pacific.”
Washington enjoyed his assignment. In his words: “We got our work done. We didn’t paint ships. It wasn’t our job. We were the cooks; that was our job. I had a good duty aboard my ship.”
Washington was occasionally able to visit a number of places in the Pacific, including the Philippines, other islands, and Tokyo after the surrender by the Japan in August of 1945.
Washington’s few trips ashore were with shipmates. He recalled, “I didn’t trust those people [the natives]. No way. They’d say, ‘Hi you, hi you,’ I just wanted them out of my face; so I stayed aboard ship most of the time. We’d get four or five of us; then we’d go toward the jungle out there. They had paths, but we had guides that could take us through. Mostly we kept busy.”
With the Hanford’s assignment being in the Pacific, Washington related that there always was a concern about Japanese planes--particularly kamikaze near the end of the war--but that the Hanford travelled in a fleet with seven other ships, stating, “We had our protection.”
The other concern for American ships was, of course, Japanese submarines. On one occasion, Washington, who says he stayed above board as much as possible, was on deck when he saw what he described as “a great big grey tip” come out of the water.
Washington described his next action: “I looked out at the ocean out there, I turned my head, I stood up, seeing this, and yelled, ‘Submarine!’ Everybody was up [to their stations]. It wasn’t a submarine. It was a whale.”
“The skipper called me up. I went up. He said, ‘You alright?’ and I said ‘Yes sir. I thought I seen a submarine out there. The water come up, psheew… He was laughing. He saw the whole thing. …He said, ‘Just don’t get excited when you see something like that!’ I said, ‘Well it looked like it.’”
Washington, who was in Tokyo at the time of the Japanese surrender, opted to leave the service at the first opportunity after the end of the war, and returned to Reading.
He remembered, “They wanted me to stay in. I said ‘No, sir.’”
After the war Washington held a number of positions, and was successful as a painting and paperhanging contractor.
The kitchen crew on the USS Hanford included three white sailors besides Washington and the other black members of the kitchen crew. Washington described the three as “very nice.”
At the time, the Navy’s policy with all black sailors was to assign them mess duty, ammunition handling, or similar tasks. Washington said he was treated well on the Hanford. However, he stated, “Sometimes you’d get a white officer, who would get uptight.”
On occasions when he was not treated well, and the Chief or the captain leaned of it, they would take steps, according to Washington, “to straighten things out.” Washington related, “At one point the ship’s captain, (who called Washington “Pensacola” -Washington doesn’t remember why) said to me, “’Pensacola, if you have any problems here, talk to me.’ He straightened them out. He was a good captain.”
Ira Bates: U.S. Navy- Musician
Former Berks County resident, Ira Bates, recently died at the age of 88. He enlisted in the Navy in 1942 and served as a Musician Second Class, a drummer.
Arriving at the Naval Training station at Great Lakes, Illinois, Bates remembers meeting, “A lot of great musicians…that was big time. And then, from there they made up the bands and shipped us from there to San Francisco, then from San Francisco to the Hawaiian Islands.”
Bates’ group played for troops on battleships, at different bases and camps on the Hawaiian Islands and on one occasion on an aircraft carrier. He became a member of the Naval Band as well.
Bates and his band would play for both black troops and white troops. However, he described how there was institutional segregation in the Navy, beginning at training camp at Great Lakes where one side was for black troops and one side for white troops, and continuing with the way audiences were arranged at performances when both white and black troops would attend.
With an understatement of, “Everything wasn’t peaches and cream,” Bates recalled, “You had to grit your teeth sometimes, because you know, if you messed up, you know where you would go, to the brig, and that was rough there.”
Bates contrasted the experience his son had in the service, with his own: “These young guys right here, you’ve got the cream of the crop and you know, it’s like my son when he was in the service. It’s much better now. I tell him it wasn’t always like that.”
Following Bates’ discharge, he returned to Reading where he was a professional musician for decades, playing drums with many local musicians, including Frankie Scott and Wes Fischer. He also was employed by American Chain and Cable, and operated a mobile home park for several years.
The Ground Work
In Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army From the Normandy Beaches, To the Bulge, To the Surrender of Germany, Steven Ambrose wrote: “The world's greatest democracy fought the world's greatest racist with a segregated Army. It was worse than that: the Army and the society conspired to degrade African-Americans in every way possible, summed up in the name Jim Crow.”
However, through the loyal service in World War II by African American members of what has been called, “The Greatest Generation,” the ground work was laid for the realization of the goals of the “Fighting for the Double V” campaign – overcoming second class citizenship –even if that would still take a number of years to achieve.