Monday, February 28, 2011

Cortland Hopkins 1914–2011

My 96-yr-old grandpa passed away this weekend. I treasure the regular phone calls we shared these past few years. Interviewing him about his WWII service was a fantastic way for us to connect. Last November he had an absolute blast with his book signings and the unexpected media attention. Cortland was the friendliest guy you could ever meet, was an active volunteer in his church and community, and was admired by all who knew him. Anyone would be lucky to lead a life as long and as full as his.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

More WWII Tampico Flats photos

Peter Sloboda was a member of the 280th Port Company of my grandfather's 519th Port Battalion. I recently received some of his war time photos. These show Tampico Flats, the apartment building that was home to the 517th and 519th port battalions while in Antwerp, Belgium. Click images to see a larger version.
I like this scene. Judging by the winter fatigues, I suspect that the shot was taken shortly after the battalion arrived in Antwerp in November of 1944. Note the carbines, which were the standard firearm of the port company troops.

Isidore Primis (left) and Peter (right) with a barrage balloon. Note the arc painted on the face of the GI's helmet. This marking was characteristic of unit in the 1st Engineer Special Brigade.

Peter also has photos of his train ride from Utah Beach to Antwerp. I'll post those shots later.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

229th Port Company, 490th Port Battalion roster

I have been talking with Charles Sprowl a veteran of the 490th Port Battalion. The 490th was an African-American unit serving in the US Army's Transportation Corps during WWII. Charles saved the roster for his company, the 229th Port Co. I'm reproducing the list here in the hopes that family members find dad or grandfather in the list of names. I want connect people with the remarkable service of the WWII port companies.

My book Longshore Soldiers is a history of my grandfather's 519th Port Battalion. Although a separate unit, the 519th served alongside the 490th on Utah Beach, performed the very same duties, and experienced the same dangers. I wrote a brief history of the 490th on this blog. If you see your family member in the list below, because there is a documentary which includes a discussion of the 490th. The History Channel film, A Distant Shore, features Charles and several other members of the 490th.

Charles' roster separates the names by platoon.

John M. Sutton (First Lt.) • George W. Crowder • Alphonsa L. Wiggins • Charles D. Noriega • Walter E. Dawson • George N. Gonsalves • Osie Doster • Fred L. Dowell • Floyd McDowell • Fred D. Bell • Neal B. Embry • Eddie B. Jenkins • Andrew Vincent • Roy L. Rankins

Service Section
William J. Tillman • Alfred A. Allen • Eugene L. Isaac • Sam V. Viverett • Peavy W. Sullivan • Luther Hill • Vernon Vann • Robert C. Crawford • Eddie Reeder • Leroy Sims • Rogers Mostella • Dan Williams • Norval P. Rollins • Thomas E. Wilson • Charles B. Howard • Joe E. Cotten

1st Platoon
Robert E. Jackson (Second Lt.) • James W. Wanza • Marquis A. King • Earnest J. Lizana • Walter Ramsey • Richard Simms • Edward H. Morris • David McKinney • Robert A. Self • Robert L. Gardner • Benjamin Horne • George Cook • J. T. Brent • William W. Jones • Emmett Spell • Charlie Gooch • Eddie Perkins • Arelius Bivins • M. L. Newsom • Edward L. Smith • Roosevelt King • Ralph Daniels • John H. Moton • Clarence Youngue • Frank Warren • Primus Strong • Cornelius Williams • James L. Ritchie • James S. Williams • Felix Turner • Ralph N. Johnson • Arthur L. Sloan • Claude Graham • Vergil L. Dillon • Oscar L. Oliver • Frank Norwood • Lester Lewis • Henry Brinkley • Willie W. McCarver • Charles R. Porter • Edgar Porter • Fancher L. Clark • Howard Johnson • J. C. Williams • Clayborn W. Hooks • J. V. Lomax • James E. Rankins • Nathaniel Oliver • Walter E. McGowan • Willie H. Roseberry • Walter I. Trabue • Thurmon Harvey • Harry L. Sinclair • Earnest Taylor • William Parker • James H. Latiker • Willie R. Maxwell • Clennon Longmire • James E. Hill • William G. Richards • William F. Patton • Lonnie Harris • Banker Sargent • Charlie A. Broach • M. C. Brock

2nd Platoon
Willam J. Kilduff (Second Lt.) • Bernice Knox • Edward McGhee • Harold J. Wilson • Willie E. Harlow • James McRee • Theo McKeever • Cecil Mickles • Zanders Kelly • Frank Thornton • Willie J. Walker • Arthur Barnes • George W. Matlock • James Brown? • McKinley Barnes • Edward Jones, Jr. • Marck C. Tarver • Gilbert H. Thomas • Nathaniel Triplett • James Williams • Eddie L. Tyner • Eddie L. Tyner • Roosevelt Tolbert • Eddie L. Westbrook • Jessie D. Brandon • Donnie Young • Edward Jakes • James Taylor • Charles Warren • Homer W. Moffett • Ed Couch • Austin R. Milne • Alphonzo Scott • Woodrow Jones • L. C. Williams • Walter D. Phillips • Samuel C. Thomas • Anderson B. Perry • Nathan L. Williams • Thomas C. Mucker • Amvell Price • Lewis Ross • Clyde Evans • George P. Wright • Jack Hall • Ellie H. Marshall

3rd Platoon
George T. Vauk? (Second Lt.) • John R. Garrett • Morris C. Sydax • John hyatt, Jr. • Albert Sheffield • Arthur W. Morris • Willie D. Jackson • Gilbert Wyche • Isadore Moses • Charles E. Polk • David T. Tucker • Earnest Adams • James L. Owens • Roy Sargent • Henry Jackson • Lonnie Lofton • Percy J. Smith • Clarence Henshaw • Charles E. Smith • Paul E. Sanders • Alvin Spott • Robert C. Sparks • Alvin Roberts • William W. Thompson • George Taylor • Nathaniel Benjamin • Wilbur Johnson • Robert J. Thomas • William G. Dixon • James A. Mucker • James O. Davidson • Allen S. Johnson • Millard P. Scruggs • R. C. Martin • Joe Solomon • Allen H. Jackson • Wilbur Hunt • Dan White • Felder Smart • Donnie E. Staten • Cleveland Billingsly • Lem Garrett, Jr. • Thomas Williams • William H. Starks • Lawyer Pearson • Paul D. Norman • John H. Yancy • Jackson Hall • Leroy G. Whitter • Russell Webb • Carl Smith • Richard Clark • James H. L. Shaw • John W. Ross • Lucien E. Gordon • Johnnie C. Shorter • Clyde Hartley • Walter H. Jones • Julian D. Jackson • Willie Clayton • Robert J. Johnson • Austin E. Johnson • Walter L. Donald • Lonnie Johnson • Clifton D. Laster

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

James Baker enlists in the segregated Army

A retired doctor, James Baker started his medical career as a medic in the 494th Port Battalion. In 2008 Dr. Baker privately published a memoir and he has given me permission to reproduce the chapters on life in the Army. Earlier in the month I posted about his D-Day experience. Today's post reveals some of the frustrations felt by black soldiers in a segregated army:

Photo: James Burton and James Baker.

I had completed 2 years of Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) in college before entering the army. There was a program to place college students called the Star Unit. In the Star Unit one took several tests. At the end of the week a student would be called in for an interview to determine what one would do in the service. When it was observed that I had had two years ROTC, I was informed that there was a training unit for blacks in Arizona. “We can send you out there and you can be trained to become an officer in the infantry.” I said, “Thank you, no.” I also had two years of math and I was asked, “Would you be interested in becoming an engineer?” My interest did not include engineering. Then I was asked if I was interested in an outfit for blacks in Tuskegee to become a pilot in the Air Force. I had never been in a plane, and had no desire to go in a plane. I said, “No way am I interested in flying an airplane.” Finally I was asked what I wanted to do. I was aware of an accelerated program for medical students. I said, “I’d like to go back to college and get into the accelerated medical training.” However, the minimum qualifications were completion of a year of physics, a year of biology, and a year of chemistry. I had taken two years of physics and biology. But I had only had a half-year of chemistry. Therefore I was disqualified. Inasmuch as I had turned down the programs for which I qualified. An officer said, “We will need to make a decision because you will be shipping out soon.” Inasmuch as I was interested in going into medicine. I said that I would like to be a medical technician. I was informed that there were no current openings for Black medical technicians. However one would begin in Abilene, Texas the next month. I was kept at the Star Unit for 3 weeks before I was shipped out.

The Army was segregated during my military tour. It was not a pleasant experience for me. It seemed that it was a matter of me getting court martialed or getting out. For example, an incident happened when I was part of a group of four soldiers being sent from Fort Dix, New Jersey to Camp Barkley, Texas just outside of Abilene. I was called into the office one day and informed that I was in charge of carrying the paperwork for all four of us, and the tickets. We had a Pullman coach from New York City to Abilene, Texas. When we got to New Orleans, we had to change trains. When it came time to get on the new train, we went over to the Pullman coach. The conductor said, “Where are you boys going?” You know you are not going to ride in any Pullman. Get on up there where you belong!” I said, “These are government paid tickets and we have reservations.” The conductor said, “Well, you ain’t getting on this train!” I called to the two white military policemen who were walking passed. One asked, “What’s the problem?” The conductor said, “These boys think they’re going to ride on the Pullman.” The MP looked at our tickets and said, “You guys from up North just want to come down here and start a lot of trouble.” I said, “We are not interested in starting trouble, we have tickets.” He said, “Get up there where you were told.” I said, “These are government paid tickets.” He said, “I don’t care what they are. You’re not going to ride on the Pullman. If you’re going to start trouble we’re going to take care of that.” I said, “I’m not interested in starting trouble. We just want to ride according to our tickets on the Pullman coach to Texas.” The other guys said, “Come on Baker, let’s not start an argument.”

We went to the front of the train and got on board for the long congested ride. We got seats, but some mothers holding babies came aboard. We got up and gave them our seats. We sat on our duffle bags in the middle of the aisle with the dust and cinder flying in the open windows of the train. When it came time to eat, we soldiers had to walk back to the dining car, single file with a white MP in front and one in the rear – both with carbines [firearms]. There was a black curtain in the diner to separate us from the whites. Every time I think about that I still get angry. We were rushed while we tried to eat. I said, “We’re going to fight for our country for this kind of democracy!” We traveled this way to Abilene, Texas from New Orleans. When we got to Texas I couldn’t wait to go see the officer in charge and tell him what happened. He said, “Soldier that’s all behind us. You might just as well forget it.” I said, “But here’s the tickets right here.” I wanted something to be done. He said, “Nothing’s going to be done. Just go on back to your barracks.”

There were nice barracks for white American soldiers. The black soldiers were hauled through these sections of the camp. Our barracks were next to a big cesspool. They had been used years prior for the Civilian Conservation Corporation camp, which had been long ago abandoned. The first several weeks we spent renovating the buildings. When the wind blew in the right direction, you would have the privilege of inhaling the awful smell of the cesspool. We were there to be trained as Medical Technicians. We were the 66th Medical Battalion.

We couldn’t go to the PX. You could look in, but we were not allowed to go in. An officer came to tell us there were five theaters on the station grounds. He said, “You cannot attend any except the one that is in open air.” There was even a section reserved for blacks. If it rained, or anything, we could not go to a movie. I remember Joe Louis and some of his sparring partners were going to entertain the troops. We were permitted to go to the shows. If one protested over anything, you were accused of trying to start some trouble.

During basic training if we went into town on pass, in order to get back to camp we had to take a government bus or a cab. Most of us could not afford cabs. We would line up to get on the GI bus to return to camp. We had to wait until there were no other white soldiers to board the bus. If you were late getting back to camp, there were always extra duties assigned. As a result, quite a few of us just did not bother to go into town often.

Friday, February 4, 2011

James E. Baker on Omaha Beach

I've been talking to Dr. James Baker, a veteran medic of the 494th Port Battalion. A couple years ago James self-published a memoir, which includes his time in the Army. It's not for sale to the general public, but he sent me a copy and gave me permission to reproduce some of the text on my website. Today I'm posting his chapter about hitting Omaha Beach on D-Day:

"After a few days we were loaded aboard ships. We sailed to rendezvous with other fleets headed for Normandy Beach in France. We were to land on June 5th but the waves were too rough. The invasion was postponed until the next day, June 6th, 1943 – D-Day. As we met with the chaplain for his last sermonette aboard ship, he said that even though we could see the shore of France, many of us would not live to get there.

I remember going down to the deck below topside and sitting down to eat a box of c-ration (a boxed meal about the size of a cracker jack box). Suddenly, there was this tremendous explosion. All of the lights went out. The ship tilted, as if were going to turn over, but instead it began to rock and remained upright. The ladder, which I had used to come down from the topside deck, was gone. It was knocked loose. However, we soon found the ladder and replaced it. We began scrambling out like rats scurrying for cover. Coming mostly from the rear of the ship were several fellows who had fallen among various vehicles below them. Some soldiers used the floodlights and went down to free the soldiers who were tapped. Soon the cry for medics was heard all around. Our unit, the 494th Port Battalion, appeared to be the only unit aboard with medics. Racial segregation existed in the military then, but the fact that we were black did not seem to be an issue. While we became busy administering first aid, an announcement was made that our ship had struck an acoustic mine in the water.

We were told that the ship was sinking slowly. This took place on D-day. The next morning, D+1, a detail of four of us who were medics, was assigned to accompany the major, who was our medical officer, to take ashore four bodies of the soldiers who had died in the incident. The major was a white surgeon, Paul Warner, MD, from Nashville, Tennessee. We were instructed to take the bodies to a site that would be used until the bodies could be buried. This site was in the section on the beach designated as “DOG RED”. We were told to report there in three days to rejoin our unit. The transfer of the four bodies, which we were to take ashore occurred according to a plan that had been developed. Essentially, each body was secured to a stretcher. A pulley type of arrangement was made between the ship, which we were now on, and the landing craft brought along side the ship. One by one a stretcher was fastened to the rope serving as a pulley. When a wave came, a stretcher was swung from the ship to the landing craft. After this process, it was time for our detail to make the transfer.

Major Warner said that he would be the first to make the hazardous “trip”. He made his jump successfully. I volunteered to go next. Some of the fellows asked if I had on my “dog tag” just in case. I stood on the rail of the ship holding on to a vertical rail with my left hand. When the wave brought the landing craft up a bit closer, I was told that as soon as the command to jump was given I had to make the jump. To hesitate could mean getting baptized between the ship and the landing craft. Of course I was apprehensive (scared). When the moment came, someone yelled, “jump”. I let go and jumped. The naval fellows on the landing craft broke my landing. The other three comrades successively made their jump. There were no casualties that resulted from this event. When the naval fellows reached a point where our detail was to be put ashore, one of them said to us, “Fellows, this is as far as we go. Good luck.” With that said, the front of the landing craft was lowered.

Our detail landed on the beach carrying a stretcher bearing the body of a fellow soldier awaiting burial. Bodies were in the water and on the sand for broad sections of the beach. Germans were up in the hills. Cannons, machine guns, booby traps, and rifles all seemed to be firing. Barbed, wire to resist advancement, was strewn over the beach. Again, calls for medics could be heard. After a while of running here and there to help someone in need, I got tired of being scared. In training we were told that we were going to encounter people for whom we could not do anything. We were instructed to give them morphine injections and let them die without pain. In a classroom, far removed from a battle situation, that sounds logical. However, in a real scene, this was not so easy. If one came upon a person bleeding, by stopping the bleeding, the person’s life may be spared. We were told to keep that focus.

Along this line, I was attending an officer who was white. He had been shot in the left knee. I was attempting to stop the bleeding. He said, “Get your damn hands off me n*****.” I was tempted to comply with his request! There were plenty of other people in need of help. However, I said, “Sir, somebody’s got a problem and it’s not me. Whether you want me to work on you or not, I’m going to.” He was in pain and he was still bleeding. I said, “I’m trying to stop the blood because by the time you get picked up, and taken to the hospital ship, you could die from bleeding. So whether you want me to work on you or not I’m sorry.” Again I said, “I’m going to work on you anyway.” He just kept telling me to get my black hands off him. One part of my nature was to accommodate his request, but I could not. We were still down on the beach. We hadn’t been able to push too far inland. There were fellows all around hollering for medics. I patched this officer up, put a tag on him. He could not fight me, at least not then. His fighting seemed to be over. Some other medics picked him up to return him to England for treatment.

At night, the Germans would send small planes over to strike the beach. It seemed to be more or less “nuisance raids” to keep us from sleeping. It appeared as if anyone with a gun was shooting. We were told to lay parallel to the beach so at least you had less of a chance of getting hit by a bullet from the strike fire."

See part 1 of James Baker's wartime experience: enlisting in the segregated Army