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.

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