Posts Tagged ‘them’

Revealed: How Britons welcomed black soldiers during WWII, and fought alongside them against racist GIs

December 6th, 2015

“These men have been sent to this country to help in its defence, and whatever their race or creed they should be entitled to the same treatment as our own soldiers.”

Letter to the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette

While white GIs sought to have them banned from pubs, clubs and cinemas and frequently subjected them to physical and verbal assault, many ordinary Britons welcomed the black troops into their homes – and on several occasions physically stood up to their tormentors.

The book, Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, at Home and at War, also reveals how in June 1943 there was a public outcry when four black servicemen were refused service in a bar in Bath, for no reason other than the colour of their skin.

One resident described the episode as “disgraceful” and wrote to the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette stating: “These men have been sent to this country to help in its defence, and whatever their race or creed they should be entitled to the same treatment as our own soldiers.”

A 320th Barrage Balloon crew in action, Corporal A. Johnson of Houston, Texas walks a VLA balloon toward a winch with help from two men in his crew on Omaha Beach. The VLA balloons flew up to 2,000 feet

In one of the most notorious incidents fighting broke out when white Military Police officers – one of whom was drunk – began harassing black GIs outside a pub in the Lancashire village of Bamber Bridge.

But in what could be regarded as a surprising turn of events the locals sided of the black troops.

A later account of the riot, which began on June 24, 1943, stated: “The MPs expected the locals to resent the presence of the blacks but the locals sided with the blacks. The MPs, using racial expletives, returned with two more and tried to frighten the blacks, who fought back with bricks and bottles.”

More than seven servicemen were wounded in the fighting and 32 black soldiers were later court-martialled. Between November 1943 and February 1944 there were 56 such clashes between white troops and their black counterparts, an average on more than four a week.

GI Willie Howard, of the segregated 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion – whose task on the D-Day beaches was to raise the curtain of balloons protecting Allied troops from German planes – later went as far as to say: “Our biggest enemy was our own troops.”

Willie Howard

In another notable case a public campaign, including a petition of thousands of British signatures, led to the US President Eisenhower revoking the death sentence on Leroy Henry, a black soldier wrongly convicted of raping a woman near Bath, in May 1944.

The book also cites a letter from the owner of a café in Oxford to the Times, in which he recalled a black soldier presenting him with a letter from his commanding officer asking him to be served.

The café owner, a Mr D. Davie-Distin, promptly served him and said: “Had there been the slightest objection from other customers I should not have had any hesitation in asking them all to leave.”

And he added that the incident had left him “ashamed” that a man “fighting for the world’s battle for freedom and equality” had to resort to such humiliating measures to obtain a meal.

For the black GIs, to be treated with basic decency, after years of suffering humiliation, abuse and the daily threat of lynching from whites in the segregated southern states of their native US was, in the words of one of their number, Arthur Guest, like “a spark of light”.

File photo: Arthur Guest holds his wartime portrait

Guest was a sergeant with the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion – entirely composed of black soldiers led by white officers – which arrived in Pontypool, South Wales, in February 1944, and found itself among a population that had rarely seen a black face before.

“The general consensus of opinion seems to be that the only American soldiers with decent manners are the Negroes.”

George Orwell

Another member of the 320th was Wilson Monk , who was billeted in the basement of the town’s Trinity Methodist church.

Here he met the organist Godfrey Prior, a milkman, who quickly invited him to join the congregation.

Wilson Monk (third from left) and other fellow GI's

Mr Prior’s wife Jessie took it on herself to provide Monk with the occasional home cooked meal and – with her 18-year-old boy Keith away on active service – came to look on him as a surrogate son.

In February 1944 she wrote a touching letter from her home in the village of Abersychan to Monk’s mother Rosita, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to reassure her about her son’s well-being.

Mrs Prior, who like most Britons outside of the port cities of Liverpool, Cardiff, London and Bristol, has never seen a black person before, told her:

“Mrs Monk, you have a son to treasure and feel very proud of. We have told him he can look upon our home as his home while in our country. We shall take every care of him . . . we will look upon him now as our own.”

File photo: Wilson Monk points to the names of his friends painted on the canister of a German gas mask he found in Normandy in 1944

A Padre’s tale: How an Army chaplain’s diary throws new light on the anniversary of D-Day

The arrival of 130,000 black troops in Britain – in many places they were the first Americans soldiers to arrive – had presented the British authorities with a dilemma.

Although Churchill’s war Cabinet objected to their presence, British officials rejected US Army requests that the men be formally segregated from the white population, fearing a negative reaction from voters over what would be regarded as a distinctly ‘un-British’ policy.

In this rare close-up of a 320th Barrage Balloon crew in action The VLA balloons flew up to 2,000 feet

At a time of rising nationalist sentiment across the British Empire they were also worried about alienating Commonwealth troops if they began to treat black soldiers as second class citizens.

But anticipating a backlash from white American troops, civil servants introduced a de-facto policy of separation, designed to encourage British civilians and soldiers not to fraternise with the black GIs.

However the wider British public were far more welcoming.

“Equitable treatment abroad helped fuel the budding civil rights movement that would rock America in the coming decades.”

Linda Hervieux, author of Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes

Black troops generally behaved more courteously and with more dignity than the brash white GIs, who openly mocked Britain’s old fashioned cars, bad food and even its poor plumbing – so much so that many Britons preferred them to their countrymen, who soon earned the sobriquet of “overpaid, overfed, oversexed and over here”.

British women noted that, in contrast to the white GIs, the black soldiers did not cat call them – something that back home could have seen them lynched.

George Orwell wrote in Tribune: “The general consensus of opinion seems to be that the only American soldiers with decent manners are the Negroes.”

‘What you did was beautiful’, Dutch famine survivors tell British airmen 70 years on

The presence of so many black troops on British soil had a lasting legacy in a country that was soon to see an influx of Afro-Caribbean migrants, starting with the arrival of the Windrush ship at Tilbury, in 1948.

320th men having fun in Hawaii with a their standard issue M-1 rifle

While most people have heard of the GI babies the US troops left behind, few have considered that many of these children were of mixed-race, the offspring of affairs between local white women and the black soldiers they encountered.

Many of those “brown babies” only came to know their fathers in later years, with some of their descendants now embarking on a search for their American grandfathers.

Miss Hervieux said: “Given the racial tensions that exist in Britain today, as in other countries, it is hard to believe that the UK was once a relative racial paradise for African Americans. Britons were willing to open their hearts and minds to fellow human beings who were there to help them.

She added: “Their efforts extended beyond mere hospitality. True and deep friendships developed, some of which endured long after the war. Although Britons suffered through vicious bombings that ravaged the country and extreme privation, they never forgot basic human kindness.”

The treatment the men received at the hands of ordinary British men and women also had a significant impact on post-war America, believes Mrs Hervieux.

“In Britain America’s black soldiers were welcomed and treated with respect and kindness. Once they returned home, there was no going back,” she said. “Equitable treatment abroad helped fuel the budding civil rights movement that would rock America in the coming decades.”

Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, at Home and at War, by Linda Hervieux, is published by Harper Collins.


World War Two

The pioneering surgeon who healed men scarred by war, a new monument created in his honour – and the remarkable twist of fate that links them

May 30th, 2014

In the end McIndoe and his team in West Sussex “fixed up” 649 servicemen – men who underwent such innovative treatment that they rakishly dubbed themselves The Guinea Pig Club.

Their disfigurement meant the possibility of being shunned by sweethearts and friends, their lives blighted. So McIndoe not only treated them, he also stood up for them. “He had enormous battles with the authorities,” says Montfort Bebb, now 86. “He said, ‘You treat my boys properly.’ He even had a keg of beer for them in the ward. He had to give them the odd dressing-down, they were young men – they did misbehave – but they loved him.”

Such devotion suggests that few men more richly deserve being immortalised in bronze than Sir Archibald McIndoe. But by the time, two years ago, that Jacquie Pinney, chief executive of the medical research charity Blond McIndoe, began a campaign to erect a statue to McIndoe, his name and reputation had faded from the public eye.

The charity was founded in 1961 by the industrialist Neville Blond, who lived near East Grinstead and saw McIndoe’s work there first-hand. He admired how McIndoe had taken existing, primitive, plastic-surgery techniques and pioneered new methods that transformed not only the lives of his patients, but also the whole field of reconstructive surgery.

But despite McIndoe’s achievements, there were no statues or monuments to his honour, even in his native New Zealand. “There was nothing,” says Pinney. “I felt it was long overdue.”

Hence when she called Martin Jennings, the acclaimed sculptor of the much-loved John Betjeman statue in St Pancras station, she was worried that he would not know who McIndoe was: “I assumed he would think, ‘Who are these weird people calling from East Grinstead?’”

When she got through to him, he went quiet on the line, apparently confirming her worst fears. She need not have worried. “It was amazing,” says Jennings now. “She imagined that I would never have heard of McIndoe. But in fact I knew all about him.”

Over the course of the ensuing conversation, Martin Jennings related how his father, Michael, had been a tank commander in the war. On the afternoon of October 17 1944, with the Allies bearing down on the Maas canal, he was leading a troop of four tanks from the 15/19 King’s Royal Hussars on a push through heavily fortified German positions east of Eindhoven, in the Netherlands.

Suddenly his Cromwell tank was hit by a shell. The driver was wounded but, determined to press on, an undaunted Jennings switched to another tank and continued the advance. He was less lucky second time round. The shell that hit his commandeered tank killed its driver. As the armoured vehicle erupted into flames, Jennings himself was badly burned. He had little time to reflect on his condition.

“In his diary he recorded that the Germans were ‘coming on a bit’,” says his son. “I think that’s a euphemism for large numbers of them trying to kill him.”

Under heavy machine-gun fire, he made it back to his own lines. From there he was evacuated to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, where his head and his hands were entirely bound in bandages. He was 23.

His sisters visited and fed him grapes through a mouth?hole in the wrappings. But he also received another visitor – Archie McIndoe, who was on one of his regular tours of the country to see if there were patients that he might be able to help.

Michael Jennings was unusual for a Guinea Pig, in that he was not an airman. None the less, he was transferred to East Grinstead and, over the course of the next two years, underwent a host of skin grafts and reconstructive procedures at the hands of McIndoe and his fellow surgeon, Percy Jayes.

At the outset, Michael Jennings’s morale could hardly have been lower. His sisters found him staring into a mirror, repeating: “I’m burned to a crisp. I’m burned to a crisp.”

But, as his son notes, “McIndoe had this remarkable capacity to transfer his confidence to his patients.”

Jack Perry can remember that golden touch: “He sat on my bed and kindly spoke to me. He said: ‘I see you play a lot of sport. Well, you’re going to play again. Maybe not as well, but you certainly will play.’”

That ability to lift spirits was an essential part of the McIndoe therapy. “His patients, like my father, were such young men,” says Martin Jennings. “They were hoping to get married, have children and a normal life. Suddenly they were plunged into the prospect of a life of passivity and victimhood. But McIndoe was so upbeat. His ethos was that these terrible injuries did not mean that their lives were over.”

Michael Jennings was one of those who, with McIndoe’s help, refused to accept that his life was over. In 1952, he got married, and he and his wife had 11 children.

Today, Martin Jennings describes his family connection and the call from Jacquie Pinney as “an astonishing coincidence”. She had found in the sculptor a man who had long nursed the idea of creating a monument to the man who had cared for his father and overseen “significant improvement to the lower half of his face – to his nose, mouth, lips”.

Indeed it is a hardly a stretch to suggest that without McIndoe, Michael Jennings might never have married, and his sculptor son might never have been born.

It has taken two years since that 2012 phone call for the project to come to fruition. On one research trip to East Grinstead, Jennings asked for records from the war. There he turned up a file featuring a familiar face. For 10 years after he was burned, Michael Jennings refused to be photographed. But there, in the hospital files, were images from that lost decade that McIndoe had taken to plan and perform his operations.

“That was very moving,” says Jennings. “I was looking at pictures of my father, and he was the same age in the pictures as my own sons were in real life. I found myself feeling a sense of paternal protectiveness to my own father. That was very much McIndoe’s spirit. He was a father to these men. This is a story of fathers and sons.”

With that same protective spirit, McIndoe would send the men under his care into East Grinstead, to stroll the town, drink in the pubs, attend parties – just like other young men. And the people of East Grinstead, to their immense credit, learned to welcome these disfigured men in uniform. Now it is known as “the town that did not stare”.

Jennings’s McIndoe memorial is, as a result, an arrangement of two slightly larger than life-size figures. Seated is a airman, his burned hands clawed together, his scarred face turned to one side. Standing behind him, resting a reassuring hand on each shoulder, is the figure of McIndoe.

They are framed by a stone bench. “When the local people sit on that long curved seat, they complete the monument,” says Jennings. “This is a tribute to Archie McIndoe and the Guinea Pigs, but it is also a tribute to the people of East Grinstead.”

Michael Jennings, like many of the Guinea Pigs, went on to outlive by far the man who had so helped him. He died in 2002, aged 82, after a long post-war career as a teacher. He too, will live on in the memorial. Although the figure of the airman is not based on any one man, Martin Jennings modelled the burned hands on those of his father.

The result, says Montfort Bebb, would have enormously pleased her own father, Archie McIndoe. Not that he subscribed to theories of “greatness”.

“He said that greatness is just hard work – attention to detail and a lot of hard work. He probably worked himself to death. But he never mentioned his own health. He was just devoted to medicine and patching up those poor boys.”

Visit mcindoememorial.com to make a donation


World War Two

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