2001-05-26 / Columnists

From the G-Man by Gary G. Toms

Hey people! I was watching television the other night with some friends, and I saw the trailer for what many believe will be the biggest film of the summer. That film is "Pearl Harbor".

I was not prepared for the dazzling array of special effects that were unleashed in the sixty-second ad, but these special effects paled in comparison to one unforgettable shot in this amazing trailer.

As the bombing commences, military personnel and civilians are seen scrambling for cover. Ear piercing explosions are destroying ships, planes and weaponry. In the midst of all this, the camera cuts to an African-American sailor behind an antiaircraft machine gun, and he is crying as he fires upon the Japanese bombers. I was shocked, silent and proud all at the same time, and a lump had found its way into my throat.

I reacted in this manner because I know that Hollywood has major problems with historical accuracy in its movies, especially where African-Americans are concerned. As a former student of cinema, its history and African-American history, I can truly appreciate what those precious seconds meant as the camera captured Cuba Gooding, Jr. behind that gun. Soon, as a result of seeing this film, many of you will come to know, if you don’t know already, why this scene is so important to the history of this country.

The man behind the antiaircraft gun was Dorie Miller, and he was not some character written into the script by the writers, directors or producers. He was the very first American hero of World War II.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, it was Dorie Miller, a messman (cook) on the USS Arizona, who rose to the occasion. Coming up from the ship’s galley during the attack, Miller, who had no previous shooting practice due to the segregated nature of navy training, dragged his wounded captain to safety, commandeered the antiaircraft gun on his own and shot down four Japanese airplanes before the Arizona sank.

Miller was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism, pinned on his chest by Admiral C.W. Nimitz, on May 27, 1942. However, this was not enough to make him a navy gunner. Racism had struck again. Miller died later in World War II during the Japanese attack on the Liscome Bay, an aircraft carrier on which he was still working as a messman.

The legendary accomplishment of Dorie Miller was absent from much of the text I read about World War II, from elementary school to high school, and it pissed me off! It was only through my introduction to African-American history, during every semester I spent at Queens College, that I began to learn and appreciate the contributions that African-Americans made to this country during World War II. The more I learned, the angrier I got. I could not believe that preliminary education had denied me access to such a wealth of information and heritage.

While Hollywood and television portrayed John Wayne, Tyrone Power, and George C. Scott as the military Gods of the World War II era, nothing was conveyed to American audiences regarding the existence of segregated units, high-ranking Blacks in the military and the numerous racial riots, within the military, which took place during that time.

The Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black pilots in the U.S. armed forces, flew their first combat mission in North America on June 2, 1942, and broke a barrier against Blacks in aerial combat that the army had maintained since World War I. Moreover, African-American pilots amassed an excellent record in World War II. They flew over fifteen thousand sorties, over fifteen hundred missions, and shot down or damaged over four hundred enemy aircraft.

Perhaps the most important contribution made by Black fighter pilots was in escort missions with heavy bombers over Germany. They flew two hundred such missions without losing one American heavy bomber to enemy fighter aircraft! To this day, their accomplishments have not been embraced by America.

In December of 1944, in what became known as The Battle of the Bulge, the Germans overran Allied positions in a desperate last attempt to win the war. Faced with a shortage of white soldiers, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of the Allied forces, accepted a recommendation from General John Lee to take volunteers from Black service units. As a result, more that five thousand Blacks volunteered, many of which were noncommissioned officers who took reductions in grade to get an opportunity to fight the Germans. Alas, this is not taught in many of the classrooms across this country, past or present.

The list of African-American heroes from the World War II period is extensive, and the fact that they have been left out of educational textbooks, magazines, television and major films about World War II is a national disgrace! These men, and women, chose to defend a country that did not respect them as human beings or children of God.

Military life, in World War II, was not immune to the horrors of discrimination. Segregation was a common practice within the services, and the Marines and Army Air Corps excluded Blacks altogether. Blacks who did fight alongside white soldiers were often subjected to taunts and inhumane treatment, such as white soldiers urinating or defecating in their boots or on their bunk. In spite of these hardships, Black soldiers upheld their dignity and America’s honor.

The great author, and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, described it best twenty years ago while speaking at Far Rockaway High School. He told us how he was in a concentration camp with many other Jews who were on the verge of dying. The war had ended, and the Germans were fleeing the campsite. He stated, "We looked toward the gates, and they were being opened by these Black men. We were frightened because we had never seen Black people before, but when we realized they were American soldiers, we were elated. They cared for us until we could be safely transported. They were the first soldiers to free us, and I have never read one book that told of this incident. It is truly, truly sad"

So, on this Memorial Day, I salute all those who fought and died for this country, but I send special honors to all the Dorie Millers of the World War II era. Tom Hanks may have saved Private Ryan, but Dorie Miller made Black America lift every voice and sing.

See you next week.

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