Below we reproduce a story based on real events, written during the second world war by a serving US chaplain*, about the repercussions of racial segregation, an issue so sensitive, the story never saw the light of day – till now.
According to the author, this story was written ‘on a rainy weekend in the summer of 1944’ while he was stationed in London during the blitz, waiting for orders to proceed to Radio Luxembourg where British and US forces jointly operated a psychological warfare programme. The article was designed to generate support for a policy change among soldiers on the issue of segregation, but the subject was so sensitive, the authorities censored its publication.
‘Dear Mrs. McReynolds:
Your son was killed in action. I want you to believe this; I was with him when he died. It is not easy for me to tell you how. It is not a pretty story; war is not nice. But if we fully understand why he had to go, his sacrifice will not be in vain.
It was after the murder when I first saw your Harvey. They called me in as a minister to perform the last rites. When I looked at him, in his paratrooper uniform, I did not have to talk to him to realize how nice a boy he was. It was not easy to get him to unburden himself.
I guess your Harvey has always been a pretty independent fellow, who knows how to take care of himself and ask for no quarter. And take care of America, we must add.
You know all about his jump at H minus 3 on D-Day; how he helped to knock out a German 88mm battery that was harassing the boys who waded ashore on the French coast. He fought on like that for over two months until he was wounded. Did you know that he refused to let his men stop to help him? “Finish our patrol assignment”, he ordered. A real leader he was, your Harvey. He crawled back and was picked up unconscious by stretcher-bearers. Two miles he had covered that way, with shrapnel in both legs.
For that they gave him the Purple Heart. He was also recommended for the Soldier’s Medal, but that was still for another feat. He could not write you about it before, but I can tell you now, the way he told me. I sure would be proud to have a son like yours.
Not long before he was wounded, he and his three men were in their jeep on an advance patrol. They saw a young girl sitting on a milestone marked “Paris 81 km”, all alone. Harvey said she never stopped crying, even after they gave her all the K-ration candy and chocolate they had. One of the last things he wanted me to do was to send her a doll or something and tell her not to cry. She probably does not know that he went to the ruin that was her home. There he saw why she could not stop her weeping. Four bodies, three women and one old man. The old man was badly mauled; the women shot through the head. Harvey almost cried, although death was a familiar sight to him. He had seen many of his buddies go; he had put it to many a Nazi. But the needless slaughter of the entire family of this little girl was the thing that got him so mad – “Goddamn mad” your Harvey said, – and I don’t think he was swearing.
That feeling must have given him the blind courage to wipe out those two machine gun nests, almost single-handed. Thirty-one members of the master race were counted dead, and he without a scratch. God was with him, and still is, I’m sure.
After that shrapnel put him out, they brought him to England to get well. He thought much of you and Jane and entrusted me with your pictures. Wanted me to destroy them, he said, but I think you might wish to keep them. So I am sending them along. We must not forget Harvey, how he died, like so many other Harveys in this and other wars, to make this a better world to live in.
He had much to live for. But there was a Cpl. Lincoln Casey from Leesville, Alabama. He won’t come home either, and in his way had much to live for too. You want to know something about him. He was the instrument of your Harvey’s death. That Casey boy wasn’t a bad boy either; the only one his mother had. He used to give her every penny he earned, except for what he spent on Betsy, his girl. Back home in Alabama, where he was a “good n****r”, on the same plantation where his grandfather had worked as a slave, he was known as a good worker, who knew his place. Then they drafted him, made him a soldier. They brought him to England to help your Harvey fight the master race. That Casey boy never had much schooling; never amounted to more than a farm hand. But he loved to be in his country’s uniform. And like your Harvey, he had dreams for the future – a home, a wife and kids.
Your Harvey and that Casey boy wore the same uniform; they fought the same ruthless enemy who thought themselves to be the master race, destined to rule all others. But the two boys never exchanged more that a few words. Both were Americans and grew up in a world where a Negro was a n****r. Before your Harvey could start thinking on his own, he had learned to feel, feel strongly, that colored folks ought to stay in their place. All the nice people Harvey knew, even the preacher, thought that.
When he was up north for a summer, most people thought the same way, although the Yankees talked a lot about his “prejudices”. The colored folks up north had to stay in their Harlems and could not get good jobs, except for a handful of showcase samples to get the colored vote.
The only time the boys ever spoke to each other was just before Cpl. Lincoln Casey was killed. Killed by your Harvey. Not that they had been drinking and gotten into a fight. I was at the trial. I want to tell you the whole story as it happened. I don’t want you to get false reports. Regardless of what other people who don’t understand the whole thing may say, your Harvey was a good boy. And a good American too, despite what he did.
As Miss Mostyn testified at the trial, Cpl. Lincoln Casey was stopped by her little brother who asked him, “Any gum, chum?” That is what many English kids say when they see a Yank, for they have not been able to get any chewing gum since Hitler put the lights out all over the world. Cpl. Casey gave the boy part of his ration. Then he got into talking with the big sister, who was with him. She was the first girl he had met to talk to since he left America, his Ma and his Betsy. She was a nice girl too, all dressed for church. To her, brought up in England, he was just an American soldier. She teased him about the way he talked, his Alabama drawl, when your Harvey passed by.
Your Harvey had his first pass from the hospital. He could walk quite well, even without a cane. “Get away from that girl, you n****r”, he shouted. Casey did not move, as he would have back home in Alabama. In England he had come to feel himself to be as good as any other soldier fighting the master race. But he did not talk back either. He had been given strict instruction by his officers to keep out of all quarrels, no matter who was at fault.
Your Harvey said that silence got him pretty mad. He heard the girl exclaim that no one was bothering her and that he should mind his own business. But he was too mad. He just pushed that Casey boy, who pushed back. Then there was a crack, not a loud one, before any passer-by could interfere. “Like a coconut being split”, Miss Mostyn testified.
It takes so little to destroy life; careful training at Fort Benning and his combat experiences had taught your Harvey to hit quickly and effectively. It was almost instinctive with him, fighting I mean. It saved his life in many a close combat and perhaps that of many of his buddies. But it killed Lincoln Casey too.
I was with your Harvey, my dear Mrs. McReynolds, when they made him atone for the murder of a fellow soldier. “Race prejudice not admissible as an extenuating circumstance”, they said, when they refused to pardon him.
He and that Casey boy fell in action in that age-long struggle for a real democracy.
We Americans started it in 1776 in earnest, when we said that “all men are created equal”, when few really believed it.
Then we went a step forward in the Civil War to establish that a country can’t live half slave and half free. We wrote equality into our constitution but only slowly learned to practice it. Too slowly to save your Harvey.
He was sent across the sea to destroy the Nazis but we did not teach him much about the American way for which he was sent to fight. Harvey and Lincoln both died in action against the enemy.’
J.W.E. Chaplain, U.S. Army (August 15, 1944)
Read an IRR News story: ‘Forgotten soldiers of the Second World War’