Some 2,000 black troops hit Omaha and Utah beaches in Normandy on June 6, 1944, though you’ve probably never heard of them.
“When historians say World War II was fought on two fronts, they’re usually referring to Europe and the Pacific. For black GIs who went ashore during the invasion of France, it meant something different: Their enemies wore not only the gray of the German Wehrmacht, but the olive green of the American army.
Confined to segregated units, rejected by other troops and scorned by their own (inevitably white) officers, black American soldiers found they could liberate French villages but not themselves. It’s an ugly chapter of U.S. history that finally gets an airing Saturday night in the History Channel’s painfully acute documentary, “A Distant Shore: African Americans Of D-Day.”
Some 2,000 black troops hit Omaha and Utah beaches in Normandy on June 6, 1944, though you’ve probably never heard of them. “You see these movies and stuff like `The Longest Day’ – you don’t see African Americans,” says one black veteran interviewed in “A Distant Shore.” “‘Private Ryan,’ no African Americans … They didn’t show you any of that.” Another vet predicts the filmmakers won’t get any help from the U.S. government even now: “They probably don’t want to give you recognition we was there. But the record SAY we was there.”
If that sounds a little paranoid, it’s hard to blame these men, now in their 70s and 80s. Discouraged from enlisting in the first place (“It’s really interesting to think you’re not even considered good enough to die for your country,” acidly observes historian Yvonne Latty of New York University), they found the military was no refuge from racism.
Banned altogether from the Marines and Air Force, confined to jobs as longshoremen and cooks in the Navy, only in the Army could blacks join combat units. But their life there was an endless stream of humiliations, from being herded to the back of military buses on U.S. bases to being refused food by white units on the beach in Normandy. “After you brought them food and ammo and gas and water and all that other stuff,” marvels one vet from a unit that ferried trucks up the beach, dodging German artillery, “and they don’t want to feed you.”
Bad as that was, for some black soldiers the worst moment was returning to a United States where their sacrifices in the war meant nothing at all. One recalls getting off the ship from France to discover he wasn’t allowed inside stores on military bases. “The damn German prisoners was going in the PX,” he says. “WE couldn’t go in the PX. It hadn’t changed.”
In fact, World War II (particularly the months black soldiers spent preparing for the D-Day invasion in the integrated Great Britain where the population, beleaguered by four years of Nazi aid raids, saw them as a cavalry riding to the rescue) did stir the winds of change. Within three years the U.S. military would desegregate, and soon after that “Brown v. Board of Education” touched off the first sparks of the civil rights movement.
The soldiers sensed it coming. One vet recalls his unit’s cracker commander (white Southerners were frequently put in charge of black troops on the theory that they knew how to control them) shaking his head as he wrote weekend passes for the men to leave their base in England.
“If my grandmother knew that I was going to sign passes for you colored boys to go to town to see white women, she would turn over in her grave,” the officer mused. From the back, someone shouted: “Spin, granny, spin.””