'A Distant Shore' and the Segregated Units of D-Day

A new documentary explores the history of African-American's involvement in the D-Day invasion. Filmmaker Doug Cohen, and D-Day veteran David Brown talk with Tony Cox.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

D-Day, June 6, 1944. Allied Forces stormed the beaches at Normandy and finally turn the tide of World War II. Today, you can come to the countless books and film and scarcely find a mention of black American soldiers in that invasion. But they were there, albeit in segregated units. Now a new documentary tries to tell their story. It's called "A Distant Shore: African-Americans of D-Day." Here's a clip from the film.

(Soundbite of documentary, "A Distant Shore: African-Americans of D-Day")

Mr. DAVID BROWN (World War II Veteran): I came to shore June 6, about 4:00 in the afternoon. You can't imagine what it was like. Blood in the water. Blood all over the place. I had nightmares when I first came home. I had nightmares. And I still don't like to talk about it.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

CHIDEYA: "A Distant Shore" airs on the History Channel this Saturday. NPR's Tony Cox got together with the director of the film, Doug Cohen, and 87-year-old D-Day veteran David Brown. Cohen says of all the work he's done on the Second World War, this was the most difficult to research.

Mr. DOUG COHEN (Director, "A Distant Shore: African-Americans of D-Day"): Because there is no book called African-Americans of D-Day, you've got to really dig deeply into the research to find out little bits of information, putting things together because this hasn't been written much about in the past and there hasn't been much of this story told before.

COX: How were you able to find David Brown?

Mr. COHEN: David Brown actually came to us in a completely unusual way. His daughter had decided sometime ago that it was important for her to document her father's experiences in the war. She got in touch with me and said hey, I've got this interview I shot with my father. I hear you're making this documentary, could you possibly include it?

And I took a look at it and she had basically chronicled his entire story, and it turned out David Brown is part of the 490th Port Battalion, an all African-Americans battalion. And I'd interviewed two other gentlemen earlier in Georgia who are also part of the same battalion.

And actually one of the great side effects of this project is that David Brown was able to get in touch with those two men and talk to them about the past, which is always an important thing for World War II veterans.

COX: Mr. Brown, this event happened 63 years ago.

Mr. BROWN: Actually, it seemed like it was only yesterday. Those things just don't leave you. You know, you feel as if you're still young, even if you're old. But you still remember from every day that you were there.

COX: Well, can you put in perspective for me what it was like to be a black American soldier at that time, in that place?

Mr. BROWN: Well, frankly and (unintelligible), when you leave the United States and you get to Europe, those differences really, actually leave you. Because there's no separation there. We was all together and that the way it was in Europe. In fact, in England and France were - and Belgium, where I were. Once you - while you're in the states, well, that's a different story altogether.

COX: Well, what I meant was did you find that the American soldiers, the white American soldiers, did they treat you any differently once you were all together on the battlefield in Europe?

Mr. BROWN: Once we were together on the battlefield, it was like everybody was the same; nobody made any difference whatsoever. And this went (unintelligible). Everybody there, either your name was Mate or Mack, because nobody knew anybody. And everybody was friendly and no one seemed to want to be away from someone because he was black or white.

COX: Now let me ask you, Doug, in your research and in some of the other interviews that were part of the documentary, others had a different perspective.

Mr. COHEN: And of the seven or so men that I interviewed, the great many of them dealt with a lot of pain from mistreatment by white troops, had very difficult experiences in the training camps in the South, particularly in Camp Stewart, Georgia. It was one place where several of the men were stationed, and there were riots and all sorts of problems.

One of the most interesting things I found researching and telling the story is that when they got overseas, the reception in England couldn't have been more different. There was no segregation. The people of England, in fact, embraced them. And I think Mr. Brown experienced that contrast himself.

COX: Tell us how you felt, Mr. Brown, about being a black soldier in World War II, in combat at a time when you knew that back home Jim Crow was still the order of the day and that your rights as a citizen were not what they should have been. Did that cause you any conflict to be able to go and fight for the country that wasn't treating you the way that you should have been?

Mr. BROWN: Well, you know, personally, we didn't see any of these personally. And I know a lot of veterans felt the same way. We weren't going there fighting for anyone but yourself, the guy in front of you, and the fellows on both side of you and the fellow behind you.

When you're in combat, all of this other stuff that you talk about back here in your country leaves you. Because you are there and you're so busy protecting the fellow in front of you, the fellows on both side of you and one behind you. This is as far as you go. In this way you are number one and you can make it.

But otherwise, if you put too much on your mind, you forget about what happened back home there, because you know what happened back home is going to be there when you get back.

COX: And that's the case, too, isn't it? When you got back home - what did you find when you got back to Memphis in 1946?

Mr. BROWN: Well, it started when we got to discharge day in Fort Knox, Kentucky. At Fort Knox, we did all right. We was all together until we got to train station to come home. There was a colored waiting room, white waiting room, colored drinking fountain. And when the train comes, the blacks got on one side of the train in each coach, and the white got on the other. We just got off the train from New York. When we got off the ship we was all together. When we got to Fort Knox, it was separate.

Mr. COHEN: Many African-Americans troops in talking about this homecoming, many have stories about how German prisoners of war were treated better here in the states than they were coming back. They were allowed to go into dining halls, to go into the PX. As Allen Price(ph) says, you know. He came back home, got off the ship in Virginia and he couldn't go in the PX. And said the damn German prisoners could go in the PX.

Mr. BROWN: Yeah, this is what we heard before we even got to states, that the German prisoners was on the trains and dining cars and the black soldiers couldn't go in there. We heard this was before we even got to the states.

COX: Well, how does it make you feel now to know that your story is finally being told?

Mr. BROWN: Well, frankly, I don't know if people here actually believe it or not. Some people in this country are like that. But we as veterans, we could care less. We know we went through it, and that's the name of the game.

COX: What about that, Doug?

Mr. COHEN: When I was in Normandy filming, I went on a tour with a tour guide who seemed to know everything about everything. He knew where each bunker was. He practically knew what happened on each grain of sand. And I told him I'm going to be working on this film about African-Americans of D-Day.

And he looked at me with such conviction and said there were no African-Americans on D-Day.

COX: He said that.

Mr. COHEN: He said that. And I said, you know, I've just been to the cemetery and there's the grave of Brooke Stiff(ph), 328th Anti-Aircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion, an all black outfit - date of death, June 6, 1944. There's the grave of Willy Collins(ph), 498th Port Battalion, Mr. Brown's Battalion - date of death, June 6, 1944.

COX: What did he say to that?

Mr. COHEN: He had to acknowledge that I was correct. And what more proof do you need than that, than those gravestone sitting there, the voices of people like Mr. Brown. I certainly hope people will get the message and come to understand that there were African-Americans who served on D-Day in significant numbers.

COX: Let's finish this with this question to you, Mr. Cohen, and that's this. You have an example of one of the guys that you interviewed. He wanted to be in the documentary so badly. Tell me what happened?

Mr. COHEN: Well, we went to Georgia to interview him and a fellow veteran, Charles Sprawl(ph). And I got a call when I landed in Georgia that Mr. Blackwell had been taken to the hospital the night before for emergency surgery. I think it was for cancer.

And so I thought, well, the interview is probably not going to go forward. I went off and interviewed Mr. Sprawl. I got another call a little while later that said Mr. Blackwell wants to go ahead with the interview. And I said, wow, he wants to go ahead with the interview. He had surgery just the night before.

TEXT: I pulled up to the hospital with the cameraman, made our way up to his room. And I walked in the room and there was Mr. Blackwell. He had gotten out of bed, he was sitting up in a chair and he was dressed in his full military uniform. And that, to me, just hit home that these man have a story that they need to tell and in fact are desperate to tell.

CHIDEYA: That was documentary filmmaker Doug Cohen and D-Day veteran David Brown. They spoke with NPR's Tony Cox. "A Distant Shore: African-Americans of D-Day" premieres this Saturday on the History Channel.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: That's our show for today. And thanks for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show, just visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

Tomorrow, we bring you an in-depth look at how families are coping with winter heating costs.

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