Oral History Captures Black Veterans' Experiences
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
"We Were There: Voices of African-American Veterans from World War II to the War in Iraq." That's the title of a book by New York University journalism professor Yvonne Latty, who wanted to preserve the unique experiences of black veterans. Professor, thanks for joining us.
Dr. YVONNE LATTY (Author, " We Were There: Voices of African- American Veterans from World War II to the War in Iraq"): Thank you.
CHIDEYA: So your book is an oral history of the unrecognized contributions of black war vets. So when did this project, and why did this project first come to mind for you?
Dr. LATTY: Well, it really began for me when I was a little kid and my father used to talk to me about his service in World War II. And he used to talk a lot about the discrimination, and he would always end his little sermons with how proud he was to serve. And like I thought he was crazy, because I couldn't imagine why anyone would want to put their lives on the line for a country that, you know, wanted to lynch you.
So you sort of fast-forward to 9/11, and I'm a reporter at the Philadelphia Daily News at the time, and I cover 9/11. And it's, you know, it's horrible. And afterwards, I, you know, I was watching television and reading the newspapers and seeing all, you know, basically white people waving flags and all this patriotism, and all this love of America and how it made them feel really good and connected. And I wanted to feel connected. And I never really felt connected to my own country, and it really upset me.
And a couple of weeks after that, I got a phone call from a Vietnam vet who wanted me to write an obit about a World War II vet who served on a submarine and is basically a hero. And I was so moved by his story. And I realized that this is where I connect. This is where all African-Americans connect to America. I mean, our people have served and have done so much so that people like me can have the opportunities that I have.
So I guess it's a story of - in a way, of me searching for who I am. Searching for my history, searching for my people's history.
CHIDEYA: Give me an example of one of the stories that you found about a World War II veteran.
Dr. LATTY: Well, one of the veterans I interviewed was a man named Waverly Woodson (ph). And I saw the movie "Saving Private Ryan," and I mean, I thought it was a great movie. But I was really struck by the fact that there were like no black people in it. And I assumed that no African-Americans served on D-Day. But when I started writing the book, I really wanted to find an African-American who served on D-Day, because I soon found that that was not the case.
And I searched and I searched and I searched. And I found this man named Waverly Woodson, who was a medic who was in the first wave. And because they were just bringing in a lot of medics because, you know, people were getting killed left and right. And his - the landing tank that he was on was blown out of the water. He crawled to the beach. He was wounded and he wound up, you know, setting up a first-aid station and saving hundreds of lives before he finally collapsed.
And when he did collapse, they tried to get him help. When he was revived, he went back and tried to save more lives. I mean, he amputated legs, he was jumping in the water and pulling people out and trying to save them. When he - after it was all over, people were talking about him getting the Medal of Honor, because I mean it was incredible what he did. But of course, he didn't get it. And of course, no one ever heard his story. And of course he just went on, you know, with his life, and did the best he could after that.
But he was like an incredible, incredible hero. And when I interviewed him, God, probably two months later, he had a stroke. A year later, he was dead. So these stores are like - I mean, they're disappearing every single day.
CHIDEYA: When you think about a story like that, where someone gave his all and didn't get a lot of credit for it, is that a theme that runs through the book?
Dr. LATTY: It definitely runs through the World War II section. I mean, pretty much all the vets who served in World War II. I mean, I have a vet who was at Iwo Jima, another story you don't hear much about African-Americans serving there. Also a buffalo soldier I have who came home after, you know, fighting in Italy the worst of Hitler's troop. Comes home, the ship lands in Virginia, and the white people in the town turn their back on the black soldiers. They don't even want to look at them.
I mean, it was - they walked through the town, he said it was like they were convicts. People turned their backs on them. And he was with me at the Smithsonian. We had an event for some of these vets. And he cried when he talked about that. And everyone in the audience stood up and cheered for him. And it was 60 years later, but it was like he was coming home that day.
And that's a story you hear over and over again, but at the same time, these African-Americans never, ever gave up. It wasn't like he came out and then became an alcoholic, and you know, started like robbing banks. I mean, he joined his father's church and became a preacher. Waverly became a doctor, a forensic doctor, anyway, a pathologist. I mean, one of my Tuskegee Airmen became a scientist. I mean, others just took advantage of the G.I. Bill and, you know, got married, had kids, put their kids through college. It's all the stories you don't hear about black people are these stories.
These are the stories that make you feel so good about who you are, that make you stand up stronger and taller and feel proud. And these are stories our kids do not hear. And it kills me, you know. It really hurts me because it is so incredibly empowering, so empowering, to hear these stories. They're not stories about people shooting each other and war and death and all that. It's stories of triumph over unbelievably difficult circumstances.
CHIDEYA: Do you think that we're in an era of redemption, where many of the - if not all of the unsung heroes getting their due, at least there is a growing recognition in some quarters that African-Americans have played a role in - from Crispus Attucks forward - do you think that people are starting to learn this?
Dr. LATTY: Well, I think some are, but it's not happening quick enough. And, I mean, I think you saw it a lot with the World War II Memorial dedication in Washington a few years ago. You know, there was very few events that, you know, where African-Americans were there. And because of the - how difficult their stories are, because it's not only fighting the Germans, it's all the racism. A lot of them don't want to talk about it, or don't talk about it, or don't know how to talk about it. So you have to push harder to get the stories. But I think when people hear them, they celebrate them and want to know more. And now, you know, there's - Spike Lee's doing a movie, and hopefully that'll finally give African-American World War II vets their due, because it's...
CHIDEYA: "Miracle at St. Anna" is the movie, based on a James McBride book.
Dr. LATTY: You know, World War II is very cut-and-dry. It was like, these are the bad guys, you know. We're fighting for, you know, freedom. And not just for Europe, but for ourselves, for our people, to prove that we are more than what people say we are. That's not happening in Iraq.
CHIDEYA: Well, Professor, thanks for the interview.
Dr. LATTY: Well, thank you.
CHIDEYA: Yvonne Latty is author of "We Were There: Voices of African-American Veterans from World War II to the War in Iraq." She's also a professor in the department of journalism at New York University.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.