Grad Student Works to Add Color to Military History
Black World War II veterans have largely been left out of historical accounts, but one historian is attempting to change that.
By Pamela Martineau
A few years ago, historian Lisa Daniels discovered a fascinating morsel of buried history in her own family.
Daniels learned that her grandmother, Rita Hernandez, was a civilian riveter and blueprint reader during World War II, serving on the USS Franklin Roosevelt in the Brooklyn shipyard.
As a Black woman, Hernandez’ visage would never be immortalized in posters like “Rosie the Riveter.” She rarely talked with her family about her wartime service, in part because it had never garnered much recognition from anyone else.
The discovery of her grandmother’s service to America led Daniels to ask a couple of big questions: How many other Blacks have served the armed forces and what are their stories?
Currently a master’s student in social history at California State University-Sacramento, Daniels launched the Unsung Heroes Living History Project to answer those questions. The quest has led her to collect the oral histories of more than 280 Black veterans. She is chronicling the histories so they may be catalogued at the Library of Congress.
“For so many decades, historians have ignored the achievements of African-Americans, especially in the military capacity,” says Daniels.
“Even in 2006, [the Clint Eastwood movie] ‘Flags of our Fathers’ had no African-American soldiers, but I know they were there,” she says. “That’s heartbreaking, that in the 21st century, African-Americans are ignored in history.”
The program, begun with Sacramento veterans groups, has now branched out to other groups throughout the country. Sometimes she travels to visit the veterans herself, other times a friend or family member of the veteran tapes the story.
“I thought it was important to get the stories straight from the people who served,” she says.
They are soldiers such as former Staff Sgt. Elmer Carter, 95, of Rancho Cordova, Calif. He served in the Allied invasion of Normandy in World War II and also served in Belgium, Italy and North Africa, earning three Purple Hearts during his service.
Ask Sgt. Carter what he did during the war and he retorts — “What didn’t I do?” One of his primary tasks was to haul ammunition to the supply lines.
Carter says he gets disgusted when he sees movies like “Battle of the Bulge” and there are no Black soldiers in them.
“History is not telling the truth. They’re lying,” he says.
Other stories collected by Daniels include that of Odessa Taylor-Marshall, 83, of Sacramento. Taylor-Marshall was a member of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. The Black women’s unit delivered backlogged mail to the troops in Europe from 1942 to 1945. Taylor-Marshall served as a medical technician with the unit, attending to members who were out on sick call.
Taylor-Marshall says she thinks Daniels’ work is very important. She says she has encountered other veterans from World War II who didn’t even know that Black women served in the war.
“My grandkids coming up would never know the stories and how I served,” Taylor-Marshall says.
U.S. President Harry Truman signed an executive order in 1948 that ended segregation in the armed forces. But many soldiers who have spoken to Daniels say some forms of inequality existed in the military before and after the order. They too are troubled by the lack of stories about the actions and sacrifices of minority soldiers.
Leonard Hinson, of Sacramento, who served as a loadmaster in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, says he “picked up a lot of KIA’s (killed in action) of color” during the war.
“You very seldom see publicized on the news what a lot of Blacks did over there,” he says.
Daniels has trained some members of local Boys and Girls Clubs to help her conduct some of the interviews. She says it is a learning opportunity for the junior high school students, giving them a chance to learn interviewing skills and to listen to history first hand.
About a year ago, Daniels formed a nonprofit organization to allow her to collect funds to continue the work. She says she feels an urgency to her work, knowing that every day more veterans pass away.
“It makes the research that much more important,” she says.
For more information on the Unsung Heroes Living History Project, contact Daniels at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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