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Jim Strawder's story is worth hearing

I have enclosed a copy of the obituary for James Strawder E/393.

In 1999, I talked him into giving a talk before 200-plus high school and college students who are gathered each year by the WWII Veterans Committee here in Washington, D.C.

He was nervous about it, so I offered to help him. The audience was integrated, but there had not been any black soldiers who would come forward and tell their story. I felt it was important that this be done; for their part of combat was (and perhaps is) little known. Once the WWII Veterans Committee heard his account and checked the record, they honored him with their Audie Murphy Distinguished Service Award.

I have enclosed an audio tape of an interview I did with him in preparation for his talk. It is an oral history in a sense, and conveys something of the circumstances of the black soldier in World War II.

In the interview, he tells about his black high school teacher who insisted the black students learn math even though they were convinced that nobody would hire them as an engineer. They felt destined for the shovel, not the pencil. Later in England, Strawder had the opportunity to use that knowledge of math when he led a transit crew surveying buildings lines. It was unheard of to have a black man do a technical job like that but his white officer found out he could do the job — and then did the job.

That teacher, who had served in the Army during WWI and was an officer in the National Guard at that point, told the students that "You'll never be free until you are willing to spill your blood for your dignity."

Strawder's uncle taught him how to lay bricks when he was 12 years old. He said he hated it, but there in England when his QM outfit was assigned to build buildings for the 8th Air Force, he was the one who taught the soldiers how to lay bricks and get the job done.

In one interesting story on the tape Strawder tells that while he was stationed in New Jersey he admits to being a GFU (you know what that means). The black officer of his QM outfit, knowing that Jim had a good education, would — as punishment for his transgressions — have him hold classes to educate illiterate members of the outfit. What a grand move that was! How much more productive that was than having him dig a hole and fill it in!

His story went over big at the WWII Veterans Committee conferences, for it gave youngsters of whatever color an idea of how far we have come in race relations. After all, we now have Gen. Benjamin Davis Sr., on a postage stamp, Colin Powell, until now Secretary of state, and integrated military units fighting in Iraq.

Sid Salins' role in Strawder's story should show what a great bunch of guys were in the 99th.

Finally, Strawder is mentioned in a book published in 2003, "Blood for Dignity: The Story of the First Ingegrated Combat in the U.S. Army," By David P. Colley.

Arnold Taylor

507 Third St. SE

Washington, D.C. 20003

The audio tape possibly will be transcribed for a future issue of the Checkerboard, then turned over to Harry McCracken for the 99th Archives.

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