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Kaplan remembers black soldiers

Ann Banks' review of "Blood for Dignity" (Book Review, Feb. 16) prompts me to relate an incident that has irritated my memory for almost 60 years.

In August of 1944 I was a soldier in the 99th Infantry Division (the same outfit the author David Colley writes about), aboard a troop ship in a convoy heading for England. I was a private in a Field Artillery Battery and had been ordered to run the Information and Education Program for the enlisted men in my unit during the voyage. The job entailed giving daily lectures based on material prepared by the I&E section of Gen. Eisenhower's staff and the War Department in Washington. I was told that it would result in my being promoted to Private First Class and that I would be excused from KP duty.

Apart from these perks I was particularly pleased about the assignment since the material put out by Ike's staff over his signature expressed views that I agreed with and I hoped would provide an opportunity to counter some of the prejudice voiced daily by most members of my outfit.

The War Department's series of orientation booklets, under the general heading of "get to know your allies," were excellent and made a strong case for intercultural understanding as an important part of the war effort.

The little pocket guides given to everyone the first day on board emphasized the need to respect the customs of our soon to be British hosts and particular attention was given to the subject of race relations. It was noted that in England, as opposed to the States, it was not uncommon to see British girls dancing with Negro GIs. Interracial dating and socializing were accepted practices. This sounded just fine to me and I warmed to the thought of conveying this message to the members of my unit.

The day of my first presentation we were all assembled on the open deck wearing our life jackets. One could see the long line of troopships and cargo vessels extending to both horizons. Our destroyer escort was darting in and out of the convoy in their constant search for enemy U-boats. The rumor mill was rife with talk of troop ship sinkings in these heavily infested waters. I

t was in that context that I began my presentation. When I started to read what the I&E booklet had to say about the relationships between white British girls and black American GIs I was suddenly interrupted by the voice of my Battery Commander, a Captain Frost from Louisiana, who had given me this assignment and who was standing off to the side watching the proceedings. I heard his southern drawl as he said,. "Just a minute Private Kaplan," and then he turned to face assembled members of his command and continued, "I want all you men to know that just as long as I am commander of this here outfit, a nigger is still a nigger."

As I tried to mumble something to the effect that it says right here that we should respect etc., etc., I was again cut off in mid sentence with a curt reprimand.

I was angry and felt foolish and humiliated, but there was nothing I could do except to continue with the contents of the orientation booklet.

The captain's pronouncement obviously sat well with most of my fellow GIs.

The following day I was informed I would be reduced in rank for insubordination and go back to being a plain old buck private. Luckily I had not yet sewn on the stripe of my short-lived promotion. So much for the greatest generation.

A sequel to this incident took place six months later. My outfit had been right in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge and along with two or three other divisions had suffered heavy casualties.

The combat infantry divisions were in dire need of replacements but the manpower pool back in the States was running dry. Until this time it had been army policy not to allow black soldiers to serve with whites in combat outfits. The urgent need for replacements changed this when the Army "allowed" black soldiers who were serving primarily as truck drivers and quarter master troops to volunteer for combat assignments. Many did, often taking a reduction in rank for the "privilege" of fighting (and dying) along side of white infantrymen.

Initial distrust and hostility began to change to acceptance and gratitude when the front-line troops whose lives were endangered by their depleted ranks soon came to realize that the skin color of the guy in the next foxhole really didn't matter that much. What mattered was that they were excellent soldiers whose presence provided much needed combat support to their white comrades in the common struggle to defeat the German Army.

At the time Colley writes about (March 1945), I was a Forward Observer with one of the 99th's infantry companies and was able to see some of this at first hand. However, it soon became apparent that as the manpower crisis abated many of the white troops reverted to their previously expressed racist views. Which brings to mind the words of Irving Berlin's song from "This Is The Army, Mr. Jones" . . .. "he was a jerk when he went into the army, and he came out still a jerk."

Richard Kaplan

290 West End Avenue

New York NY 10023

212 787-0258