Finding Freedom in Postwar Europe

Less then a month before my father, Les Green, died in August 2000, he started talking about his childhood. It seems that his grandmother had a boarding house. He advised that there was a father and child there and that they only ate if they had something to put in the pot. He advised that he always had food and never went hungry. He said that when he was in Belgium, serving post-World War II, he was at a woman’s home who reminded him of the days with his grandmother and always ate well there.

After he died, of course we went through his materials. One of the things he held onto was an article from a September 16, 1946 issue of Newsweek, Racial: Maedchen and Negro, about black soldiers in post-WW II Germany. The Newsweek piece was initiated by a much longer piece in the October 1946 Ebony.

The thrust, particularly of the Ebony piece, was that the black soldier felt freer in Berlin, capital of the formerly Nazi nation, than he did in Birmingham or on Broadway.

A July 2009 article in Stars & Stripes confirms this: “In the words of retired Gen. Colin Powell, postwar Germany was ‘a breath of freedom’ for black soldiers, especially those out of the South: ‘[They could] go where they wanted, eat where they wanted, and date, whom they wanted, just like other people.'”

There is a great website, the Civil Rights Struggle, African-American GIs and Germany, which contains some original research on this topic. The NAACP presented its Julius E. Williams Distinguished Community Service Award for 2009 to Maria Höhn (Vassar College) and Martin Klimke (German Historical Institute, Washington, DC / Heidelberg Center for American Studies, University of Heidelberg) for the project.

But, of course, this doesn’t address why my father held onto that article for 54 years. Was he merely interested in the topic? Did he know someone who was pictured? Was HE one of the people in the pictures? There is a guy who remind my sisters and me of my dad. While my father said he was in Belgium, his records show that he was in the European theater from February to November 1946, so perhaps he was in Germany as well. Ms. Höhn, who I have e-mailed, confirms that there were black soldiers in both countries.

I may never know why Leslie H. “Bing” Green held onto that article for so many years.


Autumnal aspirations QUESTIONS

What are you looking forward to this fall?

For me:
TELEVISION: the usual TV shows (JEOPARDY!, The Office, 30 Rock, news programs). The only new program I’ve recorded is Glee, and that only because Jane Lynch, who I liked in movies such as The 40 Year Old Virgin and Best in Show is in it. I haven’t even read the TV Guide with all the new shows yet; anything else I should be watching?I’m already passing on Cougartown; the whole woman as “cougar” thing is bothersome to me.
Then there’s sports. I’ll probably watch more baseball in October than I did from April through September. Football, probably from Thanksgiving on, unless I get lucky.
CHURCH: Choir began last Thursday. Homecoming Sunday is tomorrow. And there’s a wedding, but since the bride hasn’t announced it yet, I shan’t.
EVENTS: Definitely attending a talk by Douglas Blackmon, author of Slavery By Another Name on September 24 at the Albany Public Library. Really want to see the The Civil Rights Struggle, African-American GIs, and Germany photo exhibit at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY sometime in October.
Also want to go apple picking and leaf gazing, the latter preerably in Vermont.
Learn more about picture above here.


Mushroom cloud

I had this great teacher in sixth grade named Paul Peca. Among other things, he had us write in our journals about our thoughts. We also discussed the issues of the day, such as the 1964 general election between Lyndon Johnson (the peace candidate, in retrospect, ironically) and Barry Goldwater (who was depicted in one very effective commercial which ran but one time as the guy who would lead the world to a nuclear holocaust.) We held a mock election in which LBJ beat AuH2O 13-3. It was clear that Mr. Peca preferred Goldwater.

We had this great debate about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His position was that the dropping of those bombs (and the threat to drop others, even though we didn’t HAVE any more) ended the war sooner than continuing to fight a conventional war. He also noted that there were greater deaths in battles such as Dresden, Germany (130,000) than in either of the Japanese cities (120,000), which was the conventional wisdom of the time. (Dresden’s deaths in February 1945 are now estimated to have been 25,000 to 60,000.)

What we argued was that the effect of the atomic bombs was not just limited to its immediate destructive force but the anguish that was suffered by future generations. How well that was understood at the time the bomb was dropped versus what was learned subsequently about the devastating effects of nuclear radiation was also discussed.

I don’t remember if we talked about the fact that the only uses of of the atomic bomb were on people of color, or whether that was a conversation of a later class.

There is a movie called Atomic Cafe, which I saw when it came out about 25 years ago. It was a history of the A-bomb from the 1940s to the early 1960s, told in clips (“duck and cover”, Prersidential announcements) and song (“Jesus Hits Like an Atomic Bomb”, “Atomic Cocktail”). It was funny (in parts), but also quite sobering. I used to play the LP every year so that I would never forget the insanity of nuclear war. (I’ve never seen the soundtrack listed, though several of the songs appear here, an inferior product, so I’ve read.}

As we mark the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb this week, I note that we’ve never used it again on people. This suggests (perhaps foolishly) that we’ve learned from our history.

Haven’t we?

Haven’t we?

What Did You Do In the War, Daddy?

My father entered military service on May 1945, just after V-E Day. It was still the period of segregated units. He didn’t talk much (or at all) about his time in the army. What little I know were stories my father told my mother, and my mother told us, of course, long after the fact and second hand.

One of these piecemeal tales involved the fact that my father was temporarily raised to corporal (or sergeant) for a particular task, because the army wanted someone of that level to do the task. Then, when the task was complete, he was busted back down to private (or corporal), something I gather he was none too happy about. (Allegedly, lowering his rank was done to save money for the government.) If this sounds vague to you, trust me that this is all I’ve got.

A year or so ago, my sister Marcia had contacted the VA and was advised that the records that would have included my father’s records were destroyed in a fire in 1973. We found it strange that he only served 1 1/2 years, rather than 2-4 years, being honorably discharged in December 1946.

The one other aspect of the story is that there was a copy of an article from Ebony magazine from 1945 or 1946 that described “Negro servicemen” fraternizing with the local (white) women in Germany (I think), much to the chagrin of some, that was discovered in my father’s papers (and temporarily misplaced by me. Subsequently, there was a Newsweek article that reported on the Ebony piece.) I have no idea if this had anything to do with my father – it could have been about a friend of his – but straw grasping is what I’ve got.

So, blogiverse, on this Memorial Day, I’m hoping that somebody out there knows something about the military career of one Leslie Harold Green (b. 9/26/1926) from Binghamton, NY. If so, please e-mail me, if you would. Thank you.

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