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WVU SOJ veterans project reveals untold stories of African-Americans in World War II

Black soldiers not only risked their lives battling German and Japanese forces during World War II but, in many cases, had to fight a more insidious enemy – racism.

New revelations about the dual battles they fought in the war and other untold stories are featured in the documentary, “Fighting on Two Fronts: Untold Stories of African American Vets from WWII,” by Joel Beeson, an assistant professor in the West Virginia University Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism.

The documentary will air on Veterans Day on West Virginia Public Television at 7 p.m. A special video premiere is set for 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 9, in Room 205 of Martin Hall on WVU’s Downtown Campus. The event is open to the public, and a reception will follow.

“There are some really fascinating stories that have come out of this,” Beeson said. “Many of these veterans told me this was the first time they had talked about some of these things. A lot of this information has never been put out there anywhere.”

One such story is told by Marcus Cranford of Charles Town. During the monthlong Battle of Iwo Jima, Cranford’s Navy Seabee battalion of black soldiers was deployed to the island, unarmed, to unload supplies on the beach for U.S. forces while some of the deadliest fighting of the war was going on around them.

“This all started in boot camp in Virginia. He was in a segregated unit with white officers,” Beeson explained. “There was an armed standoff over segregation in the mess hall, and afterward, their officers refused to issue the black troops ammunition even when they were sent onto the beaches of Iwo Jima.”

There are no existing records of the boot camp incident in the Navy’s National Seabee Archive and Museum at Port Hueneme, Calif. The Seabee Archive is the main repository of the unit’s history, and all records of the camp during that period are missing.

Beeson heard similar stories from other blacks who were denied ammunition or weapons at other points during the war.

“I’ve interviewed other African-Americans who told me the same thing,” he said. “Some of these vets believed the white officers were afraid to give them small arms for protection for fear of retaliation or rebellion.”

Most black troops served in service or labor units but, like the Seabees or truck drivers supplying front-line troops, were often in harm’s way.

The role minority groups played in World War II recently came to light following criticisms of Ken Burns’ epic documentary series “The War” for its lack of minority representation. Prior to its release, criticism from minorities surfaced, and Burns added content in response to those concerns.

Beeson said he was working on his documentary long before the criticism surfaced on Burns’ film.

“This documentary isn’t in response to that,” he said, “but if it serves to add something to the understanding of the World War II experience of all citizens, then I think I’ve done my job. I feel good about that. Whether it had a bearing on PBS’ decision to air the work, I don’t know. I do know that they’re very interested in having an inclusive American history presented on World War II.”

Another filmmaker, Spike Lee, is also exploring blacks’ roles in the war. He is currently shooting a film based on James McBride’s novel, “Miracle at St. Anna.” It is the story of the all-black 92nd Buffalo Division that fought against Nazi occupation in Italy.

Beeson’s documentary will add to the historical record of minority contributions but in a different style of storytelling than Burns’ piece and a different genre than Lee’s film.

“I let them tell their own stories,” Beeson said. “There is no narrator saying African-Americans did this or Americans did that. I just wanted to let them tell their own stories without somebody interpreting it for them. These are men and women who have kept this information – a lot of times – to themselves for 65 years. Many of them are haunted and have had nightmares about this stuff. I thought it was only right and fair to let them tell their stories.”

In addition to Cranford, three other veterans are featured in the documentary: Madelean McIver of Charles Town, one of only 3,000 blacks in the Women’s Army Corps during the war; John Watson of Beckley, a crew chief with the Tuskegee Airmen; and Hughie Mills of Las Vegas, who volunteered for the 761st Tank Battalion after the Battle of the Bulge.

The documentary grew out of Beeson’s work as director of West Virginia’s Veterans History Project, a collaboration among the P.I. Reed School of Journalism, the American FolkLife Center and the Library of Congress to collect the oral histories of West Virginia’s more than 202,000 veterans. The effort is especially significant in West Virginia as the state has the highest number of veterans per capita in the nation.

Beeson was awarded a media grant from the West Virginia Humanities Council to produce a documentary about West Virginia black veterans.

More than 40 veterans were interviewed over six years for the project. Choosing the final veterans to be featured in the 56-minute documentary, which was whittled down from 30-40 hours of interviews, was a difficult task.

“It’s been a challenge,” Beeson said. “We chose the ones to be featured based on their experiences, and they had to be good storytellers. We looked for patterns and things in common with other African-American soldiers’ experiences. All of them were born in West Virginia, but this isn’t a story exclusive to West Virginia. The scope of it is not about a region. It’s about a range of personal experiences that represent common themes and stories. I think we’ve captured that.”

Many of the veterans Beeson interviewed told him that once they returned home, the discrimination continued.

“When they returned from the war, they still had to deal with racism and segregation in a pre-civil rights era,” he said. “For a lot of these men and women, there wasn’t any closure. There was a lot of unfinished business, and I hope this documentary helps to close that or at least start to heal their wounds.”

Beeson was honored by the Congressional Black Caucus Veterans’ Braintrust in September for his work on the film. The Veterans’ Braintrust is one of the most powerful political and educational groups advocating on behalf of blacks serving in the armed services and veterans.