tampabay.com

The invisible army

Americans of color fought and served and bled and died for their country.

By RODNEY THRASH
Published August 28, 2005


TALLAHASSEE - If he talked about it, he was drunk.

Alcohol was the only way to get anything out of Rodger Pleasant. Anything, that is, about World War II.

Maybe it numbed the sting of being called n----- in the very country he had just risked his life defending.

Perhaps it anesthetized the war's seemingly inhumane conditions: the wild boar, pig and dirty water he was forced to eat and drink, the long periods his all-black Army unit went without supplies, the medical maladies he contracted.

"Most of us have no appreciation for how bad it must have been," his daughter, Pearlnell Pleasant, said.

Because, for the most part, Rodger Pleasant and the 1.1-million African-Americans who served in World War II have been invisible. Invisible in films. Invisible in documentaries. Invisible in books.

"Few mention the participation of black service men and women," said Joan Denman, senior archivist and historian at the Florida State University Institute on World War II and the Human Experience. The institute's own collection was bare until an all-out push two years ago to collect the oral histories of African-Americans.

Some veterans, thinking no one is interested in their stories, suppress their memories.

Or in the case of Rodger Pleasant, he let the alcohol do all the talking for him.

* * *

"Get a beer," he used to tell his daughter. "Let's rap."

It was code for one thing: Rodger Pleasant wanted to talk about the war.

For a long time, he couldn't, Pearlnell Pleasant said.

He was a military man, and the unwritten code of the military was to suck it up and be a man.

"This is where the alcohol came in, the resentment, the anger," Pearlnell Pleasant said. "It was from actually never spilling his guts, never actually admitting to the disease, to the pain, to the heat, to the lack of food. Very inhumane conditions."

She remembers her dad's comrades stopping by the family's Washington, D.C., home, trying to tell the Pleasant children what valor their dad had shown in combat. It was Pleasant, they said, who suggested they dig foxholes, get in them and place all of their supplies on top for covering when Japanese planes bombed their island.

"If it wasn't for your father," they said.

Rodger Pleasant usually did not let them get beyond that point.

"Oh man, you don't need to go into that," he said.

Pearlnell Pleasant wanted her father to go into that. It gave her insight into an otherwise mysterious figure who always walked with a three-foot stride, head up, shoulders back.

She would comb his hair and listen as he taught her the cadences of the 369th Infantry, Company 1, 93rd Division.

"In 1900 and 43, the 93rd division sailed the sea. They passed the test. Some thought they would. When they started their maneuvers in the Louisiana woods and what a time.

He told her how people he could not even see shot at him. How he'd lie awake, bombs going off, planes flying overhead. How he never knew if he'd live or die from one moment to the next. How diarrhea and other illnesses were rampant. How, after returning to America, he tried catching a bus decorated in full military regalia only to be told, "get back n----- and let this white woman get on."

"That's one of the moments," Pearlnell Pleasant said, "he said he would never forget."

* * *

Benjamin Garrison never forgot, either.

It was Oct. 16, 1944. A vicious storm rolled through the North Atlantic. The USS Mason destroyer escort took a 70-degree roll. Wind blew the antenna away. The deck split. Water spilled onto the the main deck and into the engine room. The crew managed to weld the split and pump water from the engine room. Even as their own vessel broke apart, the crew returned to sea for three days, rescuing 12 more ships.

"If we had not taken them to the safety of Plymouth (England)," said Garrison, the Mason's radio operator, "they would have been lost at sea."

Garrison knew what should have happened next.

"But knowing what should happen doesn't make it happen," he said.

The Mason had a predominantly black crew, 160 black sailors and 44 white sailors. It was an experiment to see if blacks and whites could manage the same ship without having any friction. They could.

The Mason's commander recommended that the crew receive a commendation for their role in rescuing the ships.

"Nothing ever happened," he said. "We felt sort of helpless not knowing what to do about it."

Author Mary Kelly, who years later wrote the history of the USS Mason, was conducting research for the book, Proudly We Served, when she discovered the commander's recommendation languishing in archives.

President Bill Clinton awarded the commendation to the 67 surviving crew members in 1994.

A color picture of Garrison receiving the award sits on the dining room table of his South Tampa home. It was nice to be recognized, even if the honor came nearly a half-century late.

* * *

Willie Mae Williams never waited for anyone to tell her story. She did it herself. And at 92, she's still doing it.

"I did not want our service kept a secret," said Williams, who served in the Women's Army Corps from 1943 to 1945. "The men don't want to talk about it, what the women did."

Williams may not have been on the front lines. She may not have even gone overseas. But what she did - cooking - was just as important a service to the war as any man's job, she said.

"We relieved them," said Williams, who was stationed in Massachusetts, Iowa and Oklahoma.

She established the Tampa Bay chapter of the Women's Army Corps. The chapter is in its 16th year.

"I will not let it die," she said. "Because we die, it shouldn't die."

* * *

Rodger Pleasant died in 1978. He was 63, but the emotional wounds of war were still just as raw.

Once, he visited Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where presidents and other war veterans have been laid to rest. He told his daughter that he didn't want to be buried there.

"If he couldn't live equally among white people in America," Pearlnell Pleasant said, "he didn't want to be buried with them."

Though it wasn't his wish, Pearlnell Pleasant said she is considering moving her father to Arlington National Cemetery anyway.

"He's entitled to that," said Pearlnell Pleasant, now 50 and living in Tallahassee. "He's earned his place in history books. We just haven't gotten him there on a scale that he and others belong."

-- Rodney Thrash can be reached at 727 893-8352 or rthrash@sptimes.com

For more information:

If you are an African American veteran of World War II or you know of one, call the Florida State University Institute on World War II and the Human Experience at

850-644-9033 or visit the Web site: http://www.fsu.edu/ww2/african-american-stories-wanted.htm