Richard M. O’Donnell
My father had tremendous respect for the black troops he trained and served with during World War II, and he tried to instill that respect in his children. When I was growing up in the 1950s, he often told me…
When given a choice, most of the boot camp sergeants would refuse to train black troops. It was prejudice, pure and simple. I, on the other hand, found black recruits easier to train than white ones, so I always accepted a black company without question.
I’ll give you an example of what I mean.
We were supposed to instruct all of our recruits on how to handle explosives. With a white company, I would ask if there was anyone who had previous experience with dynamite and I might get one or two hands. With a black company, it was not unusual for almost everyone to raise their hand.
You see Ricky, the white troops from the city just never had to handle high explosives in their daily lives. But most of my black troops had come straight off the farm, and in those days the most common way to clear a stump from field was to blow it up. Practically every farmer or share cropper in the south had had to have some explosives experience at one time or another.
With my first black company, I was surprised with how much these supposedly ‘illiterate boys’ knew about dynamite. So instead of trying to lecture them on a topic many of them knew more about than me, I let the men teach each other. I always picked a new trick or two I would have never learned otherwise. When I was satisfied everyone was proficient, only then would I teach them the Army way of handling explosives.
Many of the white sergeants complained about the lack of respect they received from the blacks. To me it was clear as day that any company will not respect you until you respect them, and most of the white sergeants refused to do that. It was for this reason I was one of the few Top Sergeants to insist that each of my men refer to me as ‘Sir’ instead of ‘Boss.’ You don’t earn respect when you call a man, ‘Boy’ and then turn around and force him to call every white man ‘Boss.’ So my troops called me ‘Sir’ and I called them soldiers.
This might seem like a petty point, but I found it a key to breaking the cycle of dependence the black troops had on whites to do their thinking for them. I was not there to train mindless drones, nor was I their ‘Boss.’ I was a Sergeant in the United States Army and wore the same uniform as they did. My job was to make these men into the best fighting soldiers they could be, and an American soldier is a thinking soldier.
I must have been doing something right, because I never had as many problems with my black troops as other boot camp sergeants. It was probably for this reason that I was made responsible for finding a place for the black soldiers to go on liberty. Black troops were not welcome to ride the white buses and most of the folks around Fort Lee Virginia wanted no part of them. Instead, the black soldiers would climb over the back fence and hitchhike out to the black sections of the county.
I approached the local black ministers and we set up a system of transportation where black civilians would drive to the base every Friday and pick up the soldiers by the fence. They would drive them to the local churches where families would take them in for the weekend. The same drivers would bring them back on Sunday.
I think the black troops actually got a better liberty than the white ones because the black troops got to share a home while most of the white troops got stuck in bars and hotels.
One of my best memories of Camp Lee was how late at night after a long march, I would go down to the campfire of the black troops and we would sing gospel music ‘til the wee hours of the morning. It was about as close to God as I’ll ever get to him here on earth. But when I was leaving one time, I was stopped by the Captain. He chewed me up and spit me out. How dare I lower myself as to associate with ‘those people’ in a social way? Didn’t I know my place? Black troops were to be tolerated, but they would never be soldiers.
It still burns me up today when I remember what he said because the black troops in World War II proved him wrong. Sometimes they even had more guts than the white troops.
There was one situation I remember in particular because it probably saved my life.
The Japanese had cut off the supply road to one of our companies and were subjecting it to nightly bonzai attacks. The company could hold their position, but only if they were re-supplied with ammunition. Once the last bullet was fired, the Japanese would overwhelm the company and slaughter them. It was only a matter of time.
Every attempt to re-supply the company had failed. As soon as the Japanese saw our trucks coming, they would set up an ambush and cut them to pieces.
I was given the assignment of finding a transportation unit willing to run this gauntlet and lead them to the stranded company, but without success. So the Colonel gathered up all his transport Commanders and explained the situation. He then asked for volunteers. The white officers refused to go. They said it was a suicide mission. The company was as good as dead and it was just killing more men needlessly.
When they were finished, a black Captain stepped forward and said, “I’d like to take a shot at it, if you don’t mind, Sir.”
You could have cut the silence in the room with a knife.
“How would you go about doing it?” the Colonel asked.
“It takes the Japs time to set up the ambush,” he explained. “In order to do that, they must breakdown their machine guns aimed at our marooned troops, carry them to the road, and then reassemble them to hit our trucks. I believe if we go fast enough, we can run the gauntlet faster than they can set it up.”
“It won’t work,” said the Colonel. “The previous convoys were all going as fast as they could go and they were all turned back.”
“Begging your pardon, Sir,” said the Captain, not the least bit put off. “That’s only true if we let the jeeps lead. I propose that instead we let the trucks go first at their top speed and let the jeeps follow.”
What he was suggesting was very dangerous. The thinking was, if the road had been mined, it was better to lose one jeep than a truck full of supplies. In the same way, it was better for a jeep to draw first fire than a truck because it was more maneuverable. Without a jeep out front, the first truck in the company was a sitting duck.
“We already know the condition of the road,” continued the Captain. “And we know where the Jap ambush will be. If we are lucky, we will catch the Nips napping.”
“And what if the Japs don’t have to break down their guns?” asked the Colonel. “What if they are just sitting and waiting?”
“Well, Sir,” said the Captain. “Then we’ll make enough noise, so our boys know that they haven’t been forgotten.”
And that is exactly what we did, and it was the wildest ride of my life. The Captain put his trucks bumper to bumper, stepped on the gas and never looked back. We must have been going 70 miles per hour plus on those jungle roads, and those trucks couldn’t have been more than an inch apart.
Me, I was holding on for dear life. Every bump would try to throw me out of the jeep. I’ve been under fire and I felt safer than I was on that ride.
When we got to the ambush, we just whizzed on past. Not a single bullet was fired. The Captain has caught them completely by surprise. I can imagine the look of surprise on the Japs’ faces as we went sailing by.
When we reached our lines, you would have thought the soldiers were celebrating Christmas, New Year’s, and Easter all thrown into one. The white soldiers were hugging the black soldiers, and everyone was cheering and shouting.
The company was so happy to see the convoy they refused to allow black soldiers to unload the trucks. Instead, they were given hot food and coffee, and the white soldiers did all the work themselves.
I never heard whether or not the Captain received a citation for his action, but I certainly hope he did. He was a hero, pure and simple, as were all the troops under his command.
“Then you were a hero too, Daddy?” I said.
“Well, Ricky, let’s just say I was along for the ride.”
November 21, 1959
There were two great things about Elyria, Ohio that made it a boy’s paradise: Cascade Park with its two waterfalls and canyons, and the YMCA. Now my home on Washington Avenue was right on the Black River, and the East Falls were just across the street, so the park was kinda like my backyard. But the YMCA was something I had to wait eight whole years before I could join.
You have to understand, the YMCA was simply the coolest place on earth. My brother, Chipper, had been going there for two years, and I got the chance to visit. There was an indoor swimming pool you could use year round, even in winter! There was a gym and they had this really neat trampoline where you could bounce up really high, like bouncing on your bed, only better, and there was a game room with zillions of games and the room could be turned into an archery range, and there was a shop with these jigsaw machines you could cut things out of wood with, but you had to be real careful not to cut your fingers off, though Chipper said that sometimes it was real neat to see blood spurt, but I figured if he could do it, then so could I, and I guess I really didn’t haveta jigsaw anything if I didn’t want to, and maybe Chipper was just kidding about the blood squirting like he sometimes does.
Cause ya see, Grandma and Grandpa Reisinger gave me my Y membership for my eighth birthday for eight dollars, and I just couldn’t wait for Saturday to come for my first day, but I was also kinda scared because you gotta understand, there were all these black kids there, and I really never played with black kids before, and all I really knew about black kids was what I heard in the schoolyard, so I went and asked my dad, and he told me these really great war stories and about how they were once slaves, but now they could be anything they wanted to be just like I could be anything I wanted to be, and the best place to learn how to be anything you wanted to be was at the YMCA.
Daddy told me that come Saturday, I was to walk right up to the first group of black kids I saw and ask them if I could play with them. He was sure everything would work out all right, and Dad’s Dad, so ya know he knows what he’s talk’n about.
And that’s exactly what I did.
Chipper walked me uptown to the Y and I showed the game room attendant my official, yellow YMCA card with my name typed right on it and he let me in! Chip, he’s got gym class, so he leaves me alone, but I’m not too worried, I guess, because I see a group of four black kids playing a game that looks like pool, only they’re shooting checkers instead of balls on a wood board, so how hard can the game be, so I walk right over and say,
“Can I play with you niggers?”
I kinda saw stars after that and I remember finding myself on the floor, and one of the pool sticks was broke and my head hurt, and the attendant was screaming at me and carrying me out onto the sidewalk, and he takes away my YMCA card and he tells me I can’t come back for a week, and that I should never do such a thing again, and then I’m all alone, and Chipper’s not there, and I’m not supposed to walk home alone, and I’m not so sure exactly how to get there anyway, and all I can think of is that my Dad is going to kill me, and for the life of me I don’t know what happened, but that’s not all that unusual for me, ‘cause I’m always getting in trouble for things I don’t remember, so it had to be my fault, ‘cause it was always my fault, and now Daddy won’t be proud of me, and I’m wondering if I’m gonna be spanked, and Holy Gee! I didn’t even have my yellow, YMCA card for a whole day, and I’m wondering if they will really give it back next week.
I was way too scared to tell Daddy, and I lied that I had a great day, but of course Chipper goes and tells him everything and Daddy looks at me in the ‘how could you be so stupid’ way and he said I got exactly what I deserved, but next week he was ordering me to go back and ask those same kids to play again because we live in the same town and I gotta learn to get along with everybody ‘cause we’re such an important family and I’m a reflection of him and that I damn well better learn to live up to it.
But I was really, really scared now and the week went by so slow it was like watching a clock tick, and I thought maybe I’d never go back to that dirty, old Y again anyhow, but when Daddy gives an order, you just had to do it, ‘or else!’ and I sure didn’t want to know what that ‘or else’ was ‘cause Daddy could think up a hundred different ways to make you do something ‘cause he was a Top Sergeant during the War and had had lots of practice, so on Saturday I went to get it over with and just maybe I could have my gym class and go swimming this time.
The same black boys were playing at the same pool table when I came in, and they all looked at me, and Chipper looked at me, and the game room attendant looked at me, so now everyone’s looking at me. So I walk over to them seeing nothing really but the floor and I say:
“Can I play with you niggers?”
And the lightning strikes again and I’m on the floor and my head hurts and angry faces are all around me, and my brother is calling me stupid, and the attendant is carrying me out onto the street, and he’s saying not to come back for another two weeks, and that the next time I do that, he’ll rip up my card for good, and that he’s surprised that Chipper has a brother ‘like me.’
So now I’m crying and I’m angry and I don’t know what I did wrong, and I’m too afraid to ask anyone, and the only thing I am certain of is that I’m never going to ask another black kid to play with me no matter what, even if Daddy orders me to, even if he tortures me a thousand times, ‘cause I did exactly when he told me to do, and I still got it wrong, so Chipper and everyone were right after all; there was no one in the world as stupid as me, so I might as well shrivel right up here on the sidewalk and die.
This incident had a profound effect on my life. For years I was terrified of black men. Riding in an elevator alone with a black man or walking past him on a dark street made me very uncomfortable. Intellectually, I knew this was ridiculous and stereotypic, but it didn’t stop the terror in my gut. Many times, persons of color have told me that when they first saw me, they thought I looked like a bigot. I suppose with such fear inside me I was.
But this does not explain how I learned the “N” word. Neither of my parents used it, nor did anyone else in my family. It wasn’t school yard jargon at St. Mary’s where I attended grade school. Then in the late 1980s, I happened to hear my children reciting a choosing rhyme to decide who would be it in game of tag and the source of the offensive word hit me. The rhyme went:
Catch a tiger by the toe
If he hollers let him go
In my head, I was reciting right along with them except until I reached the word tiger. Instead, I automatically replaced it with the “N” word. Suddenly, I recalled the moment when I first heard it. I was five years old and playing behind our barn along the Black River with other neighborhood kids, all of whom were older than me. We were picking who would be it for hide-and-go-seek by reciting the choosing rhyme. When the “N” word was mentioned, I stopped them and asked, “What does that mean?” A boy told, “Oh, that’s what a black person is called.”
It was as that simple. And, it was that nefarious.
There was no hint that the word was derogatory until that pool stick crashed down on my head. But what is truly appalling is how a simple child’s rhyme indoctrinated generations of innocent children into the language of discrimination. Get them while they’re still in the cradle, so to speak. Then sometime between the 1950s and 1980s a lyricist changed the word in the rhyme to tiger. Now, no other child will experience what I did or learn the “N” word incidentally.
My children laugh at my naiveté when I tell them this story. They consider it a quaint footnote to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s. But I hope that my telling will teach them to be aware of the language of hate, and by knowing, help weed it out of their lives for good.
We have a long way to go. Yesterday, I was watching the local news. The Congress had reneged on funding that would cost Cleveland hundreds of jobs. An African American politician stood in front of the camera and said it was just another case of the Congress being “Indian givers.”
Racial stereotyping is so ingrained in our language that unless we stop to think about it we will perpetuate it on the next generation. I do not suggest we rewrite history or edit our great works of literature, but today’s writers have a responsibility to be judicious when using racial and demeaning words and phrases. We need to be aware of why we are using a word or phrase and be prepared to defend its use in the text. And finally, we need to be open to criticism when confronted with our own prejudice and be willing to revise the text accordingly. In this piece I use the N-word and the terms “Boy,” “Jap” and “Nip” and the phrase “Indian giver”. In each case I use it in the content of the times and I never used it gratuitously. Instead, the intent of this piece is to bring awareness that demeaning and racial language still exists in American and that it is everybody’s responsibility stop it.