The Agony of Victory,
Private Roosevelt F. Simmons, Saddie Lea Thompson, Corporal Russell Struthers
a Black Pittsburgh History Recalled.
interviewed by Kenny Roberson.
"You know the war's been over what about fifty years now, I don't remember a lot of the small towns and places and I don't rightly remember a lot of my buddies' real names either, we used a lot of nicknames back then they called me Homewood cause that's where I grew up, you see. But I do remember fighting in the war, and the thing that I remember most is being scared. I was scared the day I got on the train at the old Penn Station downtown to the day I got off the train at the same station in downtown Pittsburgh when I was mustered out. When the war was over the U.S. Army got the Black troops out of Europe quick fast and in a hurry. You know what I was afraid of more than anything, I was afraid of getting shot by the Germans of course but I was more afraid of getting shot by some southern cracker, that was my biggest fear." --Pvt. Roosevelt F. Simmons, United States Army.
"The introduction of Negroes throughout our fight units would tend to leave a commander without any out-standing units." --General Lesley James McNair, United States Army, 1940
As early as 1936 Americans were becoming more and more aware of the developing problems in Europe. Map sales almost doubled during the latter part of 1936, all five of the major motion pictures studios had at least one prestige film running in their theater with a war theme, and Max Schmeling (Germany) defeated Joe Louis (U.S.) to win the Heavyweight Championship of the world. Daily updates of the war in Europe could be heard on all major radio stations as well as updates reported in the morning and evening papers.
"I first heard of the war overseas from my teacher in school she was German I think, she had this heavy accent you see and you could hardly understand her. She always talked about how pretty Germany was and what a great leader it had. I remember someone asked her if were there any colored there. She said there weren't any colored and the Jews were leaving too." --Pfc. Simmons.
"I heard about the war on radio I didn't read the newspaper, didn't always have the nickel to buy one, but it was all over the radio. It really didn't concern me. It was the summer of '36 and there was too much going on in the Hill (Hill District of Pittsburgh) I know it was '36 cause that's the year Max Schmeling beat Joe Louis now that was a sad day in America. There was more on the radio and on the street of that fight than anything else even the war. Everybody thought that them Germans must be bad to beat Joe Louis, that white boy wasn't even afraid of him." --Saddie Lea Thompson.
"I got my news from a little of both radio and the newspaper. I knew that there was a war going on somewhere in Europe. It didn't really affect me much I was in high school you see and we were doing some of the things in class because there was rumbling about war studying maps and such but it really didn't affect me at that time." --Corporal Struthers.
By the end of World War II, more than a million African-Americans had served in America's armed forces. But on the eve of World War II fewer than 4,000 were in America's armed services. Despite an outstanding history of service during America's conflicts, the American military consensus held that African-Americans made only mediocre soldiers. They could perform well only when led by whites and only given direct orders. They took longer to train than whites and could not be trusted in combat simulations.
The first soldiers to be drafted were white. It would be awhile before African-Americans were called to the service. Few served on the draft boards, virtually none in the south, and until 1943 eligible African-Americans were passed over, despite the fact that they represented 10.5 percent of America's population.
"I got my notice in the spring of '43; my parents were really upset that I had to go to the army. But I thought it would be fun, going over seas fighting for my country. I remember all the war movies I saw. Hell I wanted to be a hero too. But when the day came to report to the train station, things changed. There was about a hundred of us I guess from all over. All northern boys I knew some from school and you know around the neighborhood. Looked liked they cleaned out Center Ave. Three of my running buddies were there. We really didn't have a problem with the white boys that were down there with us. We all talked and joked around. There was more hugging and crying going...I remember that. Then this white guy, I forget his rank, he tells us to line up. White boys to the right, coloreds to the left. Since there was more white boys there and the platform was full, we coloreds had to stand in the mud beside the tracks. When the train finally came the whites were loaded on first then us. We stood there for about an hour, then it was our turn. I was one of the ones who didn't get a seat and had to sit on the floor. Another white soldier got on the car and picked the lightest colored boys and let them sit in the white car." --Pfc. Simmons.
"I think my husband got his call-up papers in the fall of '42, and he was really pissed off. You see he was making a fair amount of change running numbers for Boogey Lewis [sic]. He couldn't get a real job but I guess running numbers was a real job for him. He ran numbers from Sugertop to Homewood and that was a fair amount of streets to cover. The one thing he wanted to know and he asked Boogey, could he run numbers in the army." (laughs) --Sadie Lea Thompson.
As soon as the military began drafting African-Americans there was racial trouble. America in the forties was replete with racism, and sending large numbers of African-Americans from Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York, and Detroit to rural areas of Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina practically ensured problems with the local population and police. The Army at that time felt that it knew what it was doing. Southerners, the military believed, had some unique knowledge and understanding of Negroes (1940s term). Large numbers of urban Negro recruits who were assigned to southern bases were put under the command of farm-born white southern officers. Most white southern officers wanted to serve in white units, and command white troops. It's not using a stereotype to say that most southern white officers didn't like the new urban Negro recruits and didn't want to risk their lives with them. African-American troops had little respect or trust for white officers.
"They really didn't tell us where we were going but there was the rumors that we were going down south somewhere for induction and training. I thought maybe Maryland. I got relatives down there and it would be good to see them, but then they told us Mississippi. When they said that, everything got real quiet on the train. That was the first time I really knew what "Lincoln" meant. When you see a hotel or bar or anything that had like Lincoln's hotel or Lincoln cafe. It meant that they served colored." --Pfc. Simmons.
"My heart dropped when I got a letter that my man was in South Carolina." --Sadie Lea Thompson.
I went to a place called Camp Macliane, Mississippi. Segregation wasn't a problem in the camp; we kept to ourselves mostly. We had white officers. Most of the problem was outside the camp; we only had to deal with people of our own race in camp. We had to go through towns to get to the training ranges with trunks and tanks and those trunks and tanks torn up the road. The towns' people didn't like that and especially when they saw us. That put the icing on the cake. In the restaurant they had the familiar signs colored and white, and the bathrooms was the same. A lot of us didn't know about the situation and it didn't filter in that we couldn't eat in certain places. We were in uniform too. We were only served in certain areas that was reserved for us and that was it." --Corporal Struthers.
"When I got to Mississippi it was like a different world. We got off the train and boarded trucks. There was a sign on each truck colored and white. There was a white sergeant who was telling people to hurry up. I remember he called the white boys men, like 'come men hurry up,' but for us it was always boys, like 'you boys get a move on.' When we weren't moving fast enough another white soldier said, 'get those niggers on the truck.'" --Pfc. Simmons.
"I got one letter from my man and he said that everything you heard about the south is true. 'We can't go into town at night like the white boys. We don't eat together, sleep together, or train together. Our barracks is a big barn-size room with a hole in the roof, our windows don't have screens so bugs eat you up at night. We get water from a hose in the back, they got a water fountain. I'm so tired of being called a boy. We don't do nothing but carry stuff, clean the officers' mess. It's really bad down here. I want to come home. This is a white man's war.'" --Sadie Lea Thompson.
Americans are the best trained fighting men in the world. No army in the world can compare to the courage of the American soldier. The American soldier is properly trained, outfitted and equipped with the most modern weaponry of war. In front of the barrel of an American soldier is one place I would not want to be.
"We were in camp for about three weeks when we were given rifles, old Springfield .275-caliber, no bullets, just rifles. Mine didn't have a trigger. I don't think any of the rifles they issued that day had all the parts. We still went to the rifle range everyday and just aimed at the target. Someone would yell BANG and we would bust out laughing. I remember once when we went out for night training, it was raining and we weren't given tents or anything like the white soldiers had. Only half of us had parkas. I didn't. We were suppose to be out in the field for three days, you know, training, we didn't do nothing but walk in circles. There was this white unit that went out ahead of us. They had tents, parkas, rifles and such. I know 'cause I helped issue them out. We had to dig latrines for the white soldiers and load and unload their trunks. That was our field training. We couldn't even eat evening rations until the white soldiers ate theirs 'cause they had to make sure the white boys had enough; then we were sent what was left over. They didn't even trust us to carry our own rifles, let alone a rifle that worked. Then they had the nerve to train us on how to clean the thing--"rifle"--hell it didn't have a trigger. There was a list of all the equipment a soldier was suppose to have. We didn't have half of that. I still got the list."
- Field Equipment
- Tent with Pegs, Pole, and Rope
- Canteen Cover
- Cartridge Belt
- First-Aid Pouch and Packet
- Undershirt, Drawers, Handkerchief
- Pack Carrier
- Haversack, Open
- Toilet Kit
- Entrenching Tool
- Rifle, Springfield
- Blanket, Field
- Mess Kit
- Helmet, Steel
"We didn't have half of the stuff the white soldiers had and that was just the field equipment. He got one issue of foot locker stuff like socks, towels and shoes, and locker issue was a joke. We got two issues of work fatigues, no dress uniforms. They were only issued when you went home on leave. The white soldiers had full issue in a couple days." --Pfc. Simmons.
"I got a letter from my man one time and he asked me to send him some socks. Can you imagine that he wanted socks? I thought the Army gave him socks." --Sadie Lea Thompson.
" I was in the 665 U.S. Truck unit, I was a company clerk so my people had everything they needed. We were well equipped. We took care of ourselves. Our job was with the supplies so we didn't have that problem of supplies." --Corporal Struthers
African-Americans serving in the beginning of World War II were, in most cases, not assigned to fighting roles. Members of the predominantly Black 9th and 10th Cavalry were service personnel; they were truck drivers, cooks, orderlies and horse groomers. African-Americans drove nearly every truck in the European Red Ball Express, and piloted nearly all the vessels that ferried ammunition and gasoline from ships to invasion beaches. Ninety percent of the Blacks in the Navy were mess boys or stewards. In June 28, 1943 an Alabama State policeman shot and killed a Black soldier for no apparent reason. In July 1943 nine Black soldiers walking through the so-called white section of camp were attacked by white soldiers who claimed they were stealing supplies. Black soldiers fresh from training in Michigan were ordered to turn over Army issued weapons for safe keeping.
"Things were really bad in Mississippi. It got to a point where you didn't leave the barracks. The camp was divided into white and Black just like the town. You had to put up with being called a boy or nigger all the time and the officers would just turn their backs. More than once a shot would ring through the barracks at night. When work was done for the day whites were allowed to gather in groups and, you know, just talk, they were always telling us to break it up and go back to your barracks, I had to get out of there. After the treatment I got down south I just wanted to come home." --Pfc. Simmons.
"In town if you were walking on the sidewalk and a white person was on the sidewalk you had to step into the street to let them pass even if you were in uniform." --Corporal Struthers.
"I was always getting letters from my man about the conditions down south, but remember things weren't that great up here once you left the Hill. There were places you couldn't go, you didn't have white and colored signs but you knew where you couldn't eat. That's why we had so many stores on the Hill. During the war and before, everything was on the Hill. He sent me a letter once and told me he wanted to send me something but there weren't any colored stores in town. I wrote him back and told him to send me the money there's plenty colored stores here. (laughs) Now you couldn't try on clothes in downtown stores but you could buy them, and there was plenty of places you couldn't sit and eat. You could stand at a counter and drink a coke." --Saddie Lea Thompson.
"Pittsburgh wasn't the greatest place in the world but it was sure better than Mississippi. They moved us to Camp Libbie in Alabama . It was a small camp not completely built. We slept in big tents while the white boys slept in these long barracks. There was this big rope that was run across the field and we weren't allowed to cross the rope to the white camp. They told us when we first got there that everything we needed was on our side. Our group would cook and bring the food to the rope and the white boys would hand out the food to the white soldiers. Then there was a rumor started that the Blacks were pissing in the food. We had more white soldiers standing over us while we cooked, just to make sure everything was on the up and up. A couple cigarette butts but that's about it. A big fight broke out one night at the rope between Blacks and whites. You knew it was coming. I really don't know what started it but it was a big one. A lot of boys on both sides were hurt. We didn't have army issue weapons but we all had knives. When it was over we were confined to our tents for three days, and then trucked back to Mississippi and when we got there we were confined to our barracks for about a week. I think that's when I start started to fall apart. I was thinking of just leaving the army all together. I didn't care anymore; just get me to the first thing smokin' and I was gone. Mississippi was the one and only place I saw a man hanging from a tree. It was a night training exercise and we were suppose to drive the supply trucks to the white units. We got lost and started down this dirt road and as we turned the bend there was a black soldier hanging from a tree. Three of us cut him down and put him in the back of the truck, we found our way back to the camp, and told the guard at the gate. He said, 'What the hell am I suppose to do about it?' That's when we refused to drive trucks at night. Then they brought a Black officer from the Inspector's General Office on Black Troops. He told us to turn our anger toward the Germans and help win the war for our people. A whole bunch of bullshit was said that day, how we had to be better than the white soldier, how we can show them how things are done, and how important the Negro soldier is in the war effort. We listened, but when he left things were the same. No white soldier saluted him." --Pfc. Simmons.
The Home Front. In the beginning, rationing was on a voluntary basis, but early in the war, the government, realizing the needs of the servicemen developed a plan. In May 1942, the Office of Price Administration (O.P.A) issued "War Ration Book One" detailing how much any one person could buy of any one item. Each book came with instructions and a severe warning: "Punishments ranging as high as Ten Years' Imprisonment or $10,000 fine or both may be imposed under United States Statutes for violation thereof arising out of infractions of Rationing Order and Regulations."
"Food was plentiful in the army camps--a lot of potatoes and meat. I got so tired of oatmeal I still can't stand the sight of it. We ate chicken in every way you can imagine. There was the standard menu for the camp but there was always a cook somewhere in camp cooking up a pot of black folks food. You know--pigs feet, collared greens and the best cornbread you ever ate, we didn't share this with the white soldiers. Many a time I went out on a supply run with a pigs feet wrapped up in newspaper." --Pfc. Simmons.
"When we first heard about rationing and ration stamp, we all thought that we Blacks wouldn't get our fair share of ration stamps but that wasn't the problem. There were stamps everywhere just like food stamps you could buy them on the street, or catch a hophead (marijuana smoker)--he would sell you his. People would use them as money, you could pay your rent with then or buy a bottle, or trade them for what you needed. Oh there was a black market in stamps. But sometimes you had stamps but no food, stores were out. We did have a garden, I don't think you can call it a victory garden or not, not like in books. We always grew tomatoes and pole beans anyway so when the war came we just planted a little more. I saw kids collecting pots and pans and stuff but I didn't do any of that. Since my man was gone I had to feed my kids. I talked to Boogey and he said I could count numbers, that's how l helped in the war effort." --Saddie Lea Thompson.
Almost everything Americans like to eat--meat, coffee, butter, cheese, and sugar was strictly rationed. Housewives paid for groceries in stamps as well as cash. The grocer to replenish his stocks sent the stamps to the wholesaler, who would send the stamps to his local bank and would get credit to buy more stock. Food items were given points based on availability. Porterhouse steak 1 lb.=12 points; hamburger 1 lb.=7 points; butter 1 lb.=26 points; margarine 1 lb.=4 points; and canned sardines 1 lb.=12 points.
"Food really wasn't scarce if you knew where to shop. Some of the stores did a really good back door business. I went with my friends a couple of times to the South Side to get black market beef and butter. You see Boogey knew where all the black-market stuff was. Sometimes instead of taking my commission on the numbers I'd get some meat or sugar or some coffee, sometimes I would take ration stamps." --Saddie Lea Thompson.
"Sometimes we would get items from the mess hall, coffee, sugar, dried beans and ship them home. At times there was more food leaving the camp than coming in. You had to mail them a little at a time, but I was sending food home all the time. And it wasn't just the Black soldiers, the whites did the same thing. We just had to give our packages to someone going into town, ask them to mail them for us. You couldn't trust the white soldiers to mail a package without going through it first."--Pfc. Simmons.
"What I really missed was riding around in a car on Saturday night. Gas was rationed back then and there was a black-market for gas stamps too. An "A" card got you about three gallons of gas a week. You couldn't really step out on three gallons of gas. Saturday was a big night on the Hill at all the bars and nightclubs. You couldn't get dressed to the "T's" and walk down to the club to see somebody like Cab Calloway, or Lena Horne, you had to be sportin', dressed in your finest. All through the week people were stealing gas. You could get a lot of gas with a hose in those days. Just stick it in and suck, let it run into a milk bottle, after a couple milk bottles full you had yourself a gallon of gas, just don't get caught. I think us girls were the biggest gas thieves on the Hill. Once when I was collecting in Homewood I saw a Dodge up on blocks in a garage. I heard it belonged to a numbers runner in East Liberty. They were all Italians. I got me four tires from a friend, put them on the Dodge and pushed it down the alley a ways and we were gone. We kept that car for about six months, filling it with siphoned gas. That's the car we used to get the black-market meat. We were only stopped once." --Saddie Lea Thompson
"Now new clothes was a different story, prices on clothes went up, sometimes more than food. You couldn't get a good pair of stockings for a long time and we painted lines down the back of our legs. We always wanted to look our best when we went out, so we were always borrowing each other's clothes. After a while people were getting tired of all the shortages and trying to make ends meet. It's not like there were good jobs around for Blacks. You heard a lot about women in the steel mill, well that wasn't really true here, least not for the women I knew. The jobs Black women couldn't get before the war were the same jobs we couldn't get when the war started. Only a few got the good paying jobs, better paying than cleaning someone's house. I can joke about it now but back then it was something. We knew that the war would be over one day and things would get back to normal. One thing though, there was always the fear of getting that telegram, but you didn't talk about that. Just about the letters you got." --Saddie Lea Thompson.
With the ending of the war, Americans were shipped home by the shipload. Each major city had a parade welcoming back the soldiers. The war was over and things could return to normal once again. Returning GIs could look forward to seeing loved ones again, waiting jobs and the hope of a better future.
"I had been through the war in Europe and I had seen my share of fighting. There were times that I was so afraid that I cried. There were days that I didn't eat or sleep, I was so afraid that I would get wounded and left in the field to die. There were rumors that Blacks were the last to get treated. I was more afraid of the southern cracker soldiers than I was of the Germans. Since so many white boys were being killed or wounded, [we] were pushed to the front. We thought that since Jesse Owens made a fool of Hitler and the Germans, we were the ones they were after, but that wasn't true. The Germans would rather surrender to the Black soldiers than the white I think. When it was time to be shipped back home I thought I was finished being scared. We boarded the Liberty Ship: the first thing they asked for was for our rifles and ammunition. The white soldiers kept theirs and were reminded to put their rifles on safety. With all the problems we had in the field with the white soldiers, I knew that I really wouldn't be safe until I got back to Homewood, where my people were. There were fights almost everyday on that ship. It's like people didn't have enough fighting. Blacks couldn't go top-side with the whites and below deck there was the white section and the Black section. We had our own mess, latrine and sleeping area. There was a Black movie room and Black lounge quarters. But we were all American Soldiers." --Pfc. Simmons.
"There were eleven thousand men on the ship when I was sent home in 1945, both Black and white. A lot of people thought when the war with Germany was over that we would be shipped to the Pacific. We were first shipped to Camp Lucky Strike in France to get processed, that's where we got on the Liberty Ship. There wasn't a big problem on the ship, everyone was excited when we got orders to come home instead of going to the Pacific. When I got home, I couldn't get a job. When I finally got jobs, I was always bumped for white guys when they came home. I thought that by coming home from fighting the war I would get some kind of consideration of a better job like anyone else. I wasn't. Things didn't change." --Corporal Struthers.
My man never came home from the war. I remember when I got the telegram, it was in the afternoon I forget what day. I was walking down the street and I saw the man standing on my porch and I knew. I didn't run up to him I just kept walking. People were standing around my porch. The man asked me my name and handed me the cream colored telegram. I still have it somewhere. He said he was really sorry and was there someone to be with me right now. The women who were standing on their porches came over and he just talked and talked until it was night. I remember a lot more about that but I don't want to talk about it. When the boys came home there weren't any jobs. All the jobs promised weren't there. Things were the same; at the same time things weren't the same. Black soldiers coming home expected more, but it just wasn't there. Wearing your uniform meant a lot on the Hill when you first came home. There were a lot of places that would give you free drinks and free lunches even after the war, but that was only on the Hill or in Homewood. Wearing your uniform didn't mean much once you left the Hill. Some of the boys thought that all you had to do was to tell people that you were in the service and they would give you a job. That wasn't true. What was different was the boys felt that they deserved more than what they got for fighting in the war. They didn't get anything." --Saddie Lea Thompson.
By the end of the war in Europe, African-American soldiers had been stationed in all parts of the European theater. Still, Black soldiers were treated as second-class soldiers. As the all-Black 99th Fighter Squadron flew ground support over the beaches of Anzio and escorted bombers on missions to Italy, African-American ground soldiers continued to be segregated in units and denied equal justice in the armed forces. The discrimination that was instituted in the United States followed the Black soldier wherever he went. James Weldon Johnson wrote, "Racism has seeped into the soil of America."
"I don't know if I was a changed man when I got home. I knew that nothing changed on the home front. I wore my uniform for a few days but then I took it off and never put it back on again. I was back to normal, looking for a job, sitting in the back of the shows downtown and not going to Wilkinsburg at night." --Pfc. Roosevelt Simmons, United States Army.
"The war was an experience I wouldn't want to go through again, but I wouldn't take a million dollars for it. I had seen many things that I hadn't seen before. If I wasn't drafted, I wouldn't have enlisted. The only thing was I would have enlisted if there was a guarantee that things would be much better for us Black soldiers." --Corporal Russell Struthers.
"They should have dropped the A-bomb on Mississippi." --Corporal Russell Struthers, United States Army.
Last Updated: 21 May 2001.