by Krista Madsen
“The United States Army was very particular. They made sure that not too many black troops were ever in any situation where they could gain any recognition.”
— Booker Morris
Booker Morris’s description of the second-class treatment he and his four brothers experienced while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II won him the admiration of the Transfiguration School students he visited at the end of Black History Month. Morris had tears in his eyes as dozens of fifth through eighth graders lined the corridor to applaud him on his way out.
The 91-year-old Greenburgh resident spent an hour at the Tarrytown Catholic school his great grand-niece attends to share tales he’s obviously recounted a number of times to his own family. Of eleven siblings, he’s now one of two alive.
For boys who grew up in the integrated world of Tuckahoe, New York, getting drafted for Army training elsewhere in the country was a rude awakening. When Morris was in the tenth grade, his older brother sent him a letter warning him to take courses while he could “to protect you from what the Army may do to you.”
During his own train ride to Mississippi a few years later, Morris, with all the black young men, was placed in the car right behind the steam engine. “By the time we got there you couldn’t tell what race we were,” Morris said. “Everyone was smoked over, burnt.”
Morris described the first month of his training there as something of a farce. With no experience or related skills of his own, he was put in charge of leading a company of 250 in calisthenics, rifle shooting and such, until someone finally got a sergeant to teach them. “Mississippi was not a good place for a black person to be in 1943,” Morris said. “The Army would deprive you of anything they could. Access to colleges, transportation, eating counters – no. Not even the same drinking fountain. It was quite a chore, just living.”
Morris said he would wait for the bus to Biloxi in the designated black area for hours on end, while white soldiers got right on their own buses to enjoy a trip off-base. The time he finally got to the city he had a picture taken of himself which he sent home. In the Transfiguration library, Morris showed the students a laminated copy of headshots of the five brothers in uniform, proudly displayed in the local paper during the war – which is about as much attention as they got for their service.
The brothers scattered over the globe. The first to go overseas was Ernest who spent nearly three years in England setting up bases in advance of G.I.s coming. His brother John was an ambulance driver on a South Carolina training base where “pilots were always crashing.” John was a “speed demon,” said Morris, and crashed the ambulance into a ditch once on the way to the scene of an accident, getting scalped as he flew through the windshield.
His brother Bob saw combat in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and right up to the German border. Bob was holding the rail of his jeep when his arm was nearly shot off by German artillery fire.
He lost four inches of bone from his forearm. Morris described with humor the disjointed reconstruction of his brother, as first they took part of his leg bone to replace his arm bone, and later they fixed his bum shoulder with a piece of his hip. “I used to tease him that he’s the only person I know with part of his bottom on his shoulder,” Morris said, making the room laugh.
Morris served in India where he was on air transport command, supplying units with the fuel and necessary equipment they needed to combat the Japanese out of China. “Wasted time,” he said of his years there. He wished he had studied physics to become a pilot, but instead, the roles designated to black men in the service were less prized. In the Navy, black men could be stewards or cooks. He could chauffeur pilots, but he wouldn’t be trained to fly. In 1940, black men weren’t accepted in the Marines at all, “so we all wound up in the Army.”
“The United States Army was very particular,” Morris said. “They made sure that not too many black troops were ever in any situation where they could gain any recognition.”
Bob’s outfit was barely mentioned as part of WWII. Ernest’s men were held in high admiration by the English they got to know there but not by their fellow Americans. Amazingly, they all came home relatively intact. By the end of 1945, Morris was the last of the brothers to arrive home. Students may have expected to hear horrors from the segregated South but Morris described a situation right here in Tarrytown that startled them. He and his brothers, one with bands on his military sleeve designating all the time served, were out celebrating the reunion of their family after war’s end, when a bartender on Main Street refused them: “We don’t serve blacks here.”
One student asked Morris if he ever met any of the Tuskegee Airmen, the sole troop of African-Americans allowed to fly. Yes, he said, he met three of them on an Honor Flight. Social studies teacher Rosemary Holodak asked if, having been through what he has, if ever he could have imagined we’d have a black president. “Never. That was the last thing, no way did I ever give that a thought,” Morris said, shaking his head in amazement.