Billy Melton Served with Omaha’s “Sweet Sixteen” in the All Black 530th Quartermaster Battalion
The late Billy Melton was a source and friend to me on many story projects. This dear man really knew how to live and he was a fountain of information about the African-American community in Omaha, where he seemed to know every one of a certain age. Billy led me to many great stories but a half dozen times or so he was either the sole subject of articles I wrote or a principal character in them. The following story, orginally published in the New Horizons newspaper about a decade ago, is an example of the latter. It chronicles the all black Quartermaster battalion he and several other Omahans served in during World War II.
Billy Melton Served with Omaha’s “Sweet Sixteen” in the All Black 530th Quartermaster Battalion
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
In February the nation remembers the often overlooked achievements of black Americans. When the 50th anniversary of World War II was commemorated a few years ago, the general public learned of the Tuskegee Airmen and other black fighting units who distinguished themselves in the conflict. Blacks serving in the armed forces then fought two wars. One against the enemy. Another against racism. And aloong the way, they proved themselves the equal of anyone.
The role blacks played in WWII didn’t end there, however. Another chapter in their little known wartime saga is revealed in the story of the 530th Quartermaster Battalion, an all black Army service unit whose ranks included several Omahans. The 530th was deployed overseas in August 1943 and participated in the African, European and Pacific Theaters of operation. The Quartermasters (called Logistics in today’s Army) handled the supply side of the war — loading, unloading, stockpiling and guarding the essential equipment and material (everything from bullets to bread to bedding) that armed, fed and clothed the frontline troops.
The job the Quartermasters did in WWII has been obscured by the exploits of combat units. Some of the men of the 530th want to change that. They want their story told, not for glory, but for posterity. Their experience, which has largely gone untold until now, is another piece of African-American heritage that should not be lost. It is the story of how an all black battalion, commanded by white officers, formed a cohesive unit in the still segregated Army and, in the face of enemy fire and American intolerance, performed its job well, doing its part to win the war. In the end, the men simply want their efforts acknowledged alongside those of others.
“In the Quartermasters we handled ammunition, gasoline, food, clothing. We moved millions of pounds of supplies. We gave it our all. But we never got respect, we never got credit. The Air Force got all the credit. The Marines got all the credit. The Navy got all the credit. Even the Red Ball Express finally got its notice. Why not us? The bottomline is, they all had to eat in the morning. They couldn’t shoot those guns unless they got ammunition. And they had to come to us for their supplies. That’s what we were all about, supply,” said William “Billy” O. Melton of Omaha, a 530th veteran who is the battalion’s most vociferous supporter.
Melton, 76, is also the outfit’s unofficial historian. A serious collector, he’s preserved in scrapbooks memorabilia documenting what life was like in the 530th, including photos (many which he snapped himself) of comrades at work and play, Stars & Stripes clippings and official Army documents. At his urging battalion veterans began holding reunions nine years ago. He, along with fellow Omaha 530th vets Richard “Fritz” Headley, Cornelius “Kingfish” Henderson and Rever McCloud, organized and hosted the first reunion in Omaha in 1990. The men and their wives have attended every reunion since, traveling to Ohio, Michigan, West Virginia, California and Missouri. The ‘98 event is set for September in Kansas City, Mo.
For Melton and the others, reliving the distant afterglow of war is an occasion for both joyous reminiscence and solemn reflection. Each year the group’s numbers dwindle some more, and the survivors remember their fallen comrades with moving tributes. Gone but not forgotten.
The men who remain renew deep bonds forged more than half a century ago and recount indelible events seared in their collective memory. The ties that bind are even greater for the native Omahans, many of whom were friends before the war. Sixteen Omahans served more than two years together in the outfit. The men dubbed themselves “The Sweet Sixteen.” Along the way they shared things that would forever link them. From weathering basic training in the Deep South to crossing oceans and seas to storming fortified beaches to surviving air raid attacks to moving an endless stream of supplies to visiting historic landmarks.
The stark contrasts of war linger for each veteran as well. How they were met with warmth by liberated Italian and French citizens and with bigotry by some Americans. How they ate three meals a day in the middle of war, yet were surrounded by starving refugees. Each member left home a young, green draftee and returned a tough mature man. “It made us grow up in a hurry,” Melton said. “It taught us a lot about life, about discipline.”
To appreciate just how far a journey they made, one must go back to the beginning. While no one man’s experience can fully encompass that of an entire battalion, Melton’s story comes near. Like most of the others, he was drafted at the end of 1942. He was a single 21-year-old jobless Tech High School graduate with “no sense of direction.” He and his two brothers lived with an aunt, Mattie McDowell Lett, who’d raised them after the death of their widowed mother several years before. Their father had died (as a result of grave wounds suffered in World War I) when they were small children.
In January 1943 Melton and 29 other Omaha black draftees were assembled at the Elks Hall on Lake Street and processed at Fort Crook in Omaha. They left home by train that February, arriving in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for their Army induction. From there they railed to Camp Butner, N.C., where they underwent basic training. This raw black battalion had just months to gel before going overseas, and they did.
Few of the Omaha contingent had been south of the Mason-Dixon Line and most were unprepared for what they found. “I used to read about how prejudiced things were, but I didn’t believe it. Not in a country like this. But then I went to get a drink of water in the train station and a sign said, ‘Colored drink here’ and “White drink here.’ When I saw that, it was an education. This was the bitter South. That’s the way it was,” Melton said.
Rever McCloud, 86, said, “It was just like being in another world down there. In our barracks in North Carolina was a map that showed where you could go and where was off-limits if you were black. That’s why I didn’t go to town.” Richard Headley, 76, and a local girl attended a movie in a nearby town, but he never went again after being forced to use an alley entrance and to sit in the balcony. “I couldn’t take that,” he said.
There was one incident where Melton lost his temper. He and Headley needed a ride back to camp, so they boarded a bus. The back portion, where blacks were required to sit, was full. Tired of bowing to Jim Crow laws, they tried sitting up front, where there were ample empty seats, but a white passenger barred their way with his foot. “I told him to move,” Melton recalls, “but he said no, and so we had a little altercation.”
The “altercation” involved Melton belting the bigot in the mouth with his fist, breaking the man’s jaw. The driver pulled the bus to a halt and read the soldiers the riot act, but instead they staged their own mini-Civil Rights demonstration. Melton said, “We understood we were in the South and all, but we told him we weren’t going to move. This old black fellow in back said, ‘I don’t know who you young fellas are, but I’m sure glad this happened.’” Adds Headley, “The black people threw the driver off the bus and somebody — I don’t know who — drove the bus on to camp.”
The miffed driver called the MPs, who escorted Melton and Headley to camp. “From then on, we never had much problem,” Melton said. He adds that racial disputes within the Army were rare while stateside. “That racial thing — we never had that until we sent overseas, and then we had it with our own American soldiers. But the white officers were very nice to us. Discipline wasn’t hard for us because we accepted authority.”
He fondly recalls his company commander, Capt. Robert Coleman, a born and bred white Southerner. “We called him ‘Old Hickory’ because he went by the book. But he was a fair man. An amiable man. He had our respect. And he respected us.” Coleman, who lives in Bassett, Va., said leading an all-black company didn’t faze him. “No, I had no misgiving. I had worked with black people all my life. And I’ve always been thankful and proud of my Quartermaster comrades. They were well-organized, efficient, thoroughly prepared soldiers.”
Although a service outfit, the battalion was infantry-trained. The men drilled relentlessly, made forced marches, snaked through obstacle courses and sharpened their marksmanship on the rife range. “I’ve never been through anything as rigorous as that in my life,” Melton said.
The daily routine revolved around the barracks, mess hall and PX, with reveille every dawn. Black music wafted through camp, ranging from Count Basie and Duke Ellington recordings to men singing spirituals.
Melton, who’d had ROTC training at a vocational school he attended in Kansas, was quickly made a drill sergeant. “I wasn’t liked by all the guys in the outfit, but they had a lot of respect for me, and I had a lot of respect for them,” he said. They continued calling him ‘Sarge’ even after being busted to private (three times) for insubordination. “I liked those guys for that,” he said. “Even today, when we go to reunions, they call me ‘Sarge.’”
From Camp Butner, Sgt. Melton and company traveled to an embarkment center in New Jersey, where they boarded a troop ship bound for Oran, Algeria in North Africa. The ship, carrying more than two thousand men, cruised the Atlantic in a convoy that zig-zagged through U-boat infested waters. Due to a shortage of crew members, the men of the 530th were trained to man their ship’s 20 millimeter guns.
Upon reaching Oran, a port city situated on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, the men found a different Africa than the one they’d envisioned. “All we knew about Africa was lions and tigers,” Melton said, “but when we finally docked there we saw a beautiful country.” After learning they would participate in the invasion of southern Italy, the men drilled intensively for their mission over the next month. The 530th, attached to Gen. Mark Clark’s 5th Army, hit the beaches near Salerno, Italy on the invasion’s third wave and made its way north up the coastline.
When Naples fell, the 530th moved in and opened a supply depot. For weeks, the battalion worked around the clock unloading supplies off ships and loading them onto trucks for delivery to the front. They also supervised Italian civilian workers.
Naples was home to the 530th for the next 10 months. The Germans, who controlled the area just miles to the north, bombed the harbor virtually every night. The attacks were so regular, always coming just after darkness fell, that the men nicknamed their adversary “Bed Check Charlie.” It would start with the intermittent drone of German aircraft engines in the distance, followed by an uneasy silence as the planes cut their motors to swoop in and drop flares that made the night sky bright as day. Next, wailing air raid sirens sounded and banks of searchlights scanned the sky. Then, as Melton describes it, “All hell would break loose.”
Amid thunderous explosions, hundreds of Allied anti-aircraft batteries opened up on the bombers, their phosphorescent tracers streaking the night like Fourth of July fireworks. Joining the cacophony was the steady buzz of Allied fighter planes intercepting German aircraft. “The firepower was awesome. And through it all we had to work unloading ships, handling live ammunition. It was frightening. here were many close calls” Melton said. In the heaviest attacks, McCloud adds, “shrapnel was falling like rain.”
Since the pup tents the battalion was billeted in offered no protection, the men sought cover wherever they could find it. If they were on ships, they climbed inside the belly. If they were on land, they scrambled for the nearest foxhole or trench. Some even dived into open wells.
As the Italian campaign wore on, the 530th was rewarded for its work by being given guard duty. The men guarded the various supply dumps as well as a growing number of German prisoners of war, who were put to work loading and unloading supplies. They got on well with the POWs.
Just when it seemed the battalion was fully accepted by the Army’s higher command, it got a slap in the face. As Melton explains, “We came to work one night and there were Italians on guard duty and we were back to hauling supplies. We wondered why. We were told, ‘The Italians are defeated, they’re with us now.’ This we resented. We went to our first lieutenant and complained. Later on that night an Italian (sentry) shot one of our fellas as he was going to get some food or something. That did it. We told the officers, ‘Unless you end it now and we get our rifles back, we’re going to start World War III right here.’”
The men essentially staged a strike. Ordered back to their tents, they complied, but the gauntlet had been laid down. They had support for their grievance too. “Our company commanders backed us up. They didn’t like it either,” Melton said. The incident caused such a stink, he said, that top brass flew in from the states. They took a hard line at first, calling out the entire battalion to read the Articles of War and the grave consequences of disobeying orders in wartime. Melton credits the 530th’s officers with mediating the dispute. “Our C.O. told ‘em our side — pro and con — and in two or three days we had our rifles and guard duty back. The Army knew that what it had done was wrong. It was just prejudice.”
War brings no shortage of hardship for combatants and civilians alike. But perhaps the toughest part for the men of the 530th was the sight of starving Italian refugees. “The worst thing I ever encountered over there was seeing the hungry Italian people,” Melton said. “I saw them eat live snails. I saw them walk up to dead horses in the street and cut off a piece of meat. Every time we got through eating in camp, we’d scrape our leftovers into the garbage and 150 to 200 Italian civilians would be milling around with buckets in hand and take our garbage and eat it right away. They’d even offer money for food, but we didn’t want their money.”
With its enormous surplus, Melton said, the Army quickly took on the role of aid workers in addition to liberators: “We fed ‘em. We gave away everything. Well, we had everything to give.”
He can never forget the scene in the Naples harbor as the Allies departed for southern France. “When the ships pulled out…Italian men, women and children followed us all the way out into the water, crying, throwing flowers. It was something to see. They almost drowned. That’s how much they hated seeing us Americans leave.”
The Americans hated leaving too. Melton and his comrades had grown attached to Italy’s people, culture, food and language. In what would have been taboo back home, interracial romances bloomed. “Everybody lived like there was no tomorrow,” Melton said.
Elelments of the 530th stormed German-occupied French soil on D-Day Plus Two — June 7, 1944. Landing with the second wave, Melton, McCloud, Headley and the rest of Company C came under fire as they waded in chest-high water off a beach near St. Tropez. Even though men were dropping all around them, the 530th suffered few casualties. After the beachhead was secured the 530th moved, en masse, inland. They were stationed for most of the remainder of the war in Marseilles, serving the 5th and 7th Armies, and for a brief time, Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army.
They found the French just as inviting as the Italians, and just as sorry to see them go. “One family I got close to had me over their house many times,” McCloud said. “I ate there, I bathed there, I slept there. When we were ready to ship out, they treated me like I was leaving home. The mother went to the market and fixed the biggest dinner that night. The whole family was there. They were crying. That really got to me.”
In contrast with the warm welcome accorded by the Italians and French, the men endured racial epithets from some of their fellow GIs. “We’d go into town to unwind and we’d get into it with the white soldiers because they didn’t want us to drink with them in the bars. That happened often. We had to be careful with our own soldiers,” Melton said. Sometimes it went beyond harsh words. On those occasions, Headley said, there was nothing to do but “just fight, and that was it.”
The irony of the situation — of feeling more at home with foreigners than their own countrymen — was not lost on the men of the 530th. “Believe me, no one hated going overseas more than me,” said McCloud, “but after I arrived there, I found out I would rather soldier over there, than here in the states because the people were so nice to me.”
As the war dragged on and the men’s overseas duty stretched to a year, then two, spirits sagged. The Omahans in the outfit counted themselves lucky to be with hometown buddies. “It was a tremendous help to talk with someone every day from home. A morale booster,” Melton said. “We were friends before we went in the service, and we remained friends.” They staged a Native Omaha Day near the end of their stay in France. Together, they mourned FDR’s death and celebrated Germany’s surrender.
The Omahans were dispersed into separate units of the 4135th battalion. Some went to the Philippines (McCloud), others to Okinawa (Melton and Headley), where they guarded Japanese POWs. A few transfered to infantry units. Most were in the Pacific when news of the Japanese surrender came. “We were elated,” Melton said. “We were coming home.”
The 530th received some decorations and citations, including he Bronze Service Arrowhead and Service Medals for their duty in the Africa, Europe and the Pacific, but otherwise their contributions went ignored.
But the men and their memories tell the whole story. One of duty and bravery. “I’m proud. We did an important job,” said Ben Austin of Omaha, the 530th’s oldest vet at age 89. And the fact they were all black made it even sweeter. “I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way,” Melton said.
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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