Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Quartermaster Corps’

Sam Cooper’s Freedom Road

September 7, 2010 1 comment

Lady Justice Statue

Image by vaXzine via Flickr

 

 

I saw in the paper one weekend that someone I profiled a couple years ago passed away. Sam Cooper was a Douglas County Court judge in Nebraska.  I believe my late mother, Gemma Pietramale, was a classmate of his at now defunct Mason Elementary School in Omaha.  He was Jewish, my mom Italian, and the school a veritable melting pot of European ethnicities.  A diminutive man in terms of height, his stature in local judiciary circles ranked high, as much for his fair, gentle manner as for his legal acumen. When I met with he and his wife it was clear to see he was on the fragile side physically, but his mind and spirit were sharp, and his abiding love for America and its freedom was evident in the way he spoke almost reverently about the opportunities this nation provide his immigrant family.  My story on Cooper originally appeared in the Jewish Press, and I offer it here as a remembrance of this kind little man with a big heart.

Sam Cooper’s Freedom Road

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

Retired Douglas County Court Judge Samuel V. Cooper’s immigrant parents always told him anything is possible in America. They were living proof. Sam, too. Like them, he came from “the old country,” and like they did he’s taken what America’s offered and made the most of it.

His success as a lawyer, as a Democratic Party operative and as a judge fulfilled the family’s dream of becoming productive American citizens. His life became the embodiment of the Great American Ideal he once wrote a prize-winning essay about. None of it would have happened without his family having the courage of their convictions and leaving totalitarian Europe for freedom in the United States.

He said his father, Martin Cooper, made his way here after escaping the turmoil of war-torn Europe. Martin (Mayer) was a Russian Army conscript in World War I and was taken prisoner by the Austrian-Hungarian Army. Once released, he yearned to follow his brother Harry to America. Harry ended up in Omaha, where he built his own successful construction company. His Cooper Construction Co. built the old Beth Israel and Beth El Synagogue buildings.

But before Martin made the leap he first settled in Chelm, Poland. That fateful move led to him meeting his future wife, Ida (Chaya), who operated a candy store. The couple married and began a family. Their two oldest children, Jack and Sam, were born in Chelm.

Memories of Chelm are still with Cooper. How, for instance, his family lived in an apartment complex with a central courtyard that contained a common well from which residents drew water.

Cooper said his father could no longer ignore the itch to find something better and, so, in 1924 he embarked on a new start for the family by going on ahead of them to America. In classic immigrant tradition he planned to establish himself in some trade and then send for his wife and kids to join him. No one could have imagined how long it would take for the family to be reunited.

Martin worked for a time with his brother in the construction company but found his niche in the grocery business, said Cooper. One of the stores Cooper’s father worked for was Tuchman Brothers. With $500 his father saved, Cooper said, the enterprising man opened his own grocery store at 21st and St. Mary’s Avenue. By 1929, nearly six years after leaving his family in Poland, Cooper’s father finally saved enough to buy passage for his wife and two sons.

The image of saying goodbye to friends and schoolmates at the seder he attended is still fresh in Cooper’s mind. He recalls sailing on the S.S. Leviathan, in steerage, and arriving in New York. After a few days there a train took him, Jack and their mother to Omaha. He recalls nobody was at Union Station to meet them. A taxi took them to the address Martin had sent. The reunited family was the subject of stories and photos in the Omaha World-Herald and the Omaha Bee News.

If they had stayed in Poland just a few more years they might well have become victims of the Holocaust. Family that remained behind were never heard from again.

Sam was 8 when he arrived in Omaha. He and his family lived in back of the store.

His parents had little formal education, he said, but were quite literate and well-informed. He said his “very well read” father “read The Forward religiously. The radio, of course, had news about world events and he was very up on that.” As his father “felt his foreignness,” he said his dad took pains to improve his English and thereby better assimilate. Growing up, Cooper worked in his father’s store.

He said his mother was “a simple woman” who had small aspirations for him — desiring only that he find some stable work, perhaps a store of his own. She spoke of nothing high falutin, such as the law. Besides, where would the money come from to study a profession in college?

Cooper was a good student at Mason Grade School, where he received special help with his English language skills. He got so proficient so fast he became editor of a mimeographed school newspaper. The oratory abilities that would help make him a lawyer and, later, a judge, found him serving as MC during the dedication for a school addition. But it was at Central High School where he really shined. Active in speech and debate, his coach encouraged Cooper to enter a national essay contest conducted by the Ladies Auxiliary of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

His entry, entitled “The Benefits of Democracy,” swept local, regional and national honors, earning Cooper a $1,000 grand prize that he used to pay his way through Omaha University. He wrote the essay at a pivotal, anxious time in world history. It was 1940. Nazi Germany was on the march. Great Britain was under siege. The entire world would soon be at war. Most agonizingly for Cooper, Jews were being persecuted back in the country of his birth.

In a fervid paean to his adopted homeland, the young patriot expressed his love for America and its democratic ideals, contrasting the freedom he and his family enjoyed here with the tyranny they would have otherwise faced abroad.

“Democracy to me is not something abstract and far off. It is with me at home, on the street, at school…It is like the very air I breathe. We do not have to sit on a special bench, nor wear a certain type of clothing…None of us need fear that somebody will report us to a storm trooper. We can read any book, newspaper or magazine that is published and they are not censored. We can go to sleep at night and be assured that we will not be awakened and be dumped across a border. We can awake in the morning and hear footsteps and know it is the milkman, not the gestapo.”

Clearly, for Cooper, the unfolding tragedy in Europe was not an abstract or remote problem. Although his parents were not political, he said they, too, followed what happened. He said his father “did get involved with some of the newly arrived people. They met like on Saturdays and discussed things — the news especially. He also helped a lot of refugees after the Holocaust to get settled.”

Economics intrigued Cooper while at Omaha U. but the practical side of him ruled the field out when, he said, he discovered “you can’t make a living at it.” His studies were soon disrupted by the war. Drafted in the Army in 1943 he ended up in the Quartermaster Corps, serving in England and Belgium. After Germany’s defeat in early 1945 he and fellow servicemen were on a ship that sailed through the Panama Canal to the Philippines. They were en route to the South Pacific to supply troops for the planned invasion of Japan. When the atomic bombs were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world’s bloodiest war finally came to an end. A few months later Cooper headed home.

Inspired by a friend from his youth who became a lawyer Cooper used the GI Bill of Rights to study law at Creighton University, where he completed an accelerated program that saw him get his degree in two years. This Jew delighted in the Jesuit rigor he found at Creighton.

“I enjoyed the intellectual atmosphere. Most of the professors would stir up something in your mind.”

To this day he feels indebted to the framers of the GI Bill for giving him the opportunity to complete his higher education and enter a profession that became his career. He takes offense to any suggestion that, for example, the Social Security Act was the greatest legislation ever passed. “The GI Bill is a little bit above that,” he’ll tell you.

Upon passing the bar Cooper first practiced law with Joe Friedenberg. As the courts’ Referee in Bankruptcy Friedenberg appointed the young attorney Trustee, which meant Cooper dealt with creditors and collected assets from those filing bankruptcy, netting him $5 for each case he cleared. He applied his fee toward his office rental. Later, attorney Loyal Kaplan tabbed Cooper to join him in a practice dealing with interstate and intrastate commerce applications for truckers’ routes.

Cooper next joined Jack Mayer for “a whopping sum of $50 a month and office space.” He certainly wasn’t getting rich in law. Indeed, he was barely getting by. Things were tight, especially after he married the former Judith Steinhorn of Dallas, Texas and the couple started a family. Things weren’t much more lucrative after he, Norm Denenberg and Ed Mullery formed their own law firm.

 

 

 

article photo

Samuel Cooper

 

 

“I think we took any type of law business we could get, including divorces, filings for bankruptcy, drunk driving cases,” Cooper said.

He first entered politics in the mid-1950s. His abiding love for the democratic process and current events led him into that rarefied sphere.

“I got interested in politics,” is how he simply puts it.

Helping spur his interest were his struggles making ends meet as a lawyer. “I had time on my hands,” he said. “The law practice wasn’t going that great…” The opportunity was there to give back to America and he chose to take it.

“In the early years I ran for the original City Charter Convention that we’re operating under now in Omaha,” he said. “There must have been about 75 candidates running for 15 positions. The idea was to write up a modern charter. We met several times. We hired an expert that had done it in other places.

“One of the features, by the way, we placed in the charter was a provision requiring the mayor to appoint a review committee at least once every 10 years to assess if any alterations were needed in the charter. And I got appointed to two subsequent Omaha Charter Study Conventions.”

The first time around, in the ‘50s, he said, “I guess I was one of the younger members of the convention.” By his second time around, in the mid-’60s, he was a veteran politico who’d done his share of canvassing and campaigning.

“I worked for the Democratic Party on behalf of Adlai Stevenson, who was sort of a hero of mine. He sounded so well in his oratory.”

Cooper beat the bushes on voter registration drives and getting people out to vote for the Democratic ticket. Twice Stevenson opposed Dwight Eisenhower in the presidential general election and twice he lost. The egg head couldn’t defeat the war hero. Cooper said the dichotomy of the candidates then reminds him of the current presidential race that pits an intellectual dove in Democrat Barack Obama against a war hero hawk in Republican John McCain.

Election nights particularly appealed to Cooper. Whether his candidate won or lost, it was the culmination of the democratic process in action. Besides, he said, he enjoyed the party atmosphere on those electric nights full of anticipation and excitement. The hopes and efforts of weeks of work came to a head.

Omaha lawyer and political boss Bernie Boyle introduced Cooper to then-Nebraska Governor Ralph Brooks, who was responsible for Cooper becoming further entrenched in the political apparatus when he appointed the up-and-comer Douglas County Election Commissioner. “That was a fun job,” Cooper said. Again, he most fondly recalls the election night buzz that prevailed as ballot boxes came in and the results tallied. His wife made things homey by bringing in pans of baked chicken and all the fixings to tide Sam and his staff over as they worked into the wee hours.

Asked what he thinks of the ballot irregularities that have surfaced in recent U.S. general elections. he said, “We didn’t have any of those problems” under his watch at city hall. The controversy attending the disputed Florida results did not happen when Cooper presided over a recount here. When illness forced incumbent John Rosenblatt to retire in ‘61, the mayoral race came down to a dead heat between Jim Green and James Dworak. Green lost by a slim margin — a few hundred votes, Cooper recalled. The law required a recount. Cooper oversaw the process and he said the result “came pretty close to that same number.” End of story.

Cooper’s calm, cool demeanor and professionalism in that potentially volatile situation would become his trademark.

In 1964 Cooper once again took a leadership position within his party by serving as Douglas County Democratic Party Chairman, an experience he termed “great.” He said that year’s state convention “was one of the finest conventions we’ve seen here.” President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated the year before and as a memorial Cooper had printed “a sort of farewell” salute with photos and sayings of the slain leader of the free world.

By the fall of ‘68 the nation was reeling from the assassinations of three more leaders who inspired hope — Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Civil unrest plagued many big cities. Anti-war protests mounted. Amid this incendiary backdrop the rancorous Democratic National Convention unfolded in Chicago, where youth demonstrators were brutally dispersed by city boss Mayor Richard Daley’s thug police force outside the convention hall.

Cooper was there as an alternate delegate — not in the melee on the streets but inside the contentious, smoke-filled convention that finally nominated Hubert Humphrey. Chicago wasn’t his first national convention but it was his most memorable. While he didn’t witness any overt violence with his own eyes he said the wire mesh covering the windows of the bus that transported him and fellow delegates from the hotel to the hall was a stark symbol of the discord.

“We didn’t see much of the demonstrations going on,” he said. “We heard about it. Speakers talked about it.”

Reform legislation in the Nebraska Unicameral aimed at modernizing the county court system resulted in Cooper throwing his hat in the ring with other lawyers vying for a spot on the bench. Cooper won election in ’72 and later was retained. He said James Moylan was “very helpful in my election.”

Wearing the judge’s robe seemed a good fit for Cooper.

“When the opportunity came along,” he said, “it looked like steady money coming in and I thought I’d like the position. People said I had the temperament for it, and I think I did. I’d listen to both sides fairly and try to do the right thing in the case.

Did he enjoy the position as much as he thought he might? “Yes, very much so,” he said, adding he liked “the contact with lawyers and the contact with cases themselves.”

The country court’s “high volume” docket kept things humming. “I mean, we didn’t shy away from cases,” he said. “We had multiple jurisdictions. We had to get things done, which we did. We all kept busy. We had to be there at a certain time to start the court and to process the cases. On the other hand, we usually got through by 4:30 or something like that.”

He liked the variety of cases he presided over — from criminal to civil to probate matters. Another judgeship, perhaps in a higher court, never interested him. After 32 years on the bench he retired in 2005.

If his years on the bench taught him anything, he said, it’s that “it’s far more important to be fair than to be tough. It’s important not to lose patience, to listen and to give everybody a fair hearing.”

He still keeps his hand in the law by volunteering as a mediator with the Douglas County Prosecutor’s Office. In a non-binding atmosphere he meets with parties embroiled in legal disputes to discuss their case, putting his skills for communication and deliberation to work, sometimes getting the two sides to settle out of court or to drop the matter all together.

One of his four children, son Justin Cooper, followed him into the profession. “It’s nice to have another lawyer in the family,” the proud papa said.

Some time ago Sam Cooper wrote down reflections about his life. The gratitude he expressed in middle-age is of a man who’s never grown cynical or bitter about the state of the nation that he loves:

“In looking back over those years I consider myself a very lucky person. Lucky to have missed the Holocaust in Poland. Lucky to have come to America, a country of great opportunity, a country that has been very good to me. Lucky to have missed being injured or killed in my Army years. Lucky to have been educated as a lawyer under the GI Bill…Lucky to have become a judge, to have a loving wife, a happy marriage and four children who have grown into exceptional and successful adults and parents, and 11 grandchildren of whom I’m very proud to be my offspring.”

The man he’s become is very much what he imagined as a boy, when he wrote these words as a salute to the democratic ideals that offered him the opportunity to be whatever he wanted to be:

“Democracy is much more than the declaration of independence, the constitution and our laws…It is beyond paper and ink. There is something about the American people that continually seeks freedom. Perhaps it is our heritage and principles. Perhaps it is the ideals that have so long been embedded in our hearts. Perhaps it is the realization that men can live together in peace and happiness. Whatever it is I am glad I might take part in these benefits…I hope I can find my place in this American democracy.”

Sam Cooper found his place all right — as a dedicated public servant and defender of liberty and justice for all. At age 86 he lives the promise of America every day.

Billy Melton Served with Omaha’s “Sweet Sixteen” in the All Black 530th Quartermaster Battalion

April 30, 2010 2 comments

African-americans-wwii-060

Image via Wikipedia

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.

 

For men who would be risking life and limb for their country, still being regarded as second-class citizens was a bitter pill. It was a potentially explosive situation, but the men largely kept their cool. “We just didn’t force that issue,” Melton said, “so we stuck to the black part of town. That’s where we wanted to be anyway, and we were shown real Southern hospitality.”

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 585 other followers