Add this

Friday, July 26, 2013

Montford Point Marines and Lena Horne: Trailblazers

How timely...this is my 51st post and a continuation of my discussion on the recovery of the 90 mm anti-aircraft. Members of the 51st and 52nd Defense Battalions nicknamed their World War II artillery  "Lena". "Lena", of course is a tribute to Lena Horne (1917-2010), the legendary singer, dancer, actress and Civil Rights Activist.


Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1917. She started her musical career at the famed Cotton Club in New York.  At the Cotton Club, African American female chorus dancers were required to be "tall, tan, and young" (fair complexion). Only White Patrons were permitted in the audiences of the Cotton Club, which was the launching pad for many Negro performers. The entertainment specialized in exotic, "Jungle" music, minstrel like shows, and of course, jazz. Some of the biggest names of the early twentieth century were patrons or performers at The Cotton Club.

 Lena Horne later was a member of a minuscule group of Black Actresses working in the movie industry during the 1940's. Most roles for African American females were limited to domestic roles, with limited speaking lines. These actresses were always depicted as either a sassy mammy archetype, or the child-like, timid maid.  Hattie McDaniel was famously quoted as saying, "Hell, I would rather play a maid than be one."  McDaniel was the first African American to win an Academy Award in 1939 for Best Supporting Actress. Her performance was that of the maid in Gone With the Wind. She sat in a segregated area at the Award Ceremony. (

Moreover, Hollywood during these earlier days would have an actress confined to singing or dancing. The actress had no interaction with other non-Black actors, and their scenes could be edited if needed when showing the movie in Southern movie houses. Horne's ambiguous appearance, and pressure from the NAACP helped her to become the first African-American actress to receive a major Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios (MGM) contract.

Lena Horne was more than a pretty faced, entertaining fashionista. She protested her less than honorable treatment and was active in the Civil Rights movement. The multi-hyphenate was friends with controversial leaders such as Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Dubois. (They were accused of being Communists and blacklisted*). Ms. Horne was greatly revered and respected by Black America.

Praise for Lena Horne
The late Sixty Minutes journalist, Ed Bradley, known for his intense and provoking news segments, stated that the chanteuse was one of his favorite interviews. In the video, the usually unflappable Bradley is seen fawning over Ms. Horne, who by then was still stunning in her sixties. Actress Halle Berry tearfully thanked Lena Horne and other who paved the way for her. Berry won a Best Actress Academy Oscar in 2002 for the film Monster's Ball. Her acceptance speech usually ranks as one of the most memorable Oscar acceptance speeches ever.

Eugene Robinson, of the Washington Post, on Lena Horne:

"During World War II she complained about how Black soldiers--who had made her a popular pin up, essentially the Black Betty Grable--were being treated in the segregated Army. Her refusal to perform for segregated audiences got her disinvited from USO tours."

Robinson also referred to Lena Horne as a "glamorous revolutionary" and an "infiltrator".

So, the 51st and 52nd Defense Battalion certainly got it right. Similar to Lena Horne, these Montford Point Marines were trailblazers and created history. Naming the anti-aircraft artillery after the great Ms. Horne was indeed prophetic. The 90mm "Lena" can be viewed after being missing for so many years at the Montford Point Marines Memorial Museum in North Carolina.


*blacklisted: shunned, to be excluded from opportunities or banned. Being a Communist was considered Un-American.

 Note:  In 2010 Mo'Nique received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Precious. She proudly wore a flower in her hair, in tribute to Hattie McDaniel.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

90mm News for the 90 Year Old: The Return of "Lena"

"Dad, the weapons that you used in the Marshall Islands were found at an auction. The Montford Point Marine Association will be displaying it in their museum." I couldn't remember the name of the equipment and thought it was pretty exciting that it was recovered.

"Oh, you mean the 90 mm?" My Dad answered, as if we were discussing what he had for breakfast that morning.

"We used the anti-aircraft machine artillery. We were on the two big islands Eniwetok and Kwaajalein-- the rest of the islands were occupied by the Japanese. The US had a blockade and there were airstrips on both islands. There were Navy fighter planes. There was dog battery and fox battery. I was a member of dog battery. Because of the blockade the Japanese submarines could not get food or supplies to their men. I thought I told you that already," Dad chided me.

Source: montford point marine association
The machine that my dad used. Montford Point Marines
exceeded goals during WWII.
"No, I just wanted to make sure that I got it right," I answered, furiously jotting it down in my notebook. I wanted to ask more specific questions, but decided not to push it. I sensed a Western or a pressing news show competing with my father's attention. The additional questions would have to come later to the nonagenarian.*

Anti-Aircraft, as its name implies, are weapons designed to attack enemy airplanes. Dad was a member of the first African American combat unit. His 90mm was relocated a month before his 90th birthday, and almost a year after receiving his Medal of Honor.


So, until my next interview, I have the following information from

The Montford Point Marines performed well in their duties at home and abroad despite the structures placed on them by society in their era. In practice these men surpassed all anti aircraft gunnery records previously set by Marines, and named their weapon "Lena", after their favorite singer, Lena Horne.

The 90 millimeter MIAI anti-aircraft weapon system was delivered to Camp Johnson** back in April 2013. It is currently being displayed in the "Greasy Spoon", which is the site of the Montford Point mess hall and home of the museum. Additionally:

 -It was used by the 51st and 52nd Defense Battalions from 1942-1946.
-Weighs nearly 19,000 pounds
-16 feet in length
- Was the United States main anti-aircraft weapon system from early World War II through the 1950's.


Now I must prepare to write about the Montford Point Marines' 90mm namesake, the inconic Miss Lena Horne...

*nonagenarian: someone ninety to ninety nine years old
** Camp Johnson: An area of Montford Point that was named after Sgt Major Gilbert "Hashmark"Johnson in 1974. Johnson was a drill instructor and served in WWII and Korea. He also served in other military branches.

Mess Hall: military dining room
Greasy spoon: term used to classify a cheap restaurant.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

"How Many Japanese Did You Kill?"

"How many Japanese did you kill?" The question was candidly posed to my dad at a walk-in clinic last year. It was the type of question that really was rhetorical, where an answer was not expected. The intent was to shock and surprise, because the Japanese-American physician darted away before my dad could reply.

My dad, donning his ubiquitous USMC cap, usually received a cursory appreciative nod, and a show of thanks from patriotic Americans. As a result of my dad's age, folks surmise that he is a World War II Veteran and give him his props*. Usually some banter follows. But this was the first time that an actual person posed that type of question and then immediately scurried off into another room.


None of my friends or associates ever asked me that question  about my father. Veterans of other foreign wars such as Desert Storm, Vietnam, Korean, etc. never ventured to inquire the fatalities that my father might have caused.

 I have a friend whose father is also Marine. He was almost sent to participate in the "Bay of Pigs" conflict, involving Russia, Cuba and the nuclear missiles that were pointed in the direction of the United States. Her dad still fits the description of a soldier to the "t" despite being in his seventies. Ed walks seven miles a day and is in constant, perpetual motion. He has a pistol permit and a no nonsense, working class Irish American
demeanor. His previously close cropped buzz cut is now a clean shaven head. The Marine, with his piercing blue eyes, is always ready to assess any given situation. As an aside, Ed is not eligible to become a member of the Veterans of Foreign War. (VFW).Why? Because almost being sent to a conflict does not meet the requirements.

 Even consummate soldier Ed did not question the number of fatalities.

Perhaps these conversations take place behind closed doors of Veterans' groups, away from civilian ears. I know in military books, historical accounts, international watch groups, and news outlets that casualties are in fact documented. But to have that questioned just shouted out, so randomly, seemed so.... wrong.

When first a reporter and then a photographer came to interview my father they listened and took copious notes of what my dad had to say about his war experience. It even made the first page of The Hartford Courant, and later " mentions" in other papers. The question, "How many Japanese Did You Kill?" was not asked.

So, I ask the question to you, what is your opinion of the doctor wanting to know how many Japanese did my father kill?  Was he out of line? Is there some unwritten protocol that is followed on such a matter?

*give props: short for give proper respect to, slang

Reference: (Bay of Pigs)

Friday, July 12, 2013

"The Brown Condor": Unknown African American Fighter Pilot and Innovator

A book jumped at my eyes while at the public library this afternoon. It had a picture of a dashing pilot on the cover and I had to pick it up. Curious, I wrote down the title. The biography was entitled, The Man Called Brown Condor: The Forgotten History of an African American Fighter Pilot, by Thomas E. Simmons. Its subject was nicknamed, "The Brown Condor" and he was personally invited by an Emperor to help modernize a foreign country's aviation in the 1930's. This aviator was also dubbed "The Father of The Tuskegee Airmen." Being from a family of African American Medal of Honorees, (One Tuskegee Airmen and a Montford Point Marine) it certainly piqued my interest.


The "Brown Condor" was born John Charles Robinson in 1903, Florida. His family relocated to Gulfport, Mississippi and at age seven he spotted his first aircraft, a float plane. He became understandably excited but his mother countered with, "a Black man has no business fooling around with airplanes."

Undeterred, similar to female aviator Bessie Coleman, John Charles Robinson would not let a family member's sentiments prevent him from eventually pursuing his dream. Robinson focused his efforts in doing well academically in school. He worked hard to pay for college tuition at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. He attended the HBCU to become an automobile mechanic, after realizing the increasing importance of cars in every day life. Robinson wisely left Mississippi for Detroit, home of the major American Automakers.

Robinson ran into a "barnstormer"* who had airplane engine troubles.  Robinson transferred his automotive mechanical skills into repairing the barnstormer's airplane engine. Another young man helped Robinson with his flying lessons. But Robinson needed to attend aviation school in order to obtain his pilot's license. However, he was denied entrance to a Chicago's Curtiss Wright Aviation School because of his race. He then ingeniously became the school's janitor where he was able to eavesdrop on the classes he needed to obtain his pilot's license!  Robinson still maintained a full time job as an auto mechanic. An instructor was impressed with him and persuaded the school to allow him to enroll.

Robinson built his own plane, started his own flying school for African Americans, and helped create a Black airport when airports refused to refuel his plane. He also pushed for an aviation program at his alma mater Tuskegee Institute to train other Black pilots who would later be known as "The Tuskegee Airmen. "The Red Tails" Squadron played an important role in escorting American fighter planes in World War II.


As if these feats were not enough, Robinson was personally invited by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie to lead the Imperial Ethiopian Air Corps as a colonel and commander. Robinson fought fascism in 1935 when Italy's Mussolini attacked this African nation. As commander of the Ethiopian Air Force, Robinson and his group of pilots and ground crew were responsible for dispatching critical information from the front lines to the capital in Addis Ababa. They served in dangerous missions and "witnessed Italian aircraft spraying mustard gas on thousands of Ethiopian ground troops."

Italy briefly conquered Ethiopia. Robinson who was twice wounded and gassed, returned home a hero.


"There was never been such a demonstration as was accorded the thirty one year old Chicago aviator who left the United States thirteen months ago and literally covered himself in glory trying to preserve the independence of the last African Empire. There are reports that he will be joining the faculty of Tuskegee Institute to teach aviation." 

 From the Chicago Defender, a Negro newspaper on John C. Robinson's heroic return to America where he was greeted by a crowd of twenty thousand supporters in the streets of Chicago.  (Source:

After WWII, Robinson was invited back to helm Ethiopian Airlines. He died at age 51. There is a museum exhibit in his honor in Mississippi. "The Brown Condor's" inspiring story was researched painstakingly for over twenty years by author Thomas E. Simmons.

John C. Robinson represents an individual who would not take no for an answer. He did not get discouraged and focused his energies on achieving his dreams. His indomitable spirit ushered in era of little-known but brave military African American pilots.


*barnstormer: person who participates in stunt air flying

**Condor: a New world vulture

*** Haile Selassie I was emperor of Ethiopia from 1930-1974. He was the last 225 monarchs of a ruling dynasty that is said to have descended from the son of King Solomon and Queen Sheba. Selassie helped modernized the country, traveled abroad, and joined the League of Nations. The ruler went to the League of Nations to protest the Italian occupation of his country. He was named Time Magazine's  "Man of the Year" in 1936 . Haile Selassie's reign ended after famine and unemployment overtook Ethiopia in 1974. He died in 1975, and his remains were found in 1992. The cause of death was ruled a strangulation. Source: www.

Other sources:,,

See my earlier post on African American WWI Pilot who received the Croix De Guerre by the French Government,

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Nazi Saved Lives During The Nanking Massacre

In history there are always examples of individuals who have the courage to stand up to wrongdoings or acts of violence. It takes personal resolve to protest vocally, to write letters and to show with action that one is willing to go against the status quo. Former South African President and Anti-Apartheid activist Nelson Mandela, spent twenty seven years in prison because of his beliefs. Martin Luther King, Jr., was jailed, beaten, and had attack dogs released on him during the Civil Rights movement. The lone protester who stood defiantly in front of an army of approaching tanks in Tiananmen Square. Jailed dissidents in Poland, Russia, Myanmar, India -- the list goes on. These individuals have proven that they have the fortitude to fight the system, despite the overwhelming odds.

But what about a person, who theoretically, has no real vested interested in helping other people in grave danger? A person, who had a belief system that made him the person the least likely to help a particular group of people, but did so willingly, at the risk of his reputation and quite frankly, his own life? Because on paper, the very concept does not compute.

In my previous post I wrote about the Nanking Massacre or the Rape of Nanking. It began in December 1937 and spanned a number of weeks.The Nanking Massacre is a forgotten chapter in Chinese history and ranks as one of the most gruesome acts in modern warfare. It involved large scale genocide and rape by Japanese soldiers.When I was researching the "Rape of Nanking", I came across the name of a German businessman who lived in China. The man's name was John Rabe and he was the leader of the committee of the Safety Zone to save Chinese lives.

What was interesting  about John Rabe's story was that he was also a leader of The Nazi Party.

The Nazi's believed that blond, blue eyed Aryan's were the superior race, and all other races were inherently flawed. Rabe is known as the "Schindler" of the Chinese. He was named after the German businessmen who saved 1,000 Polish Jews from death by employing them in a factory. Stephen Spielberg directed and co-produced Oskar Schindler's story in the critically acclaimed film, Schindler's List.

As a devout organizer of the Nazi Party in Nanking, John Rabe was employed at Siemens Chinese Company where he sold telephones, turbines and electric equipment. Rabe was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1882, according to an article from the New York Times. He worked for Siemens from 1908 to 1938.

An award winning movie based on the life of John Rabe.

John Rabe kept a 1200 page detailed diary, describing his harrowing experiences in Nanking. When the city was besieged by Japanese soldiers during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Rabe and a group of internationals decided to do something. They set up a demilitarized safety zone, and displayed international flags. This was to prevent aerial attacks. Rabe was the designated leader. The Safety zone provided medical assistance, food, shelter and clothing.  He dug foxholes in his background to shelter Chinese and stopped Japanese soldiers from raping Chinese Women. Chinese slept anywhere they could, even sleeping in streets. Rabe sent a telegram to the Nazi Party leader, "Der Fuhrer", Adolph Hitler, to complain. Germany did not respond. The attacks on his city continued.

An entry in his diary reads:

"These escapades were quite dangerous The Japanese had pistols and bayonets and I--as I mentioned before--had only party symbols and my swatiska armband."

Yet Rabe maintained:

" Although, I  feel tremendous sympathy for the suffering of China, I am still, above all, pro-German and I believe not only in the correctness of our political system but as an organizer of the party I am behind the system 100 percent."

Still, John Rabe even tried to prevent former Chinese soldiers from execution, but unfortunately calloused trigger fingers, blistered feet, and markings on shoulders ( from heavy Army bags) betrayed some 1,000 soldiers. The Japanese detected these telltale signs and killed them. The Safety Zone was located in the West of Nanking.  The committee consisted of seven Americans, four Britons, one Dane and three Germans. It was in this area that some 250,000 Chinese lives were saved. But it was no easy task. John Rabe came up with the idea of providing whistles for the Chinese to blow if they were in danger. He would then rush to the scene to deter violence.

Source:  list
John Rabe

A depiction of Rabe squaring off with Japanese soldiers

John Rabe effectively "exploited" the alliance that Japan had with the powerful Nazi Party. The Japanese would flee whenever he approached with his forceful presence. Although killings and rapes did occur in the safety zone, some 250,000 Chinese lives were saved.

John Rabe at one point was arrested by the Gestapo*, interrogated for three days, and ordered to keep silent on the subject. His life after World War II took a turn for the worse. He had to renounce his Nazi affiliations by the Allies in order to get a job. The stress contributed to health issues, which led to his death in 1950. Rabe died penniless. Copies of his diaries can be found at the Yale Divinity School, New Haven, Connecticut and the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in China. His former place of residence in Nanking, now called Nanjing, is considered a shrine.

Amazingly, John Rabe and a small group of internationals managed to save a quarter of a million Chinese. He was the least likely person due to his ideologies to provide asylum and refuge during wartime. Rabe defied conventions and the odds and proved to be a rather compelling humanitarian.

*Nazi secret police

Animated Social Gadget - Blogger And Wordpress Tips