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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Contributing to the Veterans History Project

"Desiree!!" My father's voice bellowed throughout the house. "Come here, please!" I ventured down to the lower level  where my father was sitting. His large hand held the Sunday edition of the local newspaper, the Hartford Courant. It prominently displayed pictures of World War II Veterans in a special Memorial Day tribute. I looked at the faces and glanced at the articles.  "How come I'm not there?", my father inquired, feeling left out.

"I don't know Dad, there are 13,000 living World War II Veterans in Connecticut, you already had an article."
"Well, I want you to look into it, maybe there is a number you can call."

I read further and located a contact person. It was the director at The Veterans Project* at Central Connecticut University. You might have seen the Veterans History Project dog tags logo in stories about Soldiers. The Veteran History Project is a national initiative that acts as clearinghouse for collecting Soldiers' stories and memorabilia. I recalled seeing them for the first time when I was researching my post "Six Bailey Brothers Served the Country During World War II". The photos accompanying that blog post were repinned over three hundred times from the "Montford Point Marines and Honor Board" on Pinterest.


"They're not open on Memorial Day, it's a holiday for the school. I will contact them on Tuesday."
 I emailed the Veterans Project and immediately got a reply. Within minutes. The director wanted to know if my father had letters or kept a journal. Did he have any military documents or photos? She asked if my Dad was available for two hours and I thought to myself, better plan for three. Dad puffed up with pride.

If you go to the Veterans History Project site there are links where you can find Veterans to speak at events, curriculum guides for educators and more importantly, places where you can view actual materials in person. Based on the their site, the program was established in 2000 by an act of Congress.  Additional funding is provided by AARP magazine.

War Letters

 Letters are important because the reader can get a sense of exactly what the soldier experienced during war time. Moreover, writing letters is a dying art due to the advent of technology. Someone deployed overseas today can instantly communicate with a loved one via a web camera or email. (when possible)

War letters written from Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, for example, formed the basis of a book detailing his experience as commander of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Thoughts communicated on scarce paper two centuries ago was used for educational purposes and made into a motion picture, such as in the case of the Civil War epic film Glory.

Continuous communication among loved ones and friends was something that Soldiers appreciated. These letters show how service personnel counted the days until they returned home. Correspondence had a chance of being delayed for various reasons such as enemy interception, censorship and various other logistical causes. Nonetheless, Soldiers looked forward to receiving mail.

Library of Congress
Source: Flickr

Hand written correspondence during World War II was sometimes heavily censored. In looking at pictures of old letters, information deemed sensitive were redacted and an official stamp indicated that the contents were reviewed. Posters and films of that era reminded soldiers that ""loose lips sink ships." Censors and military officials were concerned about details that gave away troop locations, which would put a mission in a danger. The element of surprise is certainly a critical military tactic.

Also, a article on censorship and war letters states:
There was some censoring in the Civil War because letters sometimes had to cross enemy lines. Most of the censoring comes from the prisoner-of-war camps. For example, if someone was writing a letter from Andersonville [a Confederate prison camp where many Union soldiers starved] those at the camp didn't want people to know what was happening, so the prisoners wouldn't be allowed to say anything bad about a camp. The first heavy censorship of U.S. soldiers took place during World War I.

Journals and Photos                                                                                                        

Journals kept by young men in battle captures the Soldier's innermost thoughts and provide commentary for the events. Reader feels like they are part of the action. To illustrate, a seaman penned his observations as a member of the USS Mason, the WWII Navy ship with the mostly Black crew. Sailor James A. Dunn's journal eventually became a published book. The first person account drives the story and allows people to connect.

And speaking of witnesses, in the "Witness to the Holocaust", photographs left an indelible impression. Trained photojournalist William Scott III deftly captured images in order to document the ghastly atrocities of war. General Dwight Eisenhower instructed his men to take photos of concentration camps--  he accurately predicted that people would later deny the fact that the Holocaust happened.

"I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give firsthand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.’” General Eisenhower (

I bring up all these examples of military letters, photos, and journals to emphasize the importance of gathering materials from Veterans. Civilians and service people can create a better understanding of wars and conflicts. The experiences of African American Soldiers and Sailors are under-represented. I would imagine that the Veterans History Project would seek out stories from this group and other ethnic groups. Perhaps their stories will later be turned into films, plays and literature. Validation can at last be achieved.

For the Montford Point Marines, comprehensive history has been curated at their official museum in Jacksonville, NC, and the University of North Carolina (Wilmington). Office of War Photographer Roger Smith took over two hundred photos showing young African American men transitioning into Marines at boot camp. A good portion of Smith's Montford Point Marines photos are obviously archived in the Library of Congress.

My father's interview with the Veteran's History Project will be held soon. I suggest my readers to encourage Veterans to participate in the project. Artifacts and recordings insure future generations understand our comprehensive history.

One of my readers recently discovered that his father was an officer at Montford Point on Memorial Day. In his comments he also mentioned that his father was injured at Peleliu. Peleliu was one of the fiercest Pacific Battles of World War II. In honor of his discovery, my next series of posts will explore locations where Montford Point Marines saw intense combat. Ironically enough, support divisions ended up assuming combat duties.

"Thanks All Service"

Veterans History Project

* U.S. citizen civilians who were actively involved in supporting war efforts (such as war industry workers, USO workers, flight instructors, medical volunteers, etc.) are also invited to share their valuable stories
.-From Veterans History Project Site.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Origins of Memorial Day

For many Americans, Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer, a long three day weekend where barbecue grills are fired up. Beach-goers eagerly head to the shoreline and fashionistas wear their white apparel for the first time. But for the patriotic, Memorial Day is a holiday where we celebrate soldiers who died for our Nation in battle. Memorial Day is not to be confused with Veterans Day in November, where we salute all surviving military personnel that served. 

The Holiday originally began to commemorate fallen soldiers of the Civil War. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, after World War I the holiday included the war dead from all American wars and became a federal holiday in 1971. Memorial Day is observed on the last Monday during the month of May. It was previously known as Decoration Day because of the tradition of decorating grave sites with fresh flowers.


Have you heard about the Charleston,SC origins of Memorial Day? Yale professor David W. Blight's findings has been widely disseminated over the past several years and you might have seen his essays lately. Here is what Professor Blight has reported about the first Memorial Day:

Thousands of black Charlestonians, most former slaves, remained in the city and conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war. The largest of these events, and unknown until some extraordinary luck in my recent research, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the planters' horse track, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, into an outdoor prison. Union soldiers were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. Some twenty-eight black workmen went to the site, re-buried the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, "Martyrs of the Race Course."
Then, black Charlestonians in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged an unforgettable parade of 10,000 people on the slaveholders' race course. The symbolic power of the low-country planter aristocracy's horse track (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freedpeople. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing "a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before." Excerpt from

Source: New York Times

Participating in the festivities were the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th U.S.Colored Troops, who marched around the grave site. Professor Blight has authored many books on the American Civil War. His research sheds a compelling light on how the history of the enslaved African-Americans has been down-played and essentially ignored. Note the date of Charleston, SC celebration.
Another town claims to have originated Memorial Day. This town is located in the North, in Union territory. Waterloo, New York claims to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. The idea was conceived when:

 A prominent local druggist, Henry C. Welles, mentioned to some of his friends at a social gathering that while praising the living veterans of the Civil War it would be well to remember the patriotic dead by placing flowers on their graves.

 On May 5, 1866, the Village was decorated with flags at half mast, draped with evergreens and mourning black. Veterans, civic societies and residents, led by General Murray, marched to the strains of martial music to the three village cemeteries. There impressive ceremonies were held and soldiers' graves decorated. One year later, on May 5, 1867, the ceremonies were repeated. In 1868, Waterloo joined with other communities in holding their observance on May 30th, in accordance with General Logan's orders. It has been held annually ever since. (


On May 26, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson issued a Proclamation citing Waterloo, NY as the official birthplace of Memorial Day. His signing came shortly after the New York State Legislature named Waterloo as the town that created Memorial Day.

I then watched a video from Time Magazine dated May 25, 2014, that included the above mentioned birthplaces of Memorial Day. In the video, Columbus, GA and Columbus, MS both claim the birthplace of Memorial Day, along with a handful of other American cities. 

In any event,  Memorial Day is a time to pay tribute to our fallen soldiers.  Memorial Day 2014 will be special to one reader who stumbled upon my blog post " White Montford Point Marine Officers and Letter of Information 421." He had read his father's service papers earlier in the day where it stated that he was an Officer at Montford Point.  He discovered this amazing fact on Memorial Day Weekend:  His father made American history and could be eligible for a Congressional Medal of Honor.


What are your thoughts on all these Memorial Day origin stories? Do you have family members that you honor on Memorial Day?


The Origins of Memorial Day

Monday, May 19, 2014

Robert Gould Shaw Leads the 54th Regiment

The recent post on White Officers of the Montford Point Marines reminded me of another White leader of an African American unit. I previously described how White Officers and Special Enlisted Staff were selected to train Black recruits at the newly established Montford Point training facility in 1942 (New River, NC). The drill instructors and office staff were selected because of their prior interaction with Asians and Latinos in military campaigns. White Officers were also interviewed to determine if they objected to Black Marines in the Corps.

White Officers were needed to train Black recruits. Through testing and observation, capable Black recruits could then be promoted to become a non-commissioned officer. Letter of Information 421, a classified memo, stipulated that a Black person could not hold a rank above a White Officer. Despite progress in admitting Blacks to the Corps, racial guidelines had to be followed. 

The Film Glory

 I immediately thought of the critically acclaimed 1989 movie Glory. Why the connection? Training and guidance came from a White Officer in charge of a segregated Black unit. Again, many Americans thought Blacks were unfit for soldiering. Glory starred Matthew Broderick as Union Officer Robert Gould Shaw. Shaw was the dedicated White leader of the Massachusetts 54th Colored Regiment during the Civil War. The 54th Regiment was the most famous African American Unit. Glory also had an Academy Award winning performance by Denzil Washington and included Morgan Freeman. Washington and Freeman portrayed free colored soldiers in the 54th.

Glory depicted events of the 54th Colored Regiment through the viewpoint of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. The story was based on letters that Robert Shaw kept. One issue the 54th faced was that Negro soldiers received unequal pay for fighting. White soldiers were paid several dollars more than Black soldiers. Members of the 54th refused pay until the situation was rectified. Col. Shaw joined the protest in a show of solidarity. Furthermore, the Colored Soldiers initially mistrusted their young leader. But as the story progressed Shaw and the soldiers developed a strong bond. 

Stakes were considerably high for Colonel Shaw and his 54th Colored Regiment. If captured they would not be prisoners of war. An announcement from the Confederate Congress stated that every captured Black soldier would be sold into slavery and every White officer in command of Black troops would be executed. (

The story of the 54th regiment lead by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw

Civil War and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw

The Civil War (1860-1865) was  a major bloody conflict that saw the South's secession from the Union. Wealthy Southerners needed free labor to cultivate cotton, rice, tobacco and other agriculture that maintained their vast riches. About 3/4 of Southern Whites did not own slaves. However, the remaining percentage of southerners, who were far from rich, felt compelled to fight on the side of the Confederacy, fervently waving the rebel banner. It did not matter that some Confederates might have been dirt poor. They aspired to be rich and identified with their more privileged White counterparts.

During the first part of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln insisted the war was a fight to restore the Union. Yet, many saw a higher purpose in the struggle, and that purpose was to not only save the Union, but abolish slavery as well. Many believed that if the abolition of slavery was a reason for the war, black troops should be allowed to fight. Many others disagreed, including General Sherman, who was reported as saying, "...can a Negro do our skirmishing and picket duty? Can they improvise bridges, sorties, flank movements, etc., like the white man? I say no." ( 

Enter Robert Gould Shaw. Shaw was from a prominent New York and Massachusetts family and was an abolitionist, a person that was the against the the enslavement of Blacks.  Shaw was "socially conscious and deeply devoted to intellectual and spiritual pursuits," and "counted among their friends and associates such thinkers, writers, and reformers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Lloyd Garrison, and Harriet Beecher Stowe," according to

Robert Shaw was personally selected by Massachusetts Governor John Andrew to become the leader of the 54th Colored Regiment. Shaw's selection was after the bloody Battle of Antiem. Incidentally, Anti-Slavery crusader Frederick Douglas had two sons that fought in the 54th. Colonel Shaw was only 25 years of age. (

Fort Wagner
Source: Library of Congress
Battle of Fort Wagoner

54th Infantry Regiment 


Early in February 1863, the abolitionist Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts issued the Civil War’s first call for black soldiers. Massachusetts did not have many African-American residents, but by the time 54th Infantry regiment headed off to training camp two weeks later more than 1,000 men had volunteered. Many came from other states, such as New YorkIndiana and Ohio; some even came from Canada. One-quarter of the volunteers came from slave states and the Caribbean. Fathers and sons (some as young as 16) enlisted together. The most famous enlistees were Charles and Lewis Douglass, two sons of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Now back to the film Glory:

The film dramatizes the fateful assault on Fort Wagner , a Confederate bastion on Morris Island, S.C. Now this actually happened. On July 18, 1863, Colonel Shaw led the charge of 600 men under withering fire against the well-protected battery. Shaw was slain early in the assault, and 256 soldiers were wounded, captured, or killed. Says historian John David Smith, “The Confederates considered the black soldiers to be insurrectionists and their white officers inciters of slave revolts, so they refused to respect the Yankees as soldiers. Accordingly they dumped their dead bodies in a pit.” (

William Harvey Carney

The experiences of that fateful night at Fort Wagner cemented the fact that Blacks had the mettle necessary for being excellent soldiers. During the assault, a brave member of the 54th managed to save the regiment's flag from being taken. Sergeant William Harvey's  body was riddled with bullets. He was awarded a Medal of Honor 37 years later for his valor. William Harvey Carney became the first African American to receive a Medal of Honor.

William Harvey Carney, First Black Medal Of Honor Recipient.
Carney received his medal 37 years after his heroic action at Fort Wagoner during the Civil War.

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw courageously led colored troops during the Civil War. His unwavering commitment to the Union cause was instrumental in garnering support for Colored Troops in the Civil War. Additionally, William Harvey Carney became the first African American to receive a Medal of Honor.The  Army's 54th Regiment, like the Montford Point Marines, demonstrated that Colored Troops were not a farce but a powerful force in United States military history. The United States Colored Troops were later christened Buffalo Soldiers by the Native Americans. They are also Medal of Honor Recipients.

Next week Americans will celebrate a federal holiday called Memorial Day.  How many of readers knew that Memorial Day was started by African Americans after the Civil War?
Robert Gould Shaw


"More than 180,000 African American soldiers (and roughly 19,000 sailors) fought for the Union in a segregated branch of the military, the United States Colored Troops (USCT). Another 200,000 black civilians—men and women—dug trenches, hauled away the dead, cooked meals, and performed other such gritty jobs." (

Antietam National Park slavery
Sergeant William Harvey Carney

Thursday, May 8, 2014

White Montford Point Marines Officers and Letter of Information 421

I watched as the spry elderly White gentlemen entered the reception room of Montford Point Marines. He was the only White person among the group of African American men.  Who was this man, I wondered aloud. The man with the thick silver hair interacted with the Montford Point Marines with ease. I knew it was not a politician seeking a photo op.

 For several days, my father and other Montford Marines were greeted warmly by members of Congress;  speaker of the House John Boehner was even moved to tears in his speech. Although suited up, the White octogenarian clearly was not a legislator.

"He is a Montford Point Marine. He was one of the officers," the person sitting next to me announced. It then dawned on me-- White Officers were used to train Montford Point Marine recruits. When the boot camp was established in 1942, obviously there were no Black Officers.  They had to be found from the Army or Navy or quickly trained by current officers. So Montford Point Marines also includes White Americans, a fact that I have omitted in my posts. It is important to include all Montford Point Marines and not exclude any from the history.

An Officer inspects a rifle.

According to "The Right to Fight: African Americans in the Marines," Colonel Samuel Woods was selected to command Camp Montford Point. Colonel Woods had to "start from scratch with no cadre of experienced African Americans except for a handful with prior service in the Army or Navy." Below is a list of ten facts about Camp Montford Point from "The Right to Fight."

Ten Facts About Camp Montford Point

  1.  Colonel Samuel Woods was in charge of Montford Point, New River, North Carolina
  2.  Woods also commanded, the 51st Defense Battalion Composite, the first World War II African  American Combat Unit
  3.  Lieutenant Colonel Theodore A Holdahn was in charge of recruit training.
  4.  Montford Point included two dozen White Officers.
  5.  90 White Enlisted Marines were known as the Special Enlisted Staff. They included clerks, typists and drill instructors.
  6. Special Enlisted Staff were vetted to exclude anyone opposed to the presence of Blacks in the ranks.
  7. The Marines were to replace the Special Enlisted Staff with Black non-commissioned officers as  soon as possible. This was done by testing and personal observation.
  8.  First Promotions to Private First Class took place in November 1942 for Blacks.
  9.  Secretary of the Navy Knox authorized a Marine Messman Branch and the first of 63 combat  support companies (Depot/Ammunition).
  10.  52 Defense Battalion established.

Drill Instructor Elmer Bowen
He received positive reviews from recruits.

Over 20,000 African American men trained to become Marines at Montford Point. The segregated training facility was located in New River, North Carolina. A road separated their boot camp from Camp Lejeune and African American Marines were not permitted to venture into Camp Lejeune unless accompanied by a White Officer. Black Montford Point Marines "could not eat unless their White counterparts were finished with their meal."* Apparently, Southern conventions and military protocols still maintained the separation of races.

Also, it is vital to note that:

General Holcomb in March 1943 issued Letter of Information 421, which declared it "essential that in no case shall there be colored noncommissioned officers senior to white men in the same unit, and desirable that few, if any, be of the same rank." LOI 421 was a classified document and did not become public during the war. (The Right To Fight)

Moreover, White Officers, in charge of training Black recruits were selected based on previous military experience in working with Asians or Latinos in previous military campaigns. "The Right to Fight" reports that White officers could not harbor any resentment towards Blacks serving in the Corps. This would have been detrimental for cohesiveness as a unit and undermine the program. Under direction from Colonel Samuel Woods, White Officers and Special Enlisted Staff  insured that Montford Point Marines received optimal instruction. The White Officers were then replaced by Black non-commissioned officers. Therefore, when speaking of the Montford Point Marines, White Officers and Special Enlisted Staff must be included. Their stories need to be told as well.

Were you aware of the story of the White Officers and Special Enlisted Staff? What about classified document LOI 421?

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An officer assists a member of the 51st

The Right to Fight

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