During the presidential election of 1964, candidate Lyndon B. Johnson told a group of military supporters, “Get me elected and you can have your damn war.”
He delivered on the promise. By 1965, our nation was in full swing. Soon there would be up to 500,000 U.S. military involved. Body bags would start shipping home to the tune of 500 per week.
The mid-1960s became chaotic, with anti-war demonstrations growing stronger and stronger. Our government was disingenuous and lied to the public. Life in America became depressing and tense.
Racism within our military was apparent and a very bitter pill to take. There wasn’t much of a difference between racial tension during World War II and the Vietnam War. You would think progress had been made but it wasn’t. Throughout the South, the institutional racism was slow to fade away.
My mentor, Dr. Arthur A. Fletcher, told me of the time when he was shot by a Nazi sniper during guard duty while serving in Germany after the D-Day invasion of Normandy. He lost his spleen and was hospitalized for months at a hospital in the Canary Islands. He was extremely disappointed that the Army officials would not grant him a Purple Heart medal for being wounded in action.
The military doctor told him that they did not keep the bullet that went into his body, and therefore could not determine if it was a German Army weapon that did the damage or just one of General Patton’s “Southern rednecks” taking some target practice on some colored soldiers whom they detested. Art was forever bitter about that.
I later found out that such denials went on during the Vietnam War. Recently, I have been researching the records of some of my friends who were killed during the Vietnam War.
Ivra Allen Tatum, known to all of us as “Speedy,” was drafted and four months after arriving in Vietnam was killed. In pulling up his record online (www.virtualwall.org), his name appears on Panel 23E, Line 32 on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.
I noticed something startling. The record stated he was indeed killed, but there was no record of the automatic Purple Heart.
I contacted his surviving sister. With apparent anger, she stated that her parents were not given his Purple Heart. Then she dropped a bombshell. They didn’t receive his death benefits, either.
When you are inducted into the service, you receive a life insurance policy ($15,000 as I recall at that time) which will be given to your stated beneficiary upon your death from combat. This should have been automatic.
Speedy was from Stephens, Ark., and many of the induction centers in the South were notorious for racial inequities.
I had a flashback of another friend who was killed while serving in Vietnam. His mother complained of the same experience. She thought the mother of her son’s child must have received the benefits instead of her. But maybe no one received the benefits.
I will find out
I must now investigate both matters. I get the feeling that this may turn out to be “a Black thing.” It has been fifty years since these things happened. I am going to find out the real story. Justice must be served!
Another form of discrimination our Black veterans suffered from was “rank reduction.” This happened in both the Vietnam War and World War II.
After serving 20-plus years in the U.S. Army with tours in Vietnam, the Army had a strange retirement gift for my first cousin, Robert L. Alford. They informed him that they were going to reduce his rank from lieutenant colonel to major. It took him a couple of years, but he won his case. So much thanks for his service!
It is not coincidental that this was happening during World War II. As the war was winding down, my father-in-law was notified that his rank was being reduced from captain to first lieutenant and he would be discharged from active duty as such.
That’s how they treated this celebrated Tuskegee Airman. He had to formally sue the United States government (Google “DeBow vs. United States”). Eventually they relented and restored his rank and seniority. He retired from the Air Force Reserve as a lieutenant colonel after much stress and many legal battles.
These two incidents are not coincidental. This is nothing but a Black thing and a very strange way to thank Black veterans for their service. They say, “War is hell.” I guess there are more reasons than one.
Harry C. Alford is the co-founder and president/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Contact him via www.nationalbcc.org.