Beyond the Rhetoric
By Harry C. Alford
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 and 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 with the public. In other words, they were lying to us. As the case for that became stronger and stronger, life in America became depressing and tense.
As I reflect, they were bitter times. 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 during the Vietnam War. You would think progress had been made but it hadn’t. Throughout the South the institutional racism was slow to fade away. In fact, there were similarities between the two conflicts.
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), I noticed something startling. The record stated he was indeed killed, but no record of the automatic Purple Heart. On the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. his name appears on Panel 23E, Line 32.
Startled, I contacted his surviving sister. With apparent anger, she stated that her parents were not given his Purple Heart. Then she dropped a “bombshell.” Nor did they receive his Death Benefits. 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, Arkansas, 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 must now do some investigating on the two matters. I get the feeling that this may turn out to be a Black thing – a very big Black thing. Strange – it has been 50 years since these things happened and now I am going to find out what the real story is. 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 Lt. 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 type of thing 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 1st 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 legal battle. 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.