Rare is it today to find any book - non-fiction & fiction - that describes the experiences of the African American soldier in the Second World War. And now that there are scarcely 2 million veterans of the war still alive (of the 15 million who served in the U.S. military between 1941 and 1945), it becomes even more important to have the stories of these people who helped to save the world from the tyranny of fascism embodied in Adolf Hitler and the Axis Powers.
"OK, Joe" by Louis Guilloux (translated from the French by Alice Kaplan) is a novel "based on diaries that the author kept during his service as a translator for the U.S. Army in the aftermath of D-Day." In this novel, Louis is a Frenchman serving a group of American army officers responsible for bringing to justice GIs accused of committing crimes (inclusive of rape and murder) against French civilians.
"The friendly banter of the American soldiers and the beautiful Breton landscape stand in contrast to Louis' task and his growing awareness of the moral failings of the Americans sent to liberate France. Keeping company with American soldiers and immersed in translating accounts of these horrific crimes, Louis encounters a casual and insidious racism in military culture as he comes to realize that the accused men are almost all African Americans." Indeed, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that there is an unmistakable bias against African American soldiers accused of crimes in comparison with their white brethren accused of the same crimes (who generally receive lighter, more lenient sentences).
This book has special resonance for me. My father, an African American, enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943. A year later, his unit was shipped from Britain to France two weeks after D-Day. From Utah Beach, my father saw action in the Battle of Normandy and across France throughout the summer and autumn of 1944. My father was in the Tank Corps and, as a part of Patton's Third Army, went on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium (one of the bloodiest battles in the history of the U.S. Army) and at war's end in May 1945, had reached Czechoslovakia. He received his discharge from the Army in Paris in July 1946 (by which time he was a staff sergeant).
I grew up on my father's "war stories," many of which I didn't fully appreciate til I was much older. I don't think that many people today know how virulently racist the U.S. military was during the Second World War and how it tended to denigrate the African American serviceman (and servicewoman) at every turn. My father once told me of being stationed on a base in Virginia, which also had German prisoners of war who were treated far better than he and his fellow soldiers there under training. There was also the time when he was in Britain prior to D-Day, that a group of (American) white soldiers chose to pick a fight with my father's unit because they didn't like the way British civilians showed them respect. And in France, some of the white GIs would spread stories among the French of African American soldiers having black tails! (When my father first told me that story, I couldn't believe it.)
For anyone interested in learning about an aspect of the Second World War that has been largely overlooked or forgotten, "OK, Joe" is the book for you.
I salute you, Dad.