Monday, April 12, 2004

Soldier fought two battles

One against Nazi forces; another against U.S. racism

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

They were wrong about George Allen 62 years ago, when the tall, slender Lincoln Heights teenager was drafted into the Army and sent to Europe, where World War II raged on.

George Allen, of Lincoln Heights, a World War II veteran who fought in the U.S. Army's C Company, shows the route his platoon took across Germany during the war.
(Gary Landers photo)
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was wrong; so, too, was Gen. George Marshall, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. And all the millions of white Americans who believed that a black man was not fit for combat.

The Bronze Star for valor in combat that the now-80-year-old veteran wears proudly in Veterans Day parades and at formal affairs at his American Legion post in Lockland puts the lie to the idea that black men could not fight.

"It sounds crazy now, but they thought we weren't good for anything but driving trucks and lifting boxes,'' says Allen, sitting in the living room of his Lincoln Heights home, a raft of yellowed letters and photographs from his World War II service spread out on the coffee table. "We showed they were wrong.''

Sixty years later, the notion of a segregated military where blacks were relegated to behind-the-lines grunt work sounds ludicrous, after the thousands of black soldiers who fought and died in places like Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. It should have been ludicrous in the 1940s, as well, nearly 80 years after black soldiers fought valiantly for the Union in the Civil War.

But racism ruled the day; Roosevelt and Marshall acquiesced to what they thought was overwhelming public opinion.

Allen and about 4,000 fellow African-American soldiers might never have gotten their chance to prove them wrong had it not been for the carnage inflicted on Allied troops as they pushed across Europe in a relentless drive to topple the Nazi regime in Germany.

In the fall of 1944, Allen was a corporal in the 537 Quartermaster Service Company, an all-black outfit posted in France where they spent their days loading supply trucks bound for the combat troops at the front.

Then, in December 1944, came the Battle of the Bulge.

The month-long battle in and around the Ardennes Forest of Belgium was a clash of more than 1 million men. The U.S. and British forces were successful in driving back the German army, but the cost was staggering - 14,000 American soldiers killed, another 62,000 wounded.

Suddenly, the Allied force was short of manpower. Raw recruits - 17- and 18-year-olds - came pouring across the Atlantic as replacements, but it was not enough. Although Washington was reluctant, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, wanted to take as many of the support troops in all-black outfits and quickly turn them into combat soldiers.

Eisenhower got his way; and, in early 1945, a call went out to the black units for volunteers.

Allen and 26 of his fellow soldiers from the 537th raised their hands, as did about 4,000 other black soldiers. They were told they would go to the south of France for a month of combat training and then be shipped to the front. They were also told that the non-commissioned officers among them - including Cpl. Allen - would have to give up their stripes and go into battle at the rank of private.

A young white officer, Lt. Stanley Sorrel of Middletown, Ohio, who became Allen's lifelong friend until he died earlier this year, came to the training camp and took Allen and about 40 other black soldiers to join his company in the 9th Infantry Regiment. The African-American soldiers would have their own platoon - "X-Platoon,'' the "X'' standing for "experimental.''

X-Platoon was with the 9th Infantry when it crossed the Rhine River into Germany on pontoon boats. There, they saw their first combat.

They pushed on through the Rhineland into central Germany, and they were locked in a battle with the retreating German army at Leipzig.

"We lost a lot of guys; some killed, some wounded, but we did our job,'' Allen says.

His fellow soldiers in X-Platoon used to kid Allen, who stands 6'3".

"I was the tallest guy in the platoon; they all used to say, 'Allen, you're a big target; you're going to be the first guy they shoot at,''' Allen says, laughing at the memory. "But I got through without a scratch.''

After Leipzig, X-Platoon and the 9th Infantry were transferred from the 1st Army to Gen. George Patton's 3rd Army, which took them south into the newly liberated Czechoslovakia.

"When we marched through Germany, we were told not to fraternize with the German people; they were still the enemy,'' Allen says. "But the minute we crossed into Czech territory, there were crowds in the streets, waving and cheering. People coming up kissing us, shaking our hands. It was the best feeling I ever had.''

Eventually, he came home and married his sweetheart, Marian - now his wife of 58 years.

They had three children, and watched five grandchildren come along. The mantel in their living is full of family photos.

From time to time over the years, the couple has traveled to cities all over the country for reunions of the 9th Infantry Regiment. Soon, they will be going to Washington for the dedication of the National World War II Memorial, an event Allen says is "long overdue.''

He knows full well that 60 years ago he made history when he volunteered for combat and joined the 9th Infantry Regiment, even though three years passed after the war before President Harry Truman fully integrated the armed forces.

From time to time, he is reminded of the role he played.

"I was at the American Legion one time a while back, wearing my Bronze Star,'' Allen recalls. "There was a guy - a white guy - who says to me, 'How did you get that Bronze Star? Blacks didn't fight in World War II.

"I told him how wrong he was.''

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