“I Thought the Army Would Never Change”
Oral interview with Denette Harrod
(conducted by Maggi Morehouse, University of South Carolina Aiken)
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Dennette Harrod was born in 1917 and grew up in Washington, DC. After completing the ROTC class at Howard University he was drafted in July 1941 and assigned to H Company – a heavy weapons company – of the all African American 366th Infantry Regiment. He received Company Commanders Training at Fort Benning, Georgia as one of only a handful of African Americans soldiers in an integrated class consisting of over 200 GIs.
Harrod was commissioned as a 1st Lieutenant in August 1942 and left the United States late in 1943 for Naples In Italy, his company fought the German army as part of the 92nd Infantry Division for more than a year and sustained heavy casualties. Harrod, too, was wounded in 1944 and returned to the United States shortly after World War II had officially ended in August 1945.
Harrod relates many specific instances of racial discrimination during the Great Depression years as well as during World War II. Instead of being quiescent to segregation and injustices, however, he often challenged them directly. In the context of his experiences as a soldier he laments the fact that African American lawyers or doctors were not employed in accordance with their talents and education, but – particularly at the beginning of the war – were confined to menial jobs.
Fighting in Italy he recalls discrimination against his all African American Company and shares his conviction that the Army deliberately deprived them of rewards and medals or hindered their success in battle. These discriminatory measures may have been a reaction to the fact that, as Harrod recalls, “a whole lot of us were not as subservient as they thought blacks should be.”
In general, Harrod concludes, African Americans received only limited opportunities in the Army and were subject to semi-institutionalized racism. He contends that his military experience led him to reject the Army as an avenue for success for African Americans and made him realize racial discrimination as a systemic problem.
As a consequence, Harrod even declined the request of Benjamin O. Davis, the first African American general in the U.S. army, to become his personal aide in 1945. Explaining this decision, Harrod expresses his contemporary disbelief in the army’s ability to change its racial policies: “I had thought that they were going to treat the black officers of World War II the way they had treated the black officers of World War I. […] I figured they were gonna pull the rug out from everybody just the way they did then.”
[On Discrimination in Washington DC during the Depression Years]
Harrod: And it wasn’t until oh, I guess about ’33 or ’34 that I went downtown to a store and wanted to try a necktie on. And they wouldn’t even let me try the necktie on.
[…] I liked that particular necktie and I wanted to see it and the guy wouldn’t let me see it. [And] I told him what he could do with his necktie and told him that I would probably see them fold one of these days. And I would dance in the streets because they went broke.
Morehouse: Did they?
Harrod: They did. And another store I went to the stuff they had was, I thought, too small for me. And it was a shirt. I looked at it. But she told me she couldn’t sell me the shirt. And I told her, well, one of these days she would want me as a customer. But she could forget me and anybody associated with me. Because I was very blunt about that.
[…] I went out of the store after I made my little speeches. Yeah, I just walked out. And I did live to see the demise of both of those stores.
[On his Experiences in the South]
Harrod: A couple of times we went down, we were talking about that the other day. We went down to Tallahassee, Florida. And I went in the drug store down there and I knew I was in the south. So I wanted a soda. And I told him I wanted a coke. So they fixed the coke for me and he put it in a glass. And he told me, ‘Sit down.’ Which I did. And about four or five guys, enlisted personnel, were in the place. And the pharmacist asked me where I was from. And I told him I was stationed at Fort Devins, Massachusetts and these four guys jumped me because they were from Vermont. And they wanted to know how things were and what we were doing up there. And I told them we were the security for the area. This was after Pearl Harbor. […] They wanted news. That’s right. And I left and that drugstore wasn’t too far from the campus and I walked on back to the campus.
Morehouse: Very nice. So you did have some descent southern experiences anyway.
Harrod: Yeah, well, that was one descent one. Of course, the first thing that hit me when I got to Atlanta was, I walked into the station, the railroad station to ask the ticket clerk where I went to catch the train to Columbus, Georgia. And he wouldn’t even talk to me. Just looked at me and went on back in the office. And the porter came and told me. I said, ‘What’s wrong with him? Is his tongue tied?’ And I said it loud enough for him to hear and I was hoping he was gonna do something. Because I had a 38 in my pocket. And I had made up my mind, we would start the Civil War again right there.
[On the 366th Infrantry Regiment and Racial Discrimination at the Beginning of the War]
Harrod: The 366th Infantry was established as a black regiment. We had blacks from the Colonel right straight down to the basic Private. Now the white officers that were there were supposed to be training, training officers for the outfit. At one time we had four, we had a Colonel and I think two or three Lieutenant Colonels, white. But they left. They left. And we were black from the top down. Colonel West A. Hamilton was the Commanding Officer of the 366th Infantry Regiment after the whites left.
[…] He’s dead. He was, well, the day I met him in 1931 he was a Colonel. And he commanded the 428th Infantry Regiment, which was a reserve outfit. Which was all black. And that’s where they got the black officers from. [It was] Here in DC. And it covered just about all of the black officers that the Army had. If you were black you were probably, and a Reservist, you were probably in the 428th.
[…] Witness the fact that we had two medical doctors who had been practicing physicians that were on active duty with us as Infantry Officers. We had two, we had two attorneys who were with us as Infantry Officers who had been practicing attorneys. They didn’t have any assignments for them. And we had one attorney who was a Private, practicing attorney. Because he was black.
[On the Debate of African American Soldiers Getting to Fight in World War II]
Morehouse: Were you guys reading stories in the black press at the time, you know, “The Pittsburgh Courier” or the “Chicago (U)”?
Harrod: Yeah, “The Afro-American,” yeah. Yeah, we read all kinds in the Norfolk, what’s it called “Journal and Guide” or something like that. Yeah, all of them were, they were pressuring the War Department about putting us, getting us into combat. […] We wanted to go. We were sick and tired of playing games. [After many months of training and receiving three Expert Infantryman’s Badges for good preparation]
Morehouse: Do you know if anybody from your Regiment wrote letters or called in?
Harrod: They probably did. Their parents did, too. Because everybody wanted us to. Every time we turned around we’re just getting another badge. A nothing badge.
Morehouse: And did they send anybody down to look you over to see, you know, if you were really prepared to go?
Harrod: Oh, they sent teams down when we did the Expert Infantryman’s Badge. And they stood around with their mouths opened. And they sent somebody down to check the firing on the (U) weapons. And also checked the outfit out on the firing line of rifle ranges. [They] didn’t want to believe what we said.
Morehouse: In the newspapers, there was also a dispute between the labor leader, A. Philip Randolph and W. E. Du Bois about rather to integrate the military or leave it segregated and have it all black, like your Regiment. Did you read those arguments and did you have an opinion about that?
Harrod: I could have cared less because they weren’t in it and I thought they should have kept their big mouths shut. That’s the way we felt. We were going to do it regardless of what they had to say. And neither one of them wasn’t gonna be shot at.
[On the 92nd Division and General Edward Almond]
Harrod: Now that’s the thing that I resent most as far as the 92nd Division is concerned. They never let us fight as a Unit. It was always piecemeal. We never had say an outfit backing up another outfit or beside, one battalion beside another. Or with a battalion in reserve.
Morehouse: Why do you feel that the 92nd never let you fight as a Unit?
Harrod: I think that was due to the hierarchy of the 92nd Division, which I feel was really charged with seeing to it that we did not succeed. Because that man pulled that mess on us, he had a battalion of black tanks that was fighting with him. And there were 25 tanks, and out of the 25 tanks, 23 of the 25 tanks were destroyed or messed up when they tried to make an attack at the Chinqualla Canal. And they shouldn’t have even had tanks in there.
Morehouse: And that’s probably General Almond?
Harrod: Almond. And he did the same thing in Korea. I saw him once while I was up in Gushinana. He came through one morning. They let us know the great one was coming through. Be sure you shave. I said to hell with him, I ain’t shaving. I shaved the day before.
Morehouse: Did you have a nickname for General Almond?
Harrod: Yeah. The snake. The snake is coming.
Morehouse: So you did have an encounter, sort of, with General Almond. What about any of the other white officers? I know that in the Divisions they were moving through a lot of certain . . .
Harrod: They moved through a lot of staff, but they made a point of staying away from some folks.
Morehouse: And how did you get that point across? That you were one of the ones to stay away from?
Harrod: Well, one thing, regardless of their rank, a whole lot of us were not as subservient as they thought blacks should be.
[On African American Opportunities in the Army and his Decision Not to Become General Benjamin O. Davis’ Aide]
Harrod: I got a promotion. And I got an authorization for priority to get a car with automatic transmission. And General Davis sent for me, because his aide was getting ready to leave and he wanted me to replace the aide he had. […] And I told him the day that he sent for me was the day I had been retired. And I was just as evil as I could be because my medical witnesses tried to mess me up. And if it hadn’t been for the Brigadier General who was the president of the board I would never have been retired.
Morehouse: Did he pull rank to try to get you reinstated? Davis?
Harrod: No. What he was calling me for was to, he told me that yeah, I could go ahead and retire and they could bring me back to active duty the next day.
Morehouse: And so you did that?
Harrod: No. Because I had thought that they were going to treat the black officers of World War II the way they had treated the black officers of World War I. And the highest rank they gave to black officers from World War I was Warrant Officer. Except for Davis.
Morehouse: And you just didn’t want to be a part of that man’s Army?
Harrod: No, I wasn’t going to do that. If you want to come and give me an opportunity, and I figured they were gonna pull the rug out from everybody just the way they did then.
[Excerpts from Interview with Dennette Harrod conducted by Maggi Morehouse, Washington, DC, 1998]