“They Treated German POWs Better Than Us”
Oral Interview with Jim Williams
(conducted by Maggi Morehouse, University of South Carolina Aiken)
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Jim Williams was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1921 and grew up in Philadelphia. He joined the Army in March 1942 and, after a brief period in Officer Candidate School, was trained as a platoon sergeant in the 317th Medical Battalion.
In Italy, where he served as part of the 92nd Infantry Division from 1943 on, his duties included medical work in field hospitals as well as setting up prophylactic stations to tackle the problems of venereal disease. His battalion accompanied and shared the success of African American combat troops fighting along the Arno River and into the Po Area. Upon his father’s unexpected death, Williams was discharged in March 1945 and returned to the States. Having to give up on a medical career for financial reasons, Williams continued to work for the post office in the following decades.
Growing up with “subtle” racism in Philadelphia, was shocked at the extent of openly racist behavior in society and military in the South, which he visited for the first time as a soldier. Stationed in Texas he recalls that “the sheriff’s deputies let you know where you belong[ed].” His training as an officer, too, was cut short because he was unwilling to bear the racial discrimination it entailed. Williams observes that especially in the medical battalion, where black doctors often outranked the white soldiers they treated, racial tension was commonplace.
To Williams, one particular instance poignantly exposed racial inequality in the military: German prisoners of war (POWs) working in the mess line outright refused to serve black American soldiers, whereupon the Army “took them off the serving line.” Williams remembers, “it was our contention that well, what the hell, they’re being treated better than we are.” The double standard of having to fight against fascism abroad, while racism and discrimination against black soldiers by the defeated German enemy were officially tolerated, became especially apparent to blacks soldiers and brought home the hypocritical dimension of racial injustice at this time.
Despite these negative experiences Williams also remembers the war as a time when white Americans had some opportunity to critically reassess and overcome existing prejudice. As commander of a black medical battalion one of Williams’ officers completely changed his attitude toward African Americans, recognizing them as extraordinarily bright and efficient. Other white and black soldiers within his medical battalion, too, he recalls, founded lasting friendships.
In his account Williams relates his original hopes that the contributions of African Americans to the war effort could substantially alter their situation in American society. Later, however, Williams contends that the war left an ambiguous legacy: While their brave conduct in the Italian campaign proved to America that – as he puts it – “black soldiers kicked ass,” the existing discrimination often hindered African Americans to realize their full potential. Williams concludes that “[the war] was a period of learning for me. […] Looking back over some of the people that I’d met […] was very gratifying […] and much of it saddened me, too, because I met so many people that had great expertise in all fields and they just couldn’t take advantage of it because they were being held back.”
[On Expectations when Joining the Army]
Williams: I really don’t know then why I preferred the Army. I just, I thought of a way, you know, up until that time the whole world was prejudice. And I thought in a small way that, the Army was segregated, and if we went in and proved ourselves, and when we got back home they would have to recognize us. And I thought that this in a sense they would have to recognize our, our deportment in the Army and say, ‘Well, hey, look. These people are A number 1, so we’ll have to treat them as citizens.’ That’s what I, along the lines that I was thinking.
[On Subtle Segregation in Philadelphia]
Williams: The segregation here was very subtle. Uh, you might make a mistake like I did and try to go to a theater. And they told me, ‘No colored are allowed in here.’ Which was, it smarted at the time. And, uh, restaurants you were segregated. You could eat in them but they had a certain section they wanted to usher you to. And just the little things that were demeaning, you know. […] Yeah, you had to learn to deal with, yeah.
Morehouse: But you don’t see like in the south.
Williams: Oh, no, no. There were no blatant signs, no. It’s just like being in a different world when you go south at that time. When you go south it was, you know, definitely Negroes here, white here.
[On Discrimination while at Officer Candidate School in Camp Barkeley, Texas]
Morehouse: How many people were, how many African-Americans were in your OCS class?
Williams: In the class? Oh, there was about 20 of us [and] maybe about 500 [whites] But the only thing wrong with that, they sent the wrong man for the wrong state at the wrong time. That’s the only way I can explain that. And it, this was all my fault because if I had kept my mouth shut and went along with the part nothing would ever happened. But I just wasn’t built that way.
OCS [Officer Candiate School] is in Camp Barkeley, Texas. Adeline, Texas. That’s where they wore the 10 gallon hats and boots and spurs and called you, ‘Boy.’ ‘Hey, boy.’
[…] The sheriff’s deputies in town let you know if you’re on the wrong street and where you belong. And they didn’t care, they didn’t care that you wore the OCS patch on your shirt. That didn’t mean a thing to them. If you were black you didn’t belong there so get out.
Morehouse: Did the administration, the hierarchy in the military come out and tell you guys there are certain places in town you can’t go? Or do they let you find out for yourself?
Williams: No, they let us find out for ourselves.
Morehouse: But would you travel around with, say some of the other 20 African-Americans guys there?
Williams: No. We weren’t, you had a tendency to be more compatible with the squad that you were in. There were five people to a squad. In my squad there was a Jew, me, a Japanese-American, and two white, I don’t know their nationality. But that was an odd squad. And we all went to town one night and one afternoon. And the state trooper, or whoever he was, stopped us. And he told the Japanese candidate, ‘You get back to camp.’ He told the other fellas, they were all white, he said they could go where they wanted. And he said to me, ‘You, boy. You know where you belong. On the other side of town.’ Yep. That’s what they say.
Morehouse: What did your friends do?
Williams: My friends? Oh, yeah, they complied. They didn’t quite like it. But they complied. It was a bit easier for them. The whole populous there was very racist. Even in the camp, we had a PX and you had only 15 minutes to change classes. And when we would break everybody would make a dash for the PX to get a soda or a milk or a cake or something. And eat it before you make your next formation. And they had civilian girls working in the PX. And I purposely got into the PX first so I would be the first one waited on. They’d ignore me. And wait until it was almost time for my formation. And then they’d walk over and say, ‘What do you want?’ Well, it’s too late for me to order one thing. And that’s one of the things that helped me to get out of there. Because I threw the riot act one day and I demanded to be waited on. She went to wait on somebody else and I was there first. We had a big stink about it. And they confined me to barracks for awhile. And, uh, the next thing that happened, we were on a field problem and the officer in charge really didn’t know anything about close order drill. And he got the men into a bind. And he became so frustrated. He said, ‘Well, if anybody knows how to correct this do it.’ And I did it. […] Shouldn’t have done that. But I did. He didn’t do anything at the time. But he, by his actions and his manner he let me know that he didn’t like that.
Morehouse: So, you were busted out of OCS?
Williams: Hm-mhmm. My Platoon leader called me in the office one day and he said, ‘Well, Williams, I can’t tell you to resign.’ He said, ‘But it would be better if you did rather than have us cut you because if we did you would loose your rank.’ I had the rank of Sergeant. ‘But if you resign you will be transferred to a Unit in rank.’ So I resigned and got transferred to the 92nd.
[On Discrimination in American Society]
Williams: It would be the subtle things. Not the out and out. There was a certain amount of brutality received from police. And people of authority. But just the out and out things. And I remember when I was chosen to go to OCS. And I had to leave at such a time, there wasn’t time to draw up furlough papers for me. So they gave me two three day passes. […] But they gave me the OCS patch. He said, ‘Immediately, you get that sewn on your pocket.’ And as soon as I got home I did. And I was proud. Oh, lady, I was so proud. So I went home and everybody congratulated me. And I got on the train to come back to camp. So when the train pulled in the yards in Richmond […] I went up to the station and saw a restroom. Boom, I ran in the restroom. I’m standing at the urinal relieving myself and I heard this, ‘Hey, boy. We’ve got a place for you over there.’ And I ignored it. I didn’t know he who he was talking to. He said, ‘I’m talking to you, nigger.’ Boy, every ounce of blood just drained out of my body. So he started to turn like he was gonna come to me. And I didn’t turn. But if he’s coming over I’m gonna stick his head right in this urinal. But I noticed somebody else was in the restroom, and at that moment somebody said, ‘Sergeant,’ speaking to me, ‘Get over here.’ He said, ‘I said get over here.’ And I turned and here was a Marine Major standing there. So he said, ‘What’s your name?’ And I told him and he said, ‘Where’s your outfit?’ I told him. And he said, ‘I see you have the OCS patches on.’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir, I’m going.’ He said, ‘Now are you gonna let an incident like this spoil your chances for becoming an officer?’ I said, ‘No, sir.’ He said, ‘Well, you get back on your train and good luck.’ And as I went I noticed he had been drying his hands and he had torn the paper towel to shreds and the vein in his head was standing out. And that guy must have noticed because he walked out quickly, because I knew if he had said the wrong thing that Major he would have killed him in there. He was that mad, that angry. And I never forgot that he said, ‘You’re gonna face more incidents like this and you’re supposed to know how to handle them.’ And I never forgot that. I never forgot that.
[On friendships with white officers in the medical battalion]
Morehouse: How about the white officers that you were directly working with in the Medical Battalion? Any stand out in your mind?
Williams: Yes. I had a Company Commander, Captain M. M. Yargets, he was a dentist by profession. He was from Alaquipeth(?), Pennsylvania. And once a month we had a dinner for the officers in the first three grades. And Captain Yargets sat across the table from me and he got up one day and said that when he received his assignment he found out he was assigned to a black battalion and he would command. And he said, ‘I don’t know anything about black people.’ And he said, ‘I was never more surprised than when I reached here.’ And how pleased he was. And when he was transferred out of the Company I carried the guide on and I had the Company colors. And we were to face the incoming Commander. And I was to take the, he would take the colors from me and give it to the new person. And when he did that he was actually crying because he didn’t want to leave. He found out that, you know, well, we did have at one time, we had the, the highest IQ of any training battalion in the country at that time. I didn’t think of it then. Hindsight. We had a wealth of brilliant people. We had men right out of college. We had people off of the farm. We had people out of industry. And those guys were young and cracker jacks in their field. You know, and they were just good people. And he found this out and he just, he just didn’t want to do it. He was very, very, his mind was changed.
And then I had a platoon leader [chuckles] who was, he was a nice guy, but he had two left feet. But he was so nice that, you know, I sort of backed him up. And one day we were out and it was raining and we were having a training session in barracks. And some Colonel came in, throwing his weight around. And he approached Lieutenant Shore and he said, ‘Well, Lieutenant how do you put a figure eight bandage on? Are you teaching these men that?’ And he said, ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘Well, show me how to do a figure eight.’ And he couldn’t do it. Oh, he berated him right in front of me. And that, you know, that’s something you just don’t do. You know, but I sort of smoothed it out. And then Shore and I became very good friends
[On Blacks in the Medical Battalion]
Williams: For a long while there you didn’t have a black officer above the rank of Field Grade. That’s Major. […] But then you know, the medical officers had a lot of input in changing the face of the Army. I remember one day in, we were in [Fort] Huachuca, and this doctor had been transferred to us. His last name was Smith. But he was a man, I would say about 40 years old then. He came out of practice. He was a gastrinal, intestinal man out of Maharry Medical. He headed the department there and he taught there. And they, in a rotating basis they became the Battalion Surgeon. And during his watch one Company came down with this type of dysentery. And it began to seep into another Company. And he examined a couple of them in there. And he identified it. And he prescribed a treatment for them and overnight it cleared it up. So the Division Surgeon got wind of it and wanted to know what he treated them with. And he was told. And he said, ‘No, no. This is not according to the medical handbook.’ Oh, no, he didn’t do that. But he pulled his record prior to going down there and dressing this Captain down. And then he looked at his background and he said, ‘Oh, wait a minute. I can’t challenge this man. He teaches the subject. I wouldn’t dare go down there and tell him that.’ And then they began to realize, well, here we’ve got doctors coming in here that are doctors. And then I began to notice they had some, they had some doctors that had two left feet and then they had some that just dripped medicine. They came out of internship, they came out of residencies. Some of them had their own practices.
[…] I learned an awful lot of them about compassion and about diligence. We, one night, uh, I had the duty, we were up the mountains in Italy. And we had Command Posts set up. And they brought this soldier, white soldier in on a stretcher. And he had, uh, broken his leg. This leg was, the femur was sticking up through his leg. And right away you could get the odor of alcohol. Well, what happened was, he didn’t get in battle. He was on his way back to his Unit drunk and he ran a jeep over the mountainside and they got him and brought him here. And Dr. Hawkins, Earl Hawkins, he was a settled man. Jet black. Bent over to examine him. And he looked up and said, ‘You take your hands off me. I don’t want no nigger to touch me.’ Now to me, that would have been to hell with you. Let you lie there and die. But Hawkins just said, ‘That’s all right, soldier. Just take it easy. We’ll take care of you.’ He told the attendant, he said, ‘Get some morphine in this man before he goes into shock. Just keep him warm.’ And I thought for that, I said, ‘Now you see the difference in nature?’ He said, ‘You can’t treat evil with evil and get any results.’ And he took care of the guy. And I learned that from them.
And then I began to see the little friction between the officers and sometimes the (U). We had a young surgeon, Peterson, crackerjack surgeon. And before he got promoted he spent six months in grade. And then they make an evaluation. So Peterson spent five months and 29 days and they transfer him. Then he’d go to this Unit, serve and then they’d transfer him. Because they didn’t want it. But he finally made, when I last heard him, he was a bird Colonel. But he was a crackerjack surgeon.
[On German Prisoners of War]
Morehouse: Did you ever notice anything about how the German soldiers were treated as prisoners of war compared to your own treatments?
Williams: Well, stateside […] in Camp Lee, Virginia they had some German prisoners of war and they were using them as mess men. You know, they worked around the mess and they were in the mess lines. And, uh, there was a little friction there between the men and them because they didn’t want to serve the soldiers or the black GI’s and they had an attitude and then we got an attitude. Meaning, the black soldiers got an attitude and began to raise a rumble so they changed things a little. They took them off the serving line. And it was our contention that well, what the hell, they’re being treated better than we are. You know, and they’re just prisoners of war. And they, they, we weren’t brutal to our prisoners. They did get good treatment.
Morehouse: But they in fact were, even as prisoners, they were refusing to serve you?
Williams: Oh, yeah. Yeah, they were very arrogant. Very arrogant.
[On Differences in Philadelphia after the War]
Morehouse: How did you think that Philadelphia was at that point compared to what it was like when you left? Were there differences in the people?
Williams: There were differences in the people. The people were, uh, while I was still in uniform, of course, the people were more open to me. When I say people, I mean white people. I was accepted readily. And, uh, on vehicles, in the trolley cars and whatnot, I couldn’t pay. Or the theaters I had no problem there. Restaurants, no problems. So it was, it was a bit better, I would say. It was a bit better.
Well, [my expectations] were fulfilled to a point. But not so much so that I really gave it much thought. Because there were obstacles that faced me trying to make a livelihood. And then that’s where I ran into subtle problems.
[On his Opinion about the War]
Morehouse: How did you think overall about your years in World War II?
Williams: Well, it was a period of learning for me. I, uh, I can’t say that I really enjoyed it, but looking back over some of the people that I’d met and some of the people that I dealt with was very gratifying because I learned a lot about life and people during that time. And much of it saddened me too because I met so many people that had great expertise in all fields and they were just downtrodden. You know, they just couldn’t take advantage of it because they were being held back.
[On Black Veterans and Lynchings after the War]
Williams: I never knew of any vendetta against black veterans. I only thought of it being the idiots against black people per se. But not necessarily the black, I knew that the black veterans had a certain anger that they felt as though they served their country and they weren’t going to stand for this nonsense anymore. And they just rebelled. And you had a little, little pockets of rebellion all over the place. But in essence they went about it in the wrong way, because to fight it with force will get you nowhere.
[Excerpts from Interview with Jim Williams conducted by Maggi Morehouse, Philadelphia, PA, 1998]