ST. PETERSBURG —It was a rainy Saturday afternoon on the day of July 18, but it didn’t deter four heroic African-American veterans from telling their stories of time spent in the military. Held at the James Weldon Johnson Community Library, the community showed up to pay respect and learn about our nation’s past.
With the theme for the library youth programs focusing on heroes, it was only fitting that the adult theme runs along those lines as well. After all, every hero has a story.
Gwen Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association, moderated the event that started off with a viewing of the film, “Veterans of Color.” Produced locally by the Manasota ASALH, a chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, the documentary preserves personal accounts of African-American war veterans living in this area.
“There are all kinds of service, but probably the ultimate service is to do something where you could possibly lose your life,” said Reese who wholeheartedly feels the importance of passing down the stories of black veterans to the youth of today. “It’s very important that our young people be here for these events because they’re the ones who don’t know the history of the African-American experience.”
Four veterans from various arms of the United States military told of their experiences in their respective branches. Some taking pride in the work they did, others wishing they hadn’t enlisted at all.
John T. Ayers was a Montford Point Marine in World War II. In 2013 he received the Congressional Medal of Honor, which he brought for all to see. He loved his stint in the Marine Corps as ammunitions specialists, and at 19 when he first entered into service, Ayers took pride in his work.
“My job was to learn the types of ammunition and pass it out to the whites,” he recalled. “They were the ones doing the fighting and we were the ones dodging the bullets.”
He remembers being fired on at the Battle of Okinawa, one of the deadliest battles of the war. “They were shooting on us. The ships couldn’t stop, they couldn’t turn around, they couldn’t do nothing but keep moving,” said Ayers who remembers setting up the ammunition in the dark woods after landing on shore.
Colonel George Brown, Jr. was army special forces and served during the Korean War. With 35 years’ experience with the armed forces, he considers himself one of the lucky ones.
“I never fired a shot in anger and I never got shot at,” he said. Instead his job was to train troops on how to survive in those exact situations, and a lot of troops at that. A specialist in his field, Brown a self-proclaimed army brat, trained troops on how to react in life or death situations on their deployment to war zones during the Korean War, Vietnam and Desert Storm. In fact, during the Korean War he was ready to be shipped out to fight himself, but was deemed too valuable a commodity to lose. “They said I was a teacher. I was to teach people how to survive, rather than to go over myself.”
His life in the service is peppered with great moments. A paratrooper, he boasts 90 jumps under his belt. He was chronicled locally back in 1966 as he underwent training to become a Green Beret, and he has felt the pride that comes from knowing he made a difference in the lives of others, by preventing their death.
“A young captain at MacDill saw me and said, ‘You saved my life by training me,’” recalled Brown who views that meeting as one of the proudest moments of his life. When stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Brown was approached by yet another soldier who thanked him for saving his life in Korea. “He said, ‘You showed me how to get out of every position that I was in.’ It made me feel real good.”
But being a black soldier during a time when African Americans were fighting for equal rights here in America was difficult and with service opportunities limited to soldiers of color, animosity toward the system was prevalent in many black soldiers of the day.
Reverend James Sykes served in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. A pastor, Sykes has lived here in St. Petersburg for the past eight months. He remembers racism during his time in the military, crude remarks during boot camp that shaped the way he viewed his time there.
“It was not easy for any of us to survive,” said Sykes who believes the best thing about Vietnam was that the black soldiers got closer to one another, learned how to look out for each other. “That motivated me; no one else was going to do that for us.”
One of his saddest moments of the Vietnam War was returning home. “We were hoping to get a good greeting,” he recalled. There were 200 soldiers on the plane and one white couple holding a welcome home sign. Not exactly a warm homecoming for those who risked their lives so others didn’t have to.
A disappointing situation that turned even worse as black soldiers were reintroduced to a life of racism. Sykes remembers his unit going to a local bar and being followed by the police all night as if they couldn’t be trusted.
“We realized it was really not worth it,” said Sykes. To fight one battle, just to come home and have to battle racism on top of it. “If I had to do it again I wouldn’t, that’s just the bottom line.”
The community, young and old, commented on their own experiences during their military service, thanking veterans for their service and asked some hard questions of the storytellers.
How were they treated overseas? Everyone had the same experience. They received more respect and tolerance in foreign countries, with the exception of a few, than they did during their service in the United States.
Did they witness sexism during their time in the military? Being the only female speaker, Cathrine Washington, US Army Reserves, had some experience with the issue during her service. “They didn’t want to do what I said,” explained Washington who would put anyone who didn’t treat her right on kitchen patrol. “I wasn’t ashamed to do it.”
Although Washington never went into active service, she had a 30-year military career as a nurse right here in St. Petersburg and received the Meritorious Award, which isn’t usually given to reservists. Also, while serving in the reserves, she became the first African-American female to be a St. Petersburg firefighter.
The prevalence of drug use was also a hot topic. Although Ayers and Brown’s exposure to it was limited, Sykes had a different story to tell. The drug of choice during Vietnam was marijuana, and then progressed to speed Sykes confided. “Some of the horrific things we saw, seeing our friends dying. It helped us to cope with what we were doing.”
The heritage of African Americans must continue to be told in the community because it is not taught in school. Reese encourages everyone, especially the young people, to attend community meetings, find out about their heritage and what African Americans have contributed to the history of the United States. “The Veterans of Color” film is a good place to start and can be checked out for free at your local library.
To reach Holly Kestenis, email firstname.lastname@example.org