Laurence Rees: William Perry, a black American who lived in Cleveland Ohio, served during the war in the famous 92nd Infantry Division – the Buffalo Division. He first volunteered for the US army towards the end of 1942 and within days of enlisting he was posted to an army camp in the south, in Alabama. It was here that he first experienced personally the racial discrimination that characterized so much of American army life at the time.
Words of William Perry: I was sent to Fort McClellan. I arrived there December 7th 1942. I had been there about two weeks and caught a cold or pneumonia or something, and I was put into hospital. And I stayed in the hospital, the first week they fed me in bed. So the second week they said, ‘Well, you’re okay now, you can go ahead down to the Mess Hall and eat.’ So I went down to the Mess Hall and there were half a dozen other blacks standing around the door there, and I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ So I started to go in, into the Mess Hall, the guy said, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘I’m going to have something to eat, they’re going in now.’ He said, ‘Well, you can’t eat now, you have to wait until all the white soldiers have eaten before you can go in there and eat.’ And that for me was like a slap in the face, you know. I’d heard about discrimination and stuff, legal segregation, and here we are -soldiers - and you’re all fighting for your country and they start this kind of thing. You can’t eat till the white soldiers have finished eating?
Laurence Rees: Shortly afterwards, William Perry learnt that such racial discrimination wasn’t just confined to the army in the south. He and some friends had arrived at the local bus station early for their bus – certain they could be sure of a seat for their long journey.
Words of William Perry: We got on the bus and sat down. And pretty soon the driver said, ‘Y'all come off there.’ So we came off, I thought, you know, he wants us to come out and check our tickets. So we came off and we stood there by the door, we thought we’d get on first. He blocked us from getting on, he filled the bus up with all the white passengers and by the time he got to us there weren’t any seats left. So we had to stand all the way down, I had to stand that 60 miles, you know, it was hot in there, sweaty. It was an unpleasant situation. But you learned. I began to learn about segregation and, you know, the attitudes of it, but it just wasn’t pleasant.
Laurence Rees: In 1944, William Perry and his comrades were sent to fight in northern Italy, where the Germans were conducting a fierce and bitter retreat.
Words of William Perry: We were moving pretty fast and we caught up with them. They had these 88s, they’re self-propelled guns, and when they were firing them, the next thing you knew it was coming in, the shells were coming in on you. And we ran up on them and had quite a tussle up there at Ripafratta, as I understand about 24 guys going down, people going down all around me and, you know, it wasn’t a happy time.
This is the place where it’s ideal for fighting a defensive war, and some places, you know, you don’t have a lot of confidence in the intelligence they give you. You always got the same, there’s nobody up there, you know, and you’d just get up there and all of a sudden things would open up on you. And the Germans had - we used to call them a burp gun. They had a machine gun that would shoot so fast, it also shot up a lot of ammunition that thing. They would shoot a lot faster than American machine guns, the American machine gun you hear them, brr…brr...brr…brr...brr...brr. You can almost hear each bullet. But the German gun was rrrm…rrrm, like that, and they might have spit out 500 bullets right there. And you just tried to keep your head down and stay down, you know. But you did, you did what you had to do.
Fred Slater, I never will forget him. We were out, you know, in a grape vineyard. It was terraced off and there was evidently a sniper out there and Fred put his head out to look, and he was only about five or six yards from me and all of a sudden I heard a noise and boom! Fred Slater fell, he had been hit right dead in the centre of that helmet, and where the bullet entered the helmet was about the size of a pencil and it went straight through and came out the back of the helmet, and you could see the helmet peel back like a banana and that’s, well, you know, it’s kind of unsettling. I never will forget that. It didn’t feel good. Well, you know, you’re always sorry to see your friends go, but you feel kind of good that it wasn’t you. I thought it could have been my head.
Laurence Rees: And all of these black American soldiers risked their lives for their country in an army which operated systematic prejudice against them. Because although it was possible for a black soldier to become an officer in the unit, it was only possible to progress so far.
Words of William Perry: But, see, they never would let a black officer way outrank a white officer in the outfit - that was the system they worked under. It made you angry as hell, but what can you do about it? You know, you’ve got to try to make this unit work.
Laurence Rees: After the war William Perry returned home, and felt grateful that things were about to change.
Words of William Perry: President Truman did three important things that people don’t really know about. First thing, he was involved in dropping the atomic bomb that ended World War Two - Truman did that. The second thing he did is he desegregated the military. And this is something he didn’t have to do. Politically it cost him a lot of votes. And the third thing he did, he fired General McArthur. And McArthur was a big bigot, he was the one holding up the segregation of the army in Korea.
Laurence Rees: The racially segregated army that William Perry had been part of was, at last, consigned to history.