Saturday, October 21, 2017

Democracy?

Rupert Trimmingham (1899–1985), with others
From Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1944–1946

“Easter Eggs for Hitler.” Technical Sergeant William E. Thomas and Private First Class Joseph Jackson, March 10, 1945, during the Battle of Remagen. (Image courtesy of the National Archives.)
During World War II the Army published Yank: The Army Weekly, a magazine that quickly became the most widely read military publication in U.S. history. The debut issue appeared in June 1942, and each week the magazine featured stories and news about the war, irreverent humor pieces mocking Army life (such as the comic strip “Sad Sack,” depicting the daily humiliations of a forlorn private), and a full-page photo of a “pin-up girl,” including such stars as Lauren Bacall, Susan Hayward, Rita Hayworth, Lucille Ball, Ingrid Bergman, and Lena Horne. Originally tailored for boots on the ground, the magazine was universally read by servicemen in all three branches of the military—and by a good many officers as well. All members of the magazine’s staff, numbering 127 near the end of its run, were active duty soldiers from the enlisted ranks. At its peak 2,600,000 copies of each issue (with a total readership estimated at ten million) were printed in more than twenty local editions on presses as far flung as Honolulu, Cairo, Rome, Trinidad, and Saipan. The magazine’s raison d'ĂȘtre ceased once GIs began returning home and the last issue was published in December 1945, three months after the Japanese surrender.

In spite of Yank’s generally cheeky content and its sneakily disgruntled criticisms of officers and authority, the magazine was nevertheless an official military publication. So it almost certainly came as a surprise to its audience when in April 1944 the editors had “the courage to print” (to quote one reader) a letter from Corporal Rupert Trimmingham about his disheartening and maddening experience as a black soldier in an American railroad station under “Old Man Jim Crow rules.” Both he and the editors were surprised by the response: hundreds of letters, virtually all of them denouncing Trimmingham’s treatment and supporting Yank’s decision to publish the letter.

The letter, along with the reactions to it, was one of many incidents that helped pave the way to the eventual end of segregation in the U.S. military. A year later the Army secretly conducted a survey of white officers who had served with black platoons: although 64% admitted to initial skepticism or hostility toward having to serve with African Americans, 77% had a more favorable view after having done so—and not a single officer indicated a less favorable opinion. In addition, virtually all of the officers reported “white and colored soldiers [had] gotten along together” either fairly well or very well. “Actual friction between white and colored soldiers is said to have been confined to isolated cases involving white solders from ‘outside’ units who did not know the combat record of the colored troops,” noted the report’s authors. And, significantly, if the army were to pursue integration, an overwhelming majority of the officers were opposed to isolating black soldiers in separate battalions or companies (although only a handful recommended that black and white soldiers serve within the same platoon).

A second survey was conducted among white combat veterans who had not served alongside black soldiers. Over 60 percent responded that they “would dislike it very much” if there were both black and white platoons serving within their companies. “The implications of the survey were clear,” summarizes Alan Gropman, a retired Air Force colonel who published a history of integration in the military. “White opposition to integration decreased once men had been integrated.”

Finally, on July 26, 1948, Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which ordered steps taken “as rapidly as possible” to achieve “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.” The president established a Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity to implement the order, but the effects of the new policy were slow in coming. Gropman notes that, while the Air Force proposed and instituted its own policy (with the committee’s approval) in January 1949, “the Army tied the committee in semantic knots, claiming even after the committee had disbanded that segregation and Truman’s order were harmonious. . . . The Navy continued a policy of tokenism into the 1960s.”

For this week’s Story of the Week selection, we present the letter by Rupert Trimmingham that caused such a stir among Yank readers, as well as the reactions from soldiers and Trimmingham’s final response.

Note: As mentioned in the last paragraph, Trimmingham’s letter inspired a short story that appeared in The New Yorker. “A Short Wait between Trains,” by Robert E. McLaughlin, was published in the June 14, 1944, issue, has since been included in several anthologies, and was adapted for a short film that aired on Showtime in 1999.

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Dear YANK:
Here is a question each Negro soldier is asking. What is the Negro soldier fighting for? On whose team are we playing? . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.