WHAT REALLY HAPPENED TO THE BLACK 364TH INFANTRY DIVISION DURING WWII?
By STAFF WRITER Rick Thorne
HOW COULD AROUND 1000 BLACK SOLDIERS SIMPLY DISAPPEAR DURING WWII?
The U.S. Army has been covering up a long lost story hidden from the wondering eyes of humanity. Does the Army know more than it revealed during a recent segment of the History Channel?
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Were members of a Mississippi-based black regiment, including soldiers from Philadelphia, gunned down in 1943 to silence their demands for equality?
In March 1942, the 367th black combat unit in the segregated U.S. Army was re-named the 364th (Negro) Infantry Regiment. It took in a batch of new recruits — mostly from Northern cities like Philadelphia, New York and Chicago — and the regiment of about 3,000 men was ordered south to Arizona in June. By fall, the full regiment was bivouacked at Papago Park in Phoenix.
Letters from soldiers there and elsewhere the unit was stationed — including missives to the Philadelphia Tribune— complained about their plight at the desolate base. Army investigators later described a situation in which black enlisted men suffered myriad hardships and indignities far beyond the tough life of your average GI in boot camp.
Some marched in nearly soleless shoes through the rugged Superstition Mountains in desert heat. At any given time, 65 to 85 men were imprisoned in a primitive outdoor stockade, often for minor infractions. In a situation in which white officers oversaw segregated units of black enlisted men, the 364th’s commanding officer was known to draw his pistol and shoot at the feet of soldiers to get them to "look lively."
These incidents would only be harbingers of racial violence to come.
During WWII, there were hundreds of bloody, racially charged domestic firefights at bases and their surrounding communities throughout the country, all involving black soldiers, sometimes under attack by MPs, sometimes by white civilians. The skirmishes received press coverage depending on the accessibility of the base. The official record lists one dead, two wounded during a night of fighting in 1942 at Ft. Dix, New Jersey; one dead, five wounded at Camp Shenango, Pennsylvania, on July 14, 1943, for example.
Black soldiers in Phoenix with the 364th began to protest conditions in the fall of 1942. One soldier, writing a "John Doe" letter to U.S. Sen. Joseph Guffey (D-PA), reported what was going on.
"One young man, Francis Johnson of Chester, PA, has been out on bread and water for fifteen days because he resented the Commanding Officer’s kicking him," the letter said. "This young man has gone on a hunger strike, hoping that his death will focus the attention of the War Department on the rotten conditions of this regiment." (No other information exists of what happened to this poor soul).
One month after the investigations were complete, some members of the 364th rioted in nearby downtown Phoenix. The details and body count of the "Phoenix Massacre" continue to be argued. In yet another aspect of a soon-to-be-repeated pattern, an initial altercation escalated when the soldiers returned to camp, armed themselves and returned to Phoenix. All that is known for sure is that the firefight lasted all night over the predominantly black section of that desert town. Soldiers, police and civilians were killed and wounded in a battle that resulted in at least 14 casualties, including three deaths. Nineteen members of the 364th were court-martialed for their roles in the disturbance. Most received 50-year prison terms; one was sentenced to death.
Whatever happened to the 364th in the summer of ’43, in December the regiment’s remaining men were relocated to a far-off camp in the Aleutian Islands. It was then that their personnel roster began to show signs of hemorrhage. Records show that between 800 and 1,000 of the 3,000 men left the 364th before the war’s end. In other words, from June 1943 until Japan’s surrender, about one soldier’s name per day disappeared from the 364th’s roster.
Until more witnesses to the events of 1943 step forward to speak, this dark corner of American history is unlikely to be further illuminated.
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About the Author: Rick Thorne is a Staff Writer for VeteransToday.com. He’s a professional photographer. For 35 years Rick has traveled much of the U.S. recording nature and many other unique subjects along the way. His work isn’t for sale but he uses it to help others in time of depression and despair. Photography has been his life blood for many years now. Rick is on Social Security Disability and was discharged from the Navy in 1968 for a nervous breakdown. The VA is currently treating him for his mental and physical injuries. Official Rick Thorne Web Site:http://web.mac.com/rthorne2/SITE%21/TRUTH_REVEALED%21.html
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