This is an essay from several years ago, but with so many WWII vets dying, I thought I’d keep this little bit of oral history around.
About an hour before my patients begin to show up, I sit at my desk and enjoy a cup of coffee while looking over the charts for the day. On my list was a new patient for the 9:00 slot. I opened his computer chart and saw that he was not new to the VA, only to me. He had been to a series of doctors over the years, and was noted to be hostile and dissatisfied with each. This is often how people seeking help become labeled as “bad patients”, and are even “fired” by doctors. There are certain code words and phrases in medical charts that help identify “bad” patients; among these are “poorly compliant” and “habitual no-show”. From reading the chart, he was all of these, so it was with a bit of dread that I awaited his arrival.
Mr. Williamson showed up in a blue blazer, slacks, and a blue cap adorned with the name of the Navy boat on which he had presumably served. He was a large man, imposing even at 73 years. He sat down, folded his arms, and waited for me to speak.
“So, what brings you in today?”
“Well, it’s the same goddamned thing every time! Can’t you read what’s in that damn computer?”
“Well, I can see what other people say, but I’d like to know what you have to say. Any pain anywhere?”
“Of course I got pain. I’m 73 years old, and the VA fucked me over good, just like the Navy done!”
“Well, I just met you, so I don’t know about any of that, but I’ll tell you what-why don’t you pick one thing that’s bothering you the most today, and I’ll listen to you, and try to help you with it. No promises beyond that. I can’t tell you I’ll make it better, but I’ll try.”
“OK, it’s my damn knee. Hurts just as bad as it did the day I hurt it.”
“How’d that happen?”
“Well you know how it is. I acted like a damned fool and joined the Navy. Thought I’d have a real job. Not many folks in my town had jobs back then. So I joined up, ready to do whatever it takes, and guess what? Me and all the other coloreds get assigned to manual labor. They didn’t care what skills we came in with, and they sure enough weren’t going to give us any new ones. They just put us on ships and docks and told us to lift shit all day. And if you complained, there was plenty worse work you could get.”
“Did you work out at Port Chicago?”
Port Chicago was a Naval magazine in the San Francisco Bay area where several hundred black seamen were killed while loading live ammunition onto ships. They had complained about the danger, but had been ignored or threatened. After the accident, many refused to go back to work without a change in conditions. They were court martialled, but finally pardoned many years later.
“Just before the accident, which was no accident, most of the guys stationed with me shipped out there, figured it would be better work out west. I stayed here. Most of them’s dead now.”
“What was it like for you back here?”
“We got treated like slaves. When they’d put us on a train, we’d have to ride in the first car, the one where all the smoke from the engine goes in. The German POWs rode in the good cars. And when we’d stop for meals, the POWs ate in the restaurants, but we had to find sandwiches and eat them on the train.”
“We were willing to die fighting. Black men who got combat training went around training with wooden guns. Army’s probably afraid they’d use real one’s to kill white officers. Fact is, I think the ones who did get to fight got so good at killing Germans ’cause they were killing white people.”
None of this was in his medical chart. His eyes stared forward as he spoke. He appeared angry, sad, hurt, and very distant. He had not yet spoken of his injured knee. He never did. His pain was as sharp at that moment as it was 50 years ago. He had volunteered to serve his country, and found the enemy was treated better then he was. Like many soldiers, his memories had him pinned down in the past. When the year is 2001, 1945 is a very lonely place.