The following are excerpts from oral history interviews conducted by Linsey Lee as part of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s exhibit Those Who Serve: Martha’s Vineyard and WWII. The exhibit is currently online at mvmuseum.org/wwii.php. The book of oral histories is available at the museum.
Jane Slater (b. 1932) came to the Vineyard as a child to live year-round while her father was engaged in the war effort.
I remember so vividly standing on the top of the cliffs on beautiful summer days in the early days of the War, watching convoys of ships pass the other side of Noman’s going to Europe, silent, dark and foreboding. It seemed that it took all day for them to pass from sight; and I guess it did. Those same years we watched and listened to squadrons of aircraft passing over Chilmark on their way to Europe. Again, it seemed as if they were flying by for hours at a time . . . and they probably were. I can still hear that drone of those engines.
Nelson Bryant (b. 1923) was a Private 1st Class with the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division.
Well, I knew that I was blind in one eye. So no combat outfit was going to accept me. So I said, “What the hell can I do?” And at first there were scores of us going through taking these physical tests. I thought maybe I could get someone my size and shape and general appearance to take my card through the eye section. And then I said “Jesus, that’s a little obvious.” So what I did was — you walked in and they said, “Cover your right eye,” which is my bad eye, so I did. My other eye’s perfect. And then he said, “Cover your left eye,” and I just switched hands and covered the same eye, so I was 20-20 in both eyes. . . .
And then I think it was on the fourth day — I guess I was getting a reputation as being good to be out in front covering new territory. So this Major Shields Warren told me if I would be a scout on a reconnaissance patrol he was making. A reconnaissance patrol is to try and find out where the enemy is and what they are doing.
Well, anyway, I went out on that combat patrol and ran into a machine gun. And got shot through the chest, in here and out the back. The scout beside me was killed. I remember that being shot didn’t hurt much. But there was a tremendous blow. And I’m flat on my back. It’s a tight country of little hedgerows. And there were cows in the next field. I could hear them mooing and moving around. The guys with me got the machine gunner and kept on. And I’m lying there.
A medic came up and gave me a shot of morphine. And then he left, forgetting part of the ritual. Then another medic came and gave me another. What you’re supposed to do when you give someone morphine in combat, is take the little Syrette or syringe that held it and hook it to the wounded person’s buttonhole or lapel, so the next medic will know. So when the second guy came to me, and I was pretty well out of it, and I couldn’t tell him I had already been treated. So I got two shots of morphine.
I’m lying there and I’m not particularly concerned. The morphine had done its work. The only thing is, I remember saying to myself, “My God, I envisioned a combat career filled with honors and I guess it’s all gone now.”
Curtis Jones (b. 1917) served from 1942-1945 as a 1st Lieutenant with the 34th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. He spent 26 months as a prisoner of war in German prison camps.
I tried to do things, to keep myself as in good a shape as I could. But you’ve got to remember, when I was captured in Tunisia, I weighed 172, and after about a month as a POW I weighed 119. They wanted you to feel weak. So there wasn’t a lot of ambition. They kept you quiet.
And then in late January, they told us that they were closing the camp. The Russians were coming into Poland, and the Germans wanted to move us out before the Russians got there. They wanted to keep us because we were trade material, so to speak. So they decided to send us west, back into Germany. They said, “We’re closing camp and we’re moving you out tomorrow.” Well, we said we weren’t ready. We said we wouldn’t go, so they gave us an extra day.
We started on the 24th or 25th of January. It was twenty below zero, and there was about six inches of snow. We walked for 48 days. When we started out, there were 1,500 of us, and I think we ended up with about 400. A lot of them didn’t get very far — they just weren’t strong enough.
James McLaurin (1923-2010) served as Second Lieutenant with the U.S. Army Air Corps, flying with the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black 332 Fighter Group.
On the base we were segregated. We were in an all-black outfit, black barracks, black instructors. The whole time I was in Mississippi I never went off-base. I didn’t want to get into trouble, and I knew that if I went off-base I’d probably end up getting in trouble, fighting the discrimination, you know.
The instructors would use the N word sometimes, to try to get you upset. They were taking their prejudices out on us. And some of the fellows would wash out because their tempers flared up. The instructors, you know, were all officers, and we were just students, so . . . it didn’t work out. . . .
If you ask me to describe a mission you’re going to cause problems, because the first time we spoke about missions, at night I almost had nightmares. I had flashbacks. I woke up, I was completely wet with perspiration.
But that’s all right. It was hard, but it was — you had a lot of things on your mind, and you wanted to fly without any mistakes. You were in your aircraft, you were watching your instrumentation, and you were watching the enemy. You were observing the enemy, and you were also trying to duck flack from anti-aircraft guns, which did get some planes. . . .
And when you got back from the mission, oh, God, it’s like you want to kiss the runway. When you got your life on the line — you could be cruising along and all of a sudden, boom! You’re gone. You get so scared that you shake and you just try to keep yourself composed. And then all of a sudden you just release everything physically from your body, practically. I had a lot of friends that were killed. It’s devastating, but that’s life, I guess. That’s war. . . .
When the war ended, I landed in Greensboro, South Carolina. No welcoming. Just another soldier, another serviceman coming back. That’s all. What upset us most was the fact that we had put our lives on the line, and yet we were confronted with discrimination when we came back. That was the biggest put-down — wearing the uniform of this country and trying to protect this country, and yet being treated like second-class citizens. I mean, they were still lynching people in the South.