"Uncle Sam called me": World War II Reflected in Black Music

Black and white photo of rows of soldiers with an American flag in front

Arthur Rothstein/FSA

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 1 No. 3/4, "No More Moanin'." Find more from that issue here.

This article contains anti-Japanese slurs.

Black music in its most natural setting is an essential part of the black culture system, for during a black musical experience, communication occurs simultaneously on physical, emotional and intellectual levels. Hence, to Fela Dourande’s (Nigerian musician, Yoruba chieftain) definition of music as “sound at its most powerful level,” I would simply add the term communicative sounds, meaning sounds that can be read or understood by those for whom they were intended.

Because of this communicative function, music in black life and culture plays a vital role in the balanced working of black society. It reflects (and sustains) much of the black view of the world. In the lyrics of black songs are valuable, often precise, historical data that helps one to know where blacks placed themselves during certain periods, expecially during key periods such as world wars, natural catastrophes or mass movements. Musically, rhythmically and lyrically, black songs, then, provide us with a rich historical source, not only chronicling events, but conveying the mood and attitude of black people towards these events as they affected their lives.

This article is an edited account of a study of songs created by the black community during World War II and attempts to demonstrate the potential of the songs of black America as historical documents. To avoid viewing the songs in a vacuum, the accounts of the war in the Pittsburgh Courier—the major source of information accessible to the black community at the time— are used here as a backdrop. Being a weekly, the Courier only rarely “broke” the news; rather, it served to interpret current events from the black perspective.

Of the 40 songs collected, I have selected those I consider strongest in terms of historical data and those revealing the major topics, themes, opinions, events and personalities that caught the interest of the creators and performers of these songs. The songs fell into several subject areas: survey songs scanning the whole war period, the draft, the national defense industry, the disruption of the family, certain war heroes and villains, and the hopes and fears of the black community.

The most comprehensive of the survey songs is a gospel ballad (so called because it was sung by gospel quartets) known as World War II Ballad, Oh What a Time, or Pearl Harbor. Its musical structure involves a “call and response” pattern in the chorus, with verses sung in the preaching style commonly used by gospel groups of the thirties and forties. This style seems to be a singing adaptation of the epic sermon formerly used by traditional black ministers. The melody has been used repeatedly to record events that have had a serious impact on the black community—as in the sinking of the Titanic and natural disasters such as floods, fires and tornadoes.

I am using three of the four versions of the song I found. The melodies of all versions are the same; they differ in rhythmic, harmonic, and instrumental background and in vocal styles. They also vary in the specific events of the war that they cover. The World War II Ballad was collected by Mack McCormick in Houston, Texas. It is sung by the Percy Wilburn Quartet, an amateur gospel group, with no instrumental accompaniment. Oh, What a Time is done by the Georgia Sea Island Singers, and is led by the leader of the group, John Davis. The last version, Pearl Harbor I and II, was recorded by the Soul Stirrers Gospel Quartet during the late forties on the Alladdin Black Gospel label in Chicago. According to them, the original ballad was written by a gospel singer named Otis Jackson who was known for his gospel chronicles.

Oh What a Time by the Georgia Sea Island Singers begins with Hitler’s initial move for power and relates the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the heroism of Dorie Miller, and the dropping of the atomic bomb. Despite the fact that conflict in the European arena had been underway for several years, all versions pinpoint 1941 as an approximate beginning of the war. It was during this time that the war began to have a more direct impact on black people in the United States.

If you read in the papers and you read it well

You know the story I'm about to tell

In 1941, the Second World War had just begun

Ole Hitler from Berlin stretched out his paw

He brought the European countries under the war

Mr. Big Shot Hitler went out to plan

Picked out a place, he called no man's land

He told his boys you need not to fear

Because me myself will be the engineer

During 1940 and 1941 the Pittsburgh Courier increasingly moved its coverage of the war from the editorial page to headlines, pictorial features and major articles. The December 6, 1941, issue was one of the first issues almost entirely devoted to coverage of the war. It headlined a story which took a strong stand against the Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, and his endorsement of racial discrimination in that branch of service. At the time blacks could not hold any rank above the equivalent of mess sargeant; those applying with higher skills were usually disqualified as physically unfit. The same issue included a picture story on the only two blacks in the West Point Academy and a report on a meeting, called by Judge William A. Hastie, the civilian aide to the Secretary of War, where General George Marshall, Army Chief of Staff came together with leading members of the Negro press to discuss Judge Hastie’s plans to increase black opportunities in the Army. Reading this issue, America’s entrance into the war seems inevitable.

Oh What a Time continues:


He put all the little nations under his command

Then he and France began to fight

He took beautiful Paris lhte that night

Ole Great Britain got troubled in mind

She throw’d 65,000 on the firing line

Ole Great Britain let out a cry

For the United States to send supplies

Well we load our vessel and we started across

The next thing we heard our vessels were lost

This made America mighty displeased

Ole Adolph Hitler trying to rule the seas

We sent him a message straight from home

Said you’d better leave our vessels alone


Well great God almighty what a terrible sound

They tell me that the bombs kept hitting the ground

Well many didn't have time to repent

Have a little patience let me tell you the news

The first thing he done was put out all the Jews

The next thing he done in the European lands


From 1933 the Courier editorials mentioned the increasing oppression of the Jews by Hitler and noted, too, that Hitler was being as hard on jazz as he was on the Jews, making attempts to bar it from the German people as “a decadent distortion of genuine Negro music in the United States.” The editorials also supported the organized protests of American Jews against Hitler’s regime as the kind of action American blacks should adopt as a means of pressure and resistance against their oppressors. Through the early part of the thirties, the Courier was exuberant about Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. Later, in 1938, a different trend began, with editorials criticizing Roosevelt for

being empathetic to the treatment of the Jews, while remaining blind and silent as blacks continued to be lynched under his nose.

The takeover of Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland by Hitler occurred during the end of 1938, and the spring and summer of 1939, which is referred to in the above verse as the “little nations under his command.” Courier columnist George Shuyler mentioned these actions only in passing as he began to take an increasingly dim view of Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. He likened Roosevelt’s brand of state capitalism to Hitler’s Nazi regime and felt that it would not take much to make these policies fascist.

The fall of France and the “taking of beautiful Paris” was indirectly mentioned in an article by George Padmore on the death of the French Senegalese Deputy, Galandou Diouf also in the December 6th issue. Padmore wrote that Diouf had been dismissed from his position as French Senegalese Deputy when he urged France to refuse cooperation with the German invaders.

The lost vessel in the ballad could very well have been the “Reuben James,” which the December 6th Courier reported had been sunk by a German torpedo and used this story as a part of its criticism of anti-Negro naval policies. The article cited a move of whites to organize the parents of the sailors lost at sea to protest the use of American ships in the war and maintained that this kind of action should compel Secretary Knox to move even faster in dropping racial obstacles and barriers in the Navy, making available to this branch of service a loyal supply of manpower—Negroes.

It seems clear that while the songs reflect a subtle patriotism, the Courier was almost blatant in its use of the news stories to point up areas of discrimination and lack of opportunities for the advancement of blacks.

The Soul Stirrers Gospel Quartet, whose history in gospel music spans thirty years, brings us the next series of events in this ballad. The group is backed by a Hawaiian guitar. The lead was sung by Willie Eason, backed by harmonies characteristic of the Soul Stirrers._


Their souls were called to judgment

The women and children let out a cry

Saying Lord have mercy, don’t let us die

They called the Lord and called Him loud

And seemed a man came from out of the clouds

Well the man that came was well prepared

General Douglas MacArthur, the Chief of Staff

A little like Moses in the days of old

He said let’s whip the Japs and knock ’em out cold

Cause God’s on our side we gonna win

We’ll fight the Japs until the end.


This is the first reference to the entrance of Japan into the war. MacArthur’s role in the Philippines was not viewed as “Moses-like” by the Courier. The November 15, 1941, issue carried an item by J.A. Rogers that severely rapped General Hugh Johnson’s blatantly racist statement: General MacArthur has one of the hardest military problems ever put upon a commander who must rely mainly upon soldiers of another race.

In his regular feature in the December 6th issue, Rogers wrote about Japanese aggressiveness. He urged blacks not to be taken in by their color, since their policies were extremely exploitative of the darker races, citing their invasion of China in 1931, their joining the Axis powers, and their acting with Mussolini against Ethiopia. (Ethiopia was a primary issue in the Courier, which from 1933 on consistently, almost hysterically, denounced Italy’s actions against the black republic.) Rogers concluded that Japan’s bombing of Chinese villages and civilians made Hitler’s actions in Europe seem angelic.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor, as seen in the version by John Davis and the Georgia Sea Island Singers, seemed to catch all by surprise.


Ole Japan with his ole sharp eye

Pretending he wasn't on either side

Then he came to the United States

So he and Roosevelt could communicate

He didn’t fuss, he didn't argue

But he turned around and bombed Pearl Harbor

I don't know but I’ve been told how ole Pearl Harbor’s air base got stole

Out there on the Pacific waters

Different commanders wouldn’t carry out orders

Some were high and some were low

Saying they weren't gon ’ fly no more

Well they did not fly that day

Those old Japs were on their way

What they did it was a fact

They didn’t have much chance to fight

Some were smart and some were dumb

That’s how Pearl Harbor air base got bombed

Japs bombed ship from under the belly

Our first hero was Captain Kelly

His mother got the news I know she cried

But he won a medal before he died.


This attack upon American soil brought an almost unanimous response from the black community. Because the Courier was a weekly, it carried the news in its December 13th front page editorial and denounced Japan as the aggressor, “pulling us into a war that we didn’t want.” The ballad’s account of United States inefficiencies is not reported in the Courier until early 1942.

Immediately after the bombing, people were interviewed in Nashville, Tennessee, by a joint collecting project involving Fisk University and the Library of Congress. Several black citizens were asked to record their reactions to the bombing. Reverend W.J. Faulkner, President of the Nashville branch of the NAACP and a Congregational minister, commented:

This sudden and unfortunate attack of the Japanese on our country has revealed in stark outline a tragic attitude of unpreparedness and selfish indifference on our part to the real dangers confronting our nation and our democratic way of life. Too long have we been divided at home. While we have been dissipating vast strength and straining our national union through labor conflicts and class bickerings and in practices of stupid and costly racial discrimination, our enemies have conspired to destroy us. I earnestly hope that at last we have become struck wide awake to the real threats to our national safety at home and abroad, and that we will be galvanized into effective action by uniting all of our people and resources on the basis of equality into one invincible army of patriots, who will work for the triumph of Christian democracy and brotherhood throughout the world.

Not all were taken by surprise as is shown in the statement given by Faye deFrance, YWCA Secretary in Nashville, originally from Denver, Colorado:

Japan’s aggression was an expected act. We must take into consideration that the Japanese have aimed this aggression toward China for the past four years, and concede the fact that Japan is an aggressive nation. However, this particular act was not entirely of Japanese making, this one situation had to reach a head soon, the United States was bound to enter the war. Just what the fuse was to be was the only uncertain factor. Rather than Japan’s aggression, I would say Japan's obedience to instigative commands from the Axis powers. Like many others who were not active participants or witnesses of the last world war, the actual horror of seriousness of combat has not dawned on me yet, just a mild excitement that naturally comes with mass action—a usual response of an individual to group psychology. . . Being just another of the uninformed masses, I have a feeling of resentment toward Japan for her treacherous sly attack on the United States. Words and thoughts put into my mouth by radio news commentators and rashes of newspaper articles. Yet, an actual hatred of Japan herself does not exist within me. She is the tool of stronger powers. My resentment is definitely directed toward them. I impatiently await the finish of Japan so that the Axis powers, the motivating factors for this recent aggression, can be stopped in their murderous attempts to thwart the cause of democracy and liberty. Their greedy attempts to rule the world and resources of all countries must be stopped. My faith and belief in the superiority of the United States is childlike in its entirety. Even though the treatment of minority groups has been and is still unfair, my loyalty to my country is unlimited and unbounded.

The Courier accounts, the interviews, and the ballad reflect sundry reactions to Japan’s action, but all agreed that America had to enter the war. There was no consensus, however, on Japanese motivations. The Courier and the people interviewed noted the continued condition of blacks in society. At this point the ballad does not; in fact, it has not yet made any racial comment. On this point its position is clearly American with “God on its side.”

This does not hold long, however. The next verse brings to the fore the heroism of the black soldier while exposing the racism of the Navy and the white press.


In nineteen hundred and forty-one

Colored mess boy manned the gun

Although he had never been trained

Had the nerves ever seen

God willing and mother wit

Gon’ be great Dorie Miller yet

Grabbed a gun and took dead aim

Japanese bombers into fiery flame

He was aiming the Japs to fight

Fought at the poles to make things right

Fight on Dorie Miller I know you tried

Did your best for the side

Four long months we didn't hear from him

Colored press they began to hum

Mother and father began to worry

It came out in the Pittsburg Courier

Telling the news in every place

I love Dorie Miller cause he’s my race.


The December 20, 1941, Courier carries a story about an unidentified Negro messman who had taken over a gun from a fallen sailor and brought down several Japanese bombers before running out of ammunition. It was the first time he had ever fired the gun. Only after an exhaustive search was the March 14, 1942, Courier able to identify Dorie Miller as the unsung hero of this action. It was clear that the white press and defense officials had made little effort to locate Dorie Miller. The Courier questioned why the government almost immediately had identified and rewarded for his heroism Joseph Lockwood, a white staff sergeant, while at the time of the March 21, 1942, issue, Dorie Miller had received nothing. In this same issue, the NAACP urged Secretary Knox to honor Miller by lifting the naval ban on Negroes. 

Secretary Knox, according to a Courier editorial on April 18, 1942, announced that Negroes would be enlisted in the reserve components of the Navy, Coast Guard and Marines for service around shore establishments. The editorial clarified that this meant service in Navy yards, labor gangs, and building foreign bases and small craft, where black seamen would not contaminate whites. Further, the Courier speculated that if Pearl Harbor and Dorie Miller caused this limited change, maybe a greater crisis would do more.

President Roosevelt allegedly wanted to award Dorie Miller the Congressional Medal of Honor, but Secretary Knox protested and prevailed. Dorie Miller was awarded the Navy Cross instead. This story appeared in the May 16, 1942, Courier

It was the bombing of Pearl Harbor that ultimately broke down many of the previous quotas exercised by the armed forces. The country’s official entry into the war meant rations on food and other items, as related in this next verse by the Soul Stirrers Gospel Quartet:


Then the war was on, a cool job ride

Ration on gas and ration on tires

Told me over 35 was against the law

Had to save all my rubber just to win the war

Sweeten my coffee wasn’t sweet enough

In wearing our pants without a cuff

The ration books numbers 1 and 2

They were covered with stamps red, white, and blue

They had to count those points

Count them every week

If we would lose that book we wouldn’t get no meat.


In nineteen hundred and forty-one

They were calling for me and calling for you

In nineteen forty-two

They were calling for the father and the sons, too

In nineteen forty-three

They might have missed you but they sure got me

In nineteen forty-four

They were calling back for more and more

In nineteen forty-five

I would tell you about but I wouldn’t want to lie

The story I’m telling it may not rhyme

I hushed one day heard a B-29

Coming thru the air Lord big and bold

She had one bomb way back in the hole

Pilot called to the bombadeer

Said Jack this is it you can drop it right here.


The ration books, which in many cases were handled like money, are an instant reminder of this period. Large families with allotments could trade off sugar stamps for meat stamps from small families. It was the increased draft calls, however, that made the presence of the war most drastically felt in the black community.

Another variant on the above verse by the Percy Wilburn Quartet of Houston, Texas, is done by John Davis of the Georgia Sea Island Singers. It ends:


The war is over, victory won

Japs couldn't stand that atomic bomb.


The increase in draft calls was reported in the Courier in the late thirties, which carefully monitored these calls and waged an intense campaign to increase the number of blacks proportionately in all categories. The black community fought for the “right to fight.” 

The last lines of the verse bring an end to the war. In the Courier this is presented with some ambivalence. Its overall position fell somewhere between the objective “Jack this is it, you can drop it right here” line by the Percy Wilburn Quartet and the proud pronouncement by the Georgia Sea Island Singers, “the war is over, the victory is won, the Japs couldn’t stand that atomic bomb.”

The August 18, 1945, issue of the Courier covered the story of the dropping of the bombs. The front page carried the names and faces of the black scientists who worked on its production, men who were lauded by Undersecretary of War Robert P. Patterson for their silence. On the same page, George Shuyler wrote of the awesome responsibility of controlling this new power and warned against its use for murder. The cartoon in this issue showed a symbol of America holding atomic energy with Satan and Jesus standing on either side of her, representing evil and good vying for control over the use of this new discovery.


Beginning of the Conflict

The ballad Oh What a Time pinpoints 1941 as an approximate beginning of the war. More accurately this would be the point at which the European and Asian conflicts became worldwide. There are many who date its real beginning with the rise of Hitler in Germany in 1932-33. The religious song, God’s Mighty Hand, recorded by Matchbox Records, presents the 1930’s as a time of world-wide trouble and cites 1933 in particular as a catalytic point in Europe. The melody is a popular one, frequently used by southern black and white songsters. The song can be found with religious and secular textual settings. This version combines contemporary occurences with the need of people to heed the power of the Lord. Each five lines of the chorus is melodically different; the overall pattern, thereby, creates a melodic curve. The verse utilizes the last four melodic lines of the chorus but not in the same sequence.


Oh Yes, now God’s mighty hand

He troubling this ole land

North, south, east, west, and the sea

He troubling rich and poor

They’re running from door to door

The hands of the Lord is on this land


Oh, listen people what I say

We’re living in evil days

See the man who won’t hear the Lord

But God he doesn't lie

Every nation gonna cry

For the hands of the Lord is on this land


God got worried with your wicked ways

Better make up and give him praise

See, war done broke out throughout the whole world

Don’t you see God ain’t pleased

Better seek him on your knees

For the hands of the Lord is this land


Nineteen hundred and thirty-three

he rode down from heaven

Gonna see death everywhere on this land

You gonna see more death than you ever saw

Maybe gonna start another war

And the drones of the planes gonna be sad.


The text here presents the Depression of the 1930’s and the European war as beginning at the same time and connects them with the general evil in the world. There is no clear delineation of nations. The peoples of the world are children who are now being punished for not serving God. The Depression is also presented as an equalizer of the rich and the poor—a period expressed throughout black lore as “a time when everybody else found out how blacks had been living all the while.” (Many blacks weren’t even aware of the Depression because they were already on rock bottom.)

Another song that dated 1932 as a beginning of the war is Huddie Ledbetter’s The Hitler Song, which concentrated on Hitler’s program of exiling the Jews. The Courier picked up on this theme, stressing the oppression of the Jews as an admonition of what could happen to blacks in the United States, and constantly urged black people to follow the actions of American Jews as they moved to halt Hitler’s plans. Likewise, the Courier called on all Jews and those sympathetic with their cause to cease discrimination against Negroes.

The December 6, 1941, issue of the Courier carried the call of Edward White, Executive Secretary of “Fight for Freedom”—A. Phillip Randolph’s vehicle for mounting a national march on Washington in demand of jobs—asking black leaders to meet and stand against Hitler. The statement endorsed by the black leaders read: the dictum of every Negro is that Hitler must go. This is so true that we [the black leaders] have treated it as something that goes without saying. We have concentrated our efforts to knocking out Hitlerism here. But we must speak out to avoid confusion within our ranks and speculation among our friends. This public statement probably resulted from the pressure on the black press to cease emphasizing issues of racial discrimination in the defense system. They were charged with being unpatriotic and even traitors, and with lowering the black communities’ morale with their constant exposures.


Pearl Harbor

The bombing of Pearl Harbor brought about a refocus of priority. The consensus was not to forget grievances but to protect the democracy that would allow such a struggle for equality. The reaction to Japan’s attack was one of righteous anger, as reflected in Pearl Harbor Blues, written by a Doctor

Clayton in 1942. The song is done in a classic blues style with an A-A-B arrangement of its melodic lines.


December seventh, nineteen forty-one

December seventh, nineteen forty-one

The Japanese flew over Pearl Harbor and dropped the bombs by the ton


The Japanese so ungrateful, just like a stray dog in the street

The Japanese so ungrateful, just like a stray dog in the street

Well he bites the hands that feeds him soon as he gets enough to eat


Some say the Japanese is hard fighters, but any dummy ought to know

Some say the Japanese is hard fighters, but any dummy ought to know

Even a rattlesnake won’t bite you in your back, he will warn you before he strikes his blow


I turned to my radio and I heard Mr. Roosevelt say

I turned to my radio and I heard Mr. Roosevelt say

We wanted to stay out of Europe and Asia, but now we got a debt to pay


We even sold the Japanese brass and scrap iron, and it makes my blood boil in my veins

Cause they made bombs and shells out of it and they dropped them down on Pearl Harbor

just like rain. 


Interestingly this song reveals that the hostility toward Japan became very closely tied with her people; there is talk of the Japanese as a people, while most of the German activity was credited to the evil of their leader, Hitler. The Courier felt that with this bombing and the shortage of manpower, America shoud certainly draw upon her most loyal resources, “the race that had never produced a traitor, Negroes.” Black Americans had a right to fight, the editorial demanded: The Army of the United States is our Army. The Navy of the United States is our Navy. Let the German-Americans fall away. Let the Italians or other Americans sabotage its vital interests.. .. But let us. . .Negro Americans . . .cling to and protect that which is ours. . .this America!

The following song, I Am American, collected by Dr. James in Fort Valley, Georgia, picks up the same theme. It is sung by a sanctified church congregation in a call and response patterned chorus with verses.


I am American—praise the Lord

I am American—praise the Lord

I am American—praise the Lord

Praise His holy name


If you people would listen to me

From my hearts I prayed anew

That our flag will wave over the brave

Bring our boys back home safe


When you walk down the street

Smile at everyone you meet

Rich or poor, young or old

Let this message you be told

When you work and play and sing

You be proud of your liberty


Call our boys from east and west

Come on boys let’s do our best

Be wide awake and watch your step

Let your flag be everywhere.


The Pittsburgh Courier, December 13, 1941, carried statements of similar sentiment by leading black Americans. This was a time of commitment and coming together of Americans. Mary McLeod Bethune, head of the National Council of Negro Women, said, “No blood more red, nor more loyal, penetrate the veins of mankind; America can depend on us,” and added that her organization was submerging any obstacles that would come between “us [blacks] and an all-out effort of America toward a final victory.”

The late Walter White pledged the loyalty of 13 million Negroes to carry on the fight for democracy, even though they were denied it at home. J.A. Rogers called the Pearl Harbor bombing our biggest opportunity for progress. Judge William Hastie declared in the December 20,1941, issue that “race youths” who volunteered for the army would be accepted.

All views were not so certain. Among the interviews conducted by Fisk University and the Library of Congress during the period was the recorded reaction of Roger Camfield, a graduate student at Fisk in Sociology:

Imagine 70,000,000 people on an island the size of New Jersey which is poor in resources to boot. Imagine those people having to expand because all available territory is controlled by nations who intend to maintain their power and control. War was inevitable under the circumstances. How it came was dramatic, but the fact that it came was expected. No blame in this matter can be squarely placed. The present Japanese-American war is but one aspect of the culmination of capitalistic expansion and centralization of control. Which expansion has been characterized by internal strife and war, over ever widening spheres, until now this war has completely covered the world. Of course as all people of the world are doing, I as other Negroes, will fight, without knowing the aims they are fighting for, or the results that will be attained. 


"I'll tell you how I feel about the war."

The following interview was conducted in October, 1973, with a southern black farmer who fought in World War II. He is from a family of independent farmers and from a county that was 75% black-owned before Henry Ford began paying $5 a day to build automobiles. Because of the sensitive nature of some of his commentary, he remains anonymous.


How did people in this area feel about World War II? Was there any organized effort not to go to the war?

I’ll tell you how I felt about the war. I didn’t want to go. During that time I couldn’t say if it was an organized effort or not, but I do know that quite a few people would do anything to get some type of deferment to keep from going. And quite a few blacks stayed and worked on the farm in order to keep from going because they were getting exempted for farming. But, quite a few of them got drafted off the land, too. Sam’s Army got me right out of college, in 1941.

I took my basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, at the Army Force Training Center. From there I spent some time in Texas, in Arizona, a little time in Missouri, in the Carolinas and from there,

overseas in this whole Italian campaign. We worked with the 5th Tank Group. They were blacks, officers too. We had only one white officer. We were attached to the Fifth Army for a while there, and later were with George Patton’s Third Army. In fact, we were the first black tankers that the American Army ever had. I wasn’t a tank driver. I was in maintenance. After I finished my basic training, and we stayed in Texas a while, I went back to Fort Knox to school and I had further training.

Did you feel that army life was much more difficult for a black soldier?

Well now, it all depends. I can’t truthfully say that because we were combat troops and were treated as combat troops. But for a lot of black troops in the service units, it was very difficult. My personal experience with the Army was that we were treated just like any other troops. We had the best of everything. But most black troops were in your service units—engineers, quartermasters, etc. And there’s a reason for it. You goin’ have to state some facts regardless how it sounds. The education level [of blacks] was very low. They didn’t have anything to offer the Army but a strong back and a weak mind. So what else could they do? Give them a shovel or have ’em drive a truck.

When you were over there did you have a sense that you were fighting for a cause you believed in?

I was trying to live. I had to fight to live to get back home. I didn’t have any principle. I was there because I was drafted. I felt that the only way I’m going to survive to get back is to learn how to shoot good and ask questions later. Self-preservation is the first law of nature. You live by it regardless. I believe in that strongly, and I believe in it today. I don’t believe in turning the other cheek.

How did you view the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

At that time I didn’t have too much thought about it. It didn’t make me any difference one way or the other. In fact I was really glad of it because I was supposed to come home from overseas and take a furlough and go to the Pacific. And they dropped the bomb and the war ended before that happened to me. 

Would you say that your experience in the Army made you very personally survivalistic?

I wouldn’t say the Army made me that way. But the military did make me take more interest in the community. It made me look at my brother and try to stay a little closer to him. Well, I didn’t really

learn that in the service, but it was executed quite a bit in service. Even in the States, before I went overseas, I was involved in riots on military posts in Virginia, in Louisiana, in Texas and one in Missouri.

There was a riot in Patrick Henry, Virginia. It was started by two peckerwood gals, and we wound up slaughtering a bunch of rednecks. I think more troops sailed from Patrick Henry than any other base. It was just a tradition among white troops there that anytime a bunch of them was going to sail overseas, they’d go through the black area and run them out of their area on the post, out of their barracks. Just because they could do it. And practically everything that had been there among black troops before had been service troops, quartermasters or something like that. We were some of the few black combat troops that went through there.

They had a bunch of boys there from Illinois, New York, a few from other metropolitan areas, but the majority of them came from that area. And they all liked to suds up during their off-time, drink all the beer they could. So they started buying beer and feeling good, talking a lot of trash. Anyway, it was two or three old peckerwood gals working in the PX. And them old Georgia boys didn’t like it. So they decided they was going to run us out of our area. We had gotten wind of it.

There was a post order to pick up all the live ammunition. It was an order that came in from higher headquarters. They already had taken our weapons and put them in the armory. The [command] officers shook us down, patted us down. They asked the question, “You got any ammunition? You a damn fool if you ain’t.” You know what they meant. They were black officers. Therefore, they was playing it straight with us. They had to, because we played it straight up with them. Well, we were prepared for anything that come up because we was expecting it. When they came to our area, somebody came running through the company streets yelling, “Git your gun. Paratroopers is coming.” Just like that. And in about ten or fifteen seconds, I heard the armory room door crash. You went in and you picked up a gun. Don’t pick up yours, pick up a gun. You see how simple that is? Can’t nobody trace it. I don’t care nothing about your fingerprints. See, such and such a gun was assigned to me, the serial number, automatically my fingerprints are on it, but that don’t say I fired the gun. You got it? Then the paratroopers come to our area. You would have thought you was over in Germany. Slayed four of them. No brothers ever was bothered. They planted an FBI in the outfit, followed us overseas. Nobody knowed who did it. They fingerprinted, but fingerprints didn’t mean nothing. Everybody’s weapon had different fingerprints on it. And that stuff never happened again over there at Camp Patrick Henry.

I’m not gonna talk about two incidents at all, except to say they was in Alexandria, Louisiana, and Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. The light skirmish at Fort Leonard Wood was over conditions. You was just considered second class. The whites got the best, and you got what was left. We didn’t have any complaint on the food, but everything else—clothing, especially if you were hard to fit, treatment, barracks, everything else. They wasn’t as fair. Doggone it, I had one situation in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, they didn’t want no black troops on the post. You had to camp way out, outside of it.

Then I was in Chevrolet, Texas. There wasn’t no bloodshed and stuff there, although it almost came to the point of bloodshed. We had been gone three days out in them hills on a field trip. We came in and the post commander issued an order that our outfit—in fact we were the only black combat outfit there—wasn’t supposed to go to the PX that Sunday afternoon until we went in and put on full dress.

Everybody joined in. The PX was sitting on this corner, and our area was about a block away. We pulled a tank up in front about a hundred yards from the PX, one at the end, one behind it, one on the north side and one on the east side and targeted in on it. With those 475 mm. guns pointed with high explosives, you know who got the winning hand.

What happened to you, to the men, after the incident? Were there any reprisals?

No, nothing happened, because the officers was with us. They said, “We’re going in the PX,” and we did. Besides, it was an unfair order. They couldn’t touch the officers because they couldn’t pinpoint who gave the order to move in. The order came over the radio. Who sent it? I don’t know.

Did you ever hear of incidents where troops would do in their officers?


Was that viewed as the battle way of straightening things out?

Well, it’s not a legal way, and it’s not in any book to do it that way. But that’s one way of getting the job done so you can survive or get what you entitled to. If he’s your obstacle, let’s eliminate the obstacle and make some progress.

How did the Army react? Did they see these incidents as a threat, or try to ignore them?

In my opinion, it didn’t make the top brass any difference. They was drawing they long pay, enjoying theyselves. What happened to the small individuals, the foot soldiers, the small troops, and a captain or even a company commander didn’t make a bit of difference in the world. They were expendable.

Black Soldiers

Songs from black soldiers center upon the draft process, training camps, Roosevelt and Hitler and those they left behind. Most of these songs are blues. They also reflect a lot more of the hardship and cruelty of the war. Arthur Weston sings the following blues, with guitar accompaniment, entitled Uncle Sam Called Me.


Yes Uncle Sam sure done call me, yes, baby, you know I sure is got to go.

Yes Uncle Sam sure done call me, yes, baby, you know I sure is got to go.

Yes he done call me to the United States army,

Yes baby, you know I sure is got to go.

Yes Uncle Sam called me this mornin’ when the clock was strikin’ four,

He says, pull out of your bunks, boys, and get back out in the rain and snow.

Yes he sure has called me, yes, baby, you know I sure is got to go.

Yes he have called me to the United States army,

Yes, baby, you know I sure is got to go.


Yes, I'm gonna tell you one more thing, pretty maid, I know you sure ain’t goin’ to like,

Uncle Sam done called me to the United States army,

And I don’t know whether I will ever get back.

Uncle Sam sure is called me, yes, pretty maid, I sure is got to go.

Yes he have called me to the United States army,

Yes, pretty maid, I sure have got to go.


Lord, look at that picture over yonder, Lord, she was sittin’ way out in the west,

Lord, look at that picture over yonder, Lord, she was sittin’ way out in the west,

Yeah, when you get insurance with Uncle Sam, he sure gonna learn you all about the rest.


Lordy, I’m runnin’ and dodgin’, Lord, I’m trying to find some place to hide,

Lordy, I’m runnin’ and dodgin’, Lord, trying to find some place to hide,

Lordy, I’m runnin’ and dodgin’, Lord, trying to find some place to hide,

But when you go to war with those Japanese, you got to face it, sure got to die.


The most specific information of a soldier’s life came from the soldiers themselves. The military offered none. Thus, the Courier (editorial of March 7, 1942), tried to demand information from the Army and Judge Hastie concerning the whereabouts and activities of Negro soldiers. But in spite of all these problems, J.A. Rogers’ view of the war as opening up more opportunities for blacks was deeply believed by many of the soldiers who fought. J.D. Short, in his blues, Fighting for Dear Old Uncle Sam, talks of the war in the United States when “the war’s all over.’’ He also gives a picture of frontline action.


I’m going down swinging, boys, I’m going down fighting for dear old Uncle Sam.


The war’s all over, yes gonna be war right here,

The war’s all over, yes gonna be war right here,

Well on the count of so many women now throwing away a soldier like a sin.


I may go down in South Pacific, going down in the land,

I may go down in South Pacific, going down in the land,

I’m going down swinging, boys.


A massive Double V for Victory campaign was initiated through the Courier. Like J.D. Short’s blues, it called for Victory abroad and at home. Starting with a letter from James G. Thompson in the April 11,1942, issue, this idea mushroomed into a national campaign. The symbol, designed by Wilbert L. Holloway of the Courier, found its way onto posters, hats, cars, cards, as even a few liberal whites committed themselves to a Double Victory.

The following blues written by Big Boy Crudup unveils another aspect of the psyche of the black soldier. Give Me a 32-30 sees the draft and the war as a chance to commit murder within the law.


So dark was the night now, people, cold cold was the ground,

So dark was the night now, people, cold cold was the ground,

Me and my buddies in two old foxholes, we had to keep our heads on down.


Well machine gun and cannon roared, boys was afraid to raise their head,

Well machine gun and cannon roared, boys was afraid to raise their head,

You know I bet it cost a million dollars, boy, now you know when the army land.


Be the first one there, salute the lieutenant boy, get attention,

Be the first one there, salute the lieutenant boy, get attention,

Son, they send your wife over without any.


Some say it’ll be so bad, boys all come back home again,

Some say it’ll be so bad, boys all come back home again,

Soldier ain’t gonna be your friend.


Hon', the war's all over, ain’t nothing but a

Hon', the war’s all over, ain't nothing but a

Hon’, the war's all over, just don’t know what it’s all about.


I’ve got my questionary they need me in the war,

I've got my questionary they need me in the war,

Now if I feel like murder won’t have to break no county law.


All I want is a 32-30 made on a 45 frame,

All I want is a 32-30 made on a 45 frame,

Yes, and a red, white and blue flag waving in my right hand.


Now if I go down with a red, white and blue flag in my right hand, 

Now if I go down with a red, white and blue flag in my right hand,

Say, you can bet your life poor

Crudup sent many a man.


"Hero” is all I crave,

“Hero” is all I crave,

Now when I’m dead and gone, cry “Hero” on my grave.


The text of this blues implies that feeling like “killing somebody’’ is not a rare feeling, but one that has been kept under control in civilian life. The hope for “heroic achievement” developed here was not uncommon; the experiences of Dorie Miller set a goal that many blacks strove for. And, encouraging that sentiment, the Courier constantly carried pictorial features showing black soldiers in training and being awarded or promoted.

In several songs the American participation in the war was seen as a personal battle between Hitler and Roosevelt. Their personalities and motivations were given serious attention, including the attempts of Hitler to draw blacks away. Buster Ezell calls the following song Strange Things Happening in This Land or Roosevelt, Hitler and the War fight, which is very similar musically to the other Ezell songs. The chorus uses the A-A-B-A pattern in its text, with slightly varied melodic lines. The verses use the same melodic pattern as the chorus, although the lyrics are not repeated in the same way.


There’s strange things happening in this land

There’s strange things happening in this land

A war is going on, cause many a heart to moan

There’s strange things happening in this land


When Uncle Sam called the Negroes

They answered here are we

Can perform a soldier’s duty

Where so never you may

They answered true and brave

Yes saints'll make up there

Strange things — happening in this land


Hitler called the Japanese

We could not help from crying

If you fight against that race

You ’re coming out behind

If you try to take their planes

You cannot help from dying


Hitler told his wife at the supper table

He dreamt a mighty dream

If I cut out these submarines

I’d save a many a man

but if I fight and if I win

I'll be cheered by many a man


Roosevelt told Hitler we try to live in peace

But ole Hitler he destroy every vessel he could see

He's treating us so mean

With a great big submarine


Some said Roosevelt was a coward

He said he would not fight

He kept on out of the way

Till he got things fixed up right

He made up in his mind

He got on the firing line


Hitler tried to fool Negroes by saying we ought not to fight

Said you have no home in your country


No flag no equal rights

The greatness of God’s power

You cannot understand

The whole world will tremble

From the viewing of his hand

It’s beyond human rise

But all he do is wise.


In addition to trying to scare the soldiers, the Courier reporter interviewed a Negro soldier of the 92nd Unit after such a leafleting and got this response: It would be foolhardy to completely discount the effect of these leaflets, although there is no evident change in the hard fighting qualities of the Negro infantrymen. But one wounded platoon leader (Negro) said: Damned good propaganda. All the men know it’s true as hell and that sort of thing makes it tough, but there is not a man in the outfit who is damn fool enough to think those over there [Germans] love us either.

On the home front economically the war industry was booming. In 1940, Dr. Rayford Logan

was chairman of the committee for the participation of Negroes in the National Defense Program. Their efforts resulted in Roosevelt issuing an executive order for employment in the national defense industry in return for the abandonment of plans for blacks to march on Washington for jobs.

The May 2, 1942, Courier announced that the CIO and AFL unions had dropped their ban on blacks. Although the opening of the war industry meant jobs for blacks, Huddie Ledbetter’s song National Defense Blues tells of a new and different kinds of problems arising because these new jobs were opened to men and women, too:

When I was out in California the boys told me, ‘Ledbetter, the women are working on that defense and they’s making lots of money, just quitting their husbands.’ So a lot of the boys knowed I come from Louisiana—I met a man out there says, ‘Ledbetter, you know one thing, I come out here with my wife and you know she done quit me.’ I say, ‘Well.’ He say, ‘Well, look, every payday come her check is big as mine.' I say, 'Well.' He says, ‘Well, look, every Saturday she putting her money in the bank. ’ I say. What then?' He say, 'Well, look, can’t you make up a song?' I say, ‘Well, I don’t know, I’ll think it over.' And she was working on the defense, so here goes:


I had a little woman, working on that national defense

I had a little woman, working on that national defense

That woman act just like she did not have no sense.


Just because she was working, making so much dough

Just because she was working, making so much dough

That woman got to say she did not love me no more.


Every payday would come — her check was big as mine

Every payday would come — her check was big as mine

That woman thought that defense was gonna last all the time.


That defense is gone, just listen to my song

That defense is gone, just listen to my song

Since that defense is gone that woman done lose her home.


I will tell the truth and it's got to be a fact

I will tell the truth and it’s got to be a fact

Since that defense is gone that woman lose her Cadillac.


The disruption of family life was very real, whether caused by losing your man to the war, or losing your wife to higher pay and higher living standards. But, the end of the war saw the end of many of these job opportunities as whites returned to fill them.


Franklin Delano Roosevelt

During the war the efforts of black people, in uniform and out, were aimed clearly at propelling themselves forward, virtually carrying on two battles at the same time. Still, the songs depicted President Roosevelt as a hero. Only in the blues lyrics in reference to Uncle Sam was patriotism tempered with expected returns. Courier editor Robert L. Vann had avidly supported Roosevelt for the 1932 and 1936 elections and had placed great expectations in the New Deal programs. Roosevelt’s silence on the continued lynching of Blacks and hesitancy in other areas of racial problems, however, were increasingly criticized by the Courier in the late thirties and early forties, culminating, ultimately, in support of the Republicans during the forties. The death of FDR, however, sweetened his memory. The mourned event of April 1945 was the source of another ballad written by Otis Jackson entitled Why I Like Roosevelt. It was sung by the Soul Stirrers Gospel Quartet, utilizing a musical structure and style very similar to their Pearl Harbor song, though a different melody. The chorus is done in a call and response pattern.


Year of 1945

President laid down and died

I knew how all of the poor people felt

They received a message, we've lost Roosevelt

In his life by all indications at Warm Springs, Georgia, he received salvation

Listen boy don’t you rush

Lady Painter she grabbed a brush

Tipped it in water and began to paint

She looked at the president and began to think

She never painted a picture for him at night

But she knew that the president didn’t look right

The time of day was 12 o’clock

Tell me that Elizabeth had to stop

Great God Almighty she started too late

Had his call couldn't paint his portrait


During Hoover’s administration Congress assemble

Great God Almighty — the poor world tremble

The rich would ride in the automobile

Depression made poor people noble and steal

Live next door to our


Wasn't getting anything for our hard labor

Great God Almighty moonshine stealing

Brought about a crime wave robbing and killing

The other president made us mourn

Roosevelt stepped in gave us a comfortable home.


During Roosevelt administration Congress assemble

The first time in history for a Negro general

General Benjamin O. Davis I’m trying to relate

First Negro general of the United States

Racial prejudice they tried to disavow

By the Negro leaders into the White House

Advocated a fair practice of labor

To let the poor man know he was our emancipator

Made Madame Bethune the queen of the land

Gave part of his will to Mr. Prettyman

Endorsed inventions of Dr. Carver

This is why they say he's our earthly father

He took my feet out of the miry clay

I had to look back at the WPA


The above verses of Why I like Roosevelt clearly linked FDR with the poor people of the world. And, at his dealth, the Courier, too, remembered Roosevelt’s efforts toward relieving the depression-starved people of this country and implementing other progressive programs.

Roosevelt set up the Federal Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) an agency with investigative powers into employment practices especially in war and war-related industries. Although the Commission had no enforcement power, pressure exerted by the black press, Urban League, NAACP and other groups resulted in new jobs for blacks. Roosevelt also had several blacks in his administration, most of whom, like Miss Bethune, served in advisory capacities with no real power to make or execute policy. Their presence did, however, have its impact on the black community. Further, blacks identified Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt as their friend and supporter. According to the Courier, she was credited with many of the liberal positions that Roosevelt took.


I told you the history of Roosevelt’s life

The world can say he had a sweet wife

Hadn’t been so worried since she was a girl

After Roosevelts death what would become of the world

She notified her son across the sea

Don 't you all get worried about poor me

But keep on fighting for victory

Your father is dead, but you are grown

I would worry about your father, but the world’s in mourn


Great God Almighty look what a time

English asked Churchill to resign

The fighter throughout the European

Put him out in the mighty hands of God

After his success asked to leave

Great God Almighty what history

Only two presidents we ever felt

Abraham Lincoln and Roosevelt

Wished Roosevelt could live to see

Old Glory flying over Germany

God Almighty knew just what was best

Knew that the president needed a rest

His battle done fought, victory done won

Our problems had just begun

When your burden get so heavy, you don’t know what to do

Call on Jesus, He's a president, too.


This last verse lines up Roosevelt’s death with Churchill’s decline in England. The summation of these two events made for a terrible time. The same linking together of events in search of higher meaning occurred in the song God’s Mighty Hand, where Reverend Smith saw the Depression and Hitler’s rise as signs of displeasure from God. It also represents a world-wide consciousness on the part of the author. The depiction, here, of Lincoln and Roosevelt as the only two presidents who made an impact on the lives of blacks, corresponds to the general policy of the Courier: support and praise for those, regardless of party, who worked in the interest of black people for as long as they did that.



Songs not included in the Essay. 

Strange Things Happening In This Land, Let's Go Fight, Do Right My Country. Buster Ezell, Fort Valley, Georgia, Library of Congress collection.

His War Song. Buster Brown, Fort Valley, Georgia, Library of Congress collection.

Army Life, National Defense Blues, The Hitler Song, President Roosevelt, Soldier's Blues. Huddie Ledbetter, Dr. S. Henderson collection.

Oh What a Time. Georgia Sea Island Singers, St. Simons Island, Georgia, Bernice Reagon collection.

Pearl Harbor Parts I and II, Why I Like Roosevelt Parts I and II. Soul Stirrers Gospel Quartet, Chicago, Illinois, Bernice Reagon collection.

World War Two Ballad. Percy Wilburn Gospel Quartet, Houston, Texas, Bernice Reagon collection.

F.D.R. Blues. Annie Brewer, Alabama, Library of Congress collection.

Ballad of Dorie Miller. Owen Dodson. 

The Meaning of The Blues, Pearl Harbor Blues. Dr. Clayton, lyrics, Paul Oliver.

Give Me a 32-30. Big Boy Crudup, Dr. S. Henderson collection.

Fighting for My Dear Old Uncle Sam. J.D. Short, Dr. S. Henderson collection.

Uncle Sam Called Me. Arthur Weston, Dr. S. Henderson collection.

President Roosevelt. Big Joe Williams, Dr. S. Henderson collection.

Oh What a Time. Big Joe Williams, Ham and Egg Festival, Fort Valley, Georgia, Library of Congress collection.

Black Diamond Express to Hell. Reverend Utah Smith, (record) “God’s Mighty Hands.”

I Am American. Big Joe Williams, Fort Valley, Georgia, Library of Congress collection.

Speckled Red, Uncle Sam Blues. Bernice Reagon collection.

American Defense. Willie Williams, Library of Congress collection.

Army Blues. David Edwards, Library of Congress collection.


Other Sources

The Nazi Years — A Documentary History. Edited by Joachin Remak. Englewood Cliffs. New York, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969.

Chronology of Hitler. Obtained from Dr. Marie Brau History Department, Howard University, (Prepared by one of her Doctoral students).