They entered the military for different reasons. Some enlisted, others were drafted, and one signed up under the insistent eyes of his mother. They were boys when they went in, men when they returned.
As Black History Month draws to a close we profile four African American men from Worcester who served their country in World War II, Vietnam and Korea. We also tell the story of 11 African American soldiers slaughtered by Nazis whose story went untold for generations until, in large part thanks to the efforts of local men, they were memorialized here in Worcester County.
When we entered the interviews we assumed that race would play a dominant role in the conversation. While the men offered a few anecdotes, some deemed more humorous than hurtful, they were quick to note that they were soldiers, and ultimately the only color that mattered was the uniform they wore.
On the job for Patton
Tony Delgado is 87 years old, but he doesn’t shake hands like an 87-year-old man.
His grip is strong. So strong, in fact, that the fingers enveloping yours make you feel as if your hand is made of sparrow bones.
Delgado has already done his morning workout at the Y, and because he’s recovering from rotator cuff surgery he’s only been bench pressing 120 pounds. He’s working to get back to 180, and figures that will be his training weight.
He was born and raised in Fall River, but moved to Worcester’s East Side more than six decades ago. It was from Worcester that he was drafted into the Army in 1943 and sent off for training in Alabama and Mississippi.
In March 1944, Delgado began trucking gasoline across France, Belgium and Holland to troops at the front as part of Patton’s 3rd Army. He was later sent to the Pacific island of Okinawa shortly after the U.S. invasion.
“It was terrible,” he recalls. “I saw very few people when I was there. Most of the people were living in caves. Japanese soldiers? Never saw a one.”
Letters home were brief. “It wasn’t much more than, ‘Hot day. Having a bad time. Love ya. Goodbye.” Delgado recalls with a laugh. Brevity was probably best, since anything too meaty rarely made it past the military censors.
While in Okinawa, Tony received word that his pregnant wife, Ellen was “very sick” and he was given a “hot ship” discharge to return to Worcester.
Delgado got back to the city. Ellen delivered their daughter, Bonita, but experienced complications. She died 10 days later. (Bonita recently passed away at the age of 61.)
Tony worked construction and eventually got remarried to Ellen Benson. He had 12 children in total and enough grandchildren and great-grandchildren “to fill a ballroom.”
“I’ve been blessed,” he says. “Very blessed.”
— Jim Keogh
No break from the action
Jack Toney can laugh today about the 500-pound bomb he detonated in Vietnam, the one that left a crater “you could fit a three-decker into.”
But the truth is, that bomb, which exploded a little too soon, almost killed him. Indeed, a lot of things could have done in Jack Toney during the two years he fought as a Marine in Vietnam. He parachuted into the middle of a firefight, endured rocket attacks while hunkered down in a six-foot trench, was pinned down at the DMZ and missed his rotation date out of Vietnam, and dispatched any number of explosive devices as a demolitions expert.
“That first night when we parachuted into Quan Tri, I saw action right away,” he remembers. “I ended up in a B-52 crater for cover. Then we organized ourselves, and it was on after that.”
In Que Son “we would call in an airstrike from the gunships, and watch the hills disappear. We were out on ambush once and called in a strike from the [warship] New Jersey. It went right over our heads; a little too close. We saw a hill reduced to a half moon.”
He describes a “little beef” that took place when one of the platoons killed and roasted a pig. “They were all these southern boys, and one of them said, ‘That looks like a soul brother pig.’ They thought it was funny, but it wasn’t funny. There was a little tension there.”
Toney remembers a strip of road through Que Son called Route 9 — a nasty, dangerous stretch where you learned to keep your head down and move quickly.
“I couldn’t wait to get home and see the real Route 9; see the lights over the hill,” he says with a laugh.
After 21 months under frequent fire in Vietnam, Toney shipped back stateside and trained officers in demolition tactics at Quantico, Va. His eventual return to Worcester was welcome, but complicated.
“It takes a while to adjust,” he says. “It’s not easy as pie. People thought you were crazy, like you had a record.”
He worked at Norton Co. for a short time, and opened a record shop. Jack eventually joined the Worcester Fire Department, where he served more than 30 years. He married and had four boys, one who has since died.
The J. Edmonds-J.Haynes VFW Post 312 in Worcester was started in 1991. Jack was hardly an enthusiastic participant.
“They said they needed 25 guys to start a post. I told them, ‘If you get to 24, call me.’ They did, and here I am.” He’s now the post commander.
War is a “wake-up call” no matter where you’re fighting, Toney insists.
“I feel bad for the kids going over today,” he notes. “It’s a long way to have to walk home.”
— Jim Keogh
War as a part of life
William Spence was just 19 years old when he was drafted into the Vietnam War. The Worcester native knew that he was about to embark on an experience that would change his life forever.
“I was drafted in 1970, and was sent to Vietnam to be a military policeman,” says Spence. “Basically I was patrolling villages and towns there with my unit.”
Spence had to grow up quickly when he went overseas.
“As a young man your eyes are always wide open. I was experiencing different cultures and a different way of life,” he says. “But anybody who was over there will always tell you when they come back it was like coming back from Disney World — just a completely different world over there.”
Although Spence did not see combat, he was fired upon on multiple occasions, and was one of the lucky ones.
“We left some good friends behind,” he says. “You know, I went in as a kid and came out a man. I learned a lot when I was there. It wasn’t all bad, but it definitely wised me up for sure.”
Spence was in the 385th Military Police Company, and was stationed out of Saigon.
“You have to feel your way around at first,” he says. “People who’ve been there for a while will show you the ropes, and you are always listening intently to whatever they are saying.”
Spence recalls that during his time in the war, racial discrimination was always prevalent, but no more than it was when he was in the United States.
“It was a different time back then,” he says. “Back then you always faced racial discrimination. But I think what made it different was the camaraderie that being in the war creates between the men who were there. It didn’t make [the discrimination] right, but it just made things a little different.”
After six months Spence and his unit were pulled out of Vietnam and sent to Germany, another shock to the system.
“It was all the small the things that were different,” he says. “In Germany you were expected to salute your superiors, but in Vietnam you could never do that because they were always targets. We just had to get used to a whole other world.”
In 1972 Spence returned to the states.
“I worked for Commonwealth Gas before I left for the war,” he says. “And when I came back they didn’t want to give me my job back, but they were forced to give me my job. I was the first black person they ever hired at the company, and I eventually worked there for 10 years.”
After getting married, having three daughters and six grandchildren, William Spence says that the war helped him become who he was, but it was also just a small part of his life.
“As you go through life you experience all kinds of different things. The Vietnam War taught me a lot, but it’s like a memory now. A short memory.”
— Tim O’Keefe
‘Sign the papers, boy’
Richard Johnson’s mother told him she was taking him to school that December day in 1951. He had no reason to suspect anything different. His mother valued an education, and he figured she just wanted to make sure he got to North High safe and sound.
Instead, Ethel Johnson drove her son to the Navy recruitment office downtown. There, she presented him with the choice of joining the Navy or … well, young Richard actually had no choice.
“She said, ‘Sign the papers, boy,’” he recalls with a laugh.
There was a method to Ethel’s madness. Richard was an indifferent student. He liked school, but was hanging with the wrong crowd. By the time his mother brought him to the recruitment office. He’d already skipped school 14 times that year, with his buddy forging (poorly, it turned out) Ethel’s signature to the excuse notes.
Johnson, now 75, says his mother did him a favor. As a 17-year-old, he found himself aboard a ship, transporting food supplies to Cuba, Trinidad, Puerto Rico and Jamaica, and then northward to England, Newfoundland and Greenland. He traveled in a 37-ship convoy, seeing much of the world, and avoiding any direct contact with the Korean War.
“I loved it,” he says. “The service gave me a sense of responsibility.
His lone close call came when Hurricane Barbara (“I remember it well because it was the name of my first wife,” he says with a rueful smile) tossed the convoy about the sea like toys being buffeted by a kid in a bathtub. The admiral’s ship actually nudged Richard’s vessel before being blown back by the fierce winds.
“I was watching the whole thing through a porthole,” he recalls. “I thought that was it for me.”
The early ’50s was no easy time to be an African American man when the ship pulled into southern ports in the U.S. to restock.
“At the Navy base in Portsmouth, Virginia, there were signs on the bubblers for “Whites” and “Coloreds.” I couldn’t sit in the front of a Greyhound bus when I was returning to my ship. There were white sections of town and black sections of town, and you knew not to go into an all-white bar. Once you crossed the Mason-Dixon line, you were screwed.”
Johnson served alongside his share of rednecks on ship; even some off the officers made their biases known.
“I was the officers’ cook, so they had to be nice to me, or I could poison their ass,” he chuckles.
Johnson is proud of his time in the Navy — every moment of the three years, five months, 16 days he served. He considered making it a career, but an ill-advised marriage-on-the-fly in 1953 left him no other choice but to go to work. (“Sometimes you suffer for your transgressions,” he smiles. Johnson later remarried.)
He had a varied career, including a stint as the first field representative for the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which involved, among other things, investigating landlords who refused to rent to people of color. That included to Johnson himself, who was denied an apartment and then sent his white secretary to apply for the same unit. After it was offered to her, Johnson brought the landlord into his office and made him an ironclad offer.
“I was happy to get that apartment, even though he didn’t want me in it,” he says.
Johnson spent most of his career with the Department of Environmental Protection, a 23-year tenure that spurred him to earn his GED, and then a bachelor’s degree at Clark University, which allowed him to become an environmental engineer. The same man who years earlier had avoided the classroom, returned to it time and again.
“How about that,” marvels the once-wayward son of Ethel Johnson. “I ended up going to school for the rest of my life.”
— Jim Keogh
Remembering the forgotten 11
William Pritchett, whose daughter, Elsie, was months old when he went off to war.
Christian de Marcken tells the story of 11 African American soldiers of the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion caught behind enemy lines in Wereth, Belgium on December 17, 1944, as he’s done so many times for fellow veterans, history buffs and school children.“African Americans were not allowed to be officers, except in the Air Force. So they had white officers who said, ‘Look, we ran out of ammunition. We’re finished. Sabotage your guns and go in small groups and go west. Try to join the American lines,’” recounts the Paxton man.
“These poor guys went hungry, cold, landed in this little village. Nine houses in the village. These Belgians [Mathias and Maria Langr] took them in. They were preparing a meal for them when some German traitor, a German civilian traitor betrayed them. The Germans went in there and pulled them out and literally tortured them and murdered all of them.”
For de Marcken, 82, the tragedy doesn’t end there. No one ever heard about these 11 men. That same day, only hours before, some 120 American soldiers — all of whom were white — were killed or injured in the Malmady Massacre, one of the most infamous events of World War II.
Soldiers of the 333rd Battalion in the heat of battle.
“When [the US Army] found out, it was heralded in every newspaper,” says de Marcken of the Malmedy Massacre. “[In the aftermath] the Americans didn’t take any prisoners. We shot all the Germans for two days. They were so upset. To think that they had literally killed prisoners. So [General] Eisenhower put out an edict ‘You will take prisoners, and you will treat them properly.’“When they came to the African Americans in Wereth, yes, they swept the snow off of them, but they didn’t put a number on each body,” de Marcken explains while holding a photo of the 11 men piled over one another, a few of their faces clearly visible. “We don’t know who’s who there. We know these were the fellows that were found. Who’s who?”
And to de Marcken, the worst injustice of all was that the US Army covered up the deaths. Families weren’t notified, no medals were posthumously awarded. He holds up files from February 18, 1945, the word “SECRET” typed on top of every page.
“All these documents I got from the archives in Washington only after the Freedom of Information Act,” he says. “And the families were not told they were heroes. They didn’t get any medals. Nothing.”
Francis Gaudere traveled to Belgium to meet Adda Rikken, who spearheaded construction of a monument to the 11 murdered soldiers in her country.
de Marcken, who was born in Belgium to an American GI and a Belgian mother, grew up an American patriot. His father was captured during the war, and to make matters worse, his home was forced to harbor a Nazi soldier who refused to let the family speak or read English. An anti-aircraft gun was perched in his front yard, and war unfolded all around him.The Army coverup “was so well hidden,” he explains, that despite growing up in Belgium, he never heard of the 11 men until he was contacted by Adda Rikken, who teamed up with Herman Langr, the son of the couple who harbored the soldiers, to build a monument in Belgium in remembrance of the massacre. (Rikken died in January of this year.)
Christian de Marcken holds a shell taken from the anti-aircraft gun the Nazis set up outside hischildhood home in Belgium.
Through his efforts, along with the Central Massachusetts Chapter 22 Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, and Francis Gaudere of Millbury, who fought in an all-white unit in the Battle of the Bulge, two stone monuments were established in Winchendon in the Massachusetts Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery: one for the veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, and one specifically for the 11 African Americans who were killed. “We had a big turnout to dedicate the monuments,” says Gaudere. “They also arranged a flyover with two World War II planes.”The monument was unveiled on August 20, 2006. de Marcken served as the coordinator and emcee for the ceremony. He estimates that 300 people came, among them former veterans, the Belgian attaché (who drove up from Washington, DC) and a few relatives of one of the soldiers, whom de Marcken was able to track down: Elsie Pritchett, who was only a couple of months old when she last saw her father, William Pritchett, her children, and her father’s youngest brother, MacArthur Pritchett.
Just finding the family members was a feat in itself. Records kept of African American soldiers back then were different than those for white soldiers. The army listed white soldiers as from a city/town, county, state. For African Americans, only their home county and home state were recorded. With Penelope Johnson, then director of the Worcester Public Library, helping to write letters, de Marcken was able to locate Elsie and a nephew of James Stewart, another of the slain soldiers.
“Some of these counties in Texas and Alabama, are so big you don’t know where to look for [someone],” says de Marcken. “We were lucky,” he says, to have even found two relatives.