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Interview with Robert M. Alexander [5/27/2004]

Robert Morris:

This is Robert Morris. I'm with the Library of Congress and also with the Veterans History Project. Today is May the 27th, 2004. I'm on the D.C. Mall, and I'm here with Robert M. Alexander, who was born in Richmond, Virginia, and he -- his military service during World War II is with the U.S. Air Force. Mr. Alexander, tell us -- tell us whatever you'd like.

Robert M. Alexander:

When I was back in the Air Force, my first post of duty after induction in Richmond, Virginia, was on the bus ride to Fort Meade, Maryland. And in Fort Meade, Maryland, as a young Army recruit, I was served food by German prisoners of war and Italian prisoners of war. We -- I was inducted with a group of young college fellows from Washington, D.C., Harlem University, Morgan State University, and my school, Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia.

We caught a German prisoner of war spitting in our food one morning, so we took appropriate action. We did almost the same thing as the people have done to the prisoners in Iraq. It's a fact of life. War is destruction, war is cruel, war is mean, and you just lose all of your civilian attitudes and everything when you see things differently.

From Fort Meade, Maryland, I was put on a train with about 200 other black soldiers and we were sent to Sheppard Field, Texas. On our way to Sheppard Field, Texas, we passed through Charleston, West Virginia. When we got in the station there, the ladies of the Confederate were outside the station passing out magazines, fruit, and cakes and cookies to white soldiers, ignored the black troops.

Fortunately, we had a commander who was black but looked like a white man. He said, Fellows, don't have a riot here, let's not mess up on our first day in the Army, sit there in your seats being quiet, I'll go outside and I'll take care of everything. And our good commander, Paul Cooke, former president of Miner's -- former president of Miner's College and later president of Federal City College, Washington, D.C., with his blond hair and blue eyes, went outside and collected fruit and magazines and newspapers for us, candy, cookies, and brought them to us. Avoid a riot, avoid our having been court-martialed, and my having spend many years in Leavenworth. So we avoid that crisis.

Well, in Sheppard Field, Texas, which is in the mouth of the panhandle, we took our basic training, U.S. Air Force. When we were off-duty on leave and going out into the town of Sheppard Field, of Wichita, Texas -- that's what it was -- we could -- I went into a drugstore to get some ice cream and I say, Little girl behind the counter, give me a cone of white -- of vanilla ice cream. And her father came up and said, No, we don't serve blacks, and he called me by name. He said, Give him some chocolate. I walked out.

I walked through a nice white neighborhood from the bus station through a Spanish neighborhood with no sidewalks and -- but paved street to the black neighborhood, which had no paved sidewalk, no paved streets, and spent a few hours, went to a nightclub, danced, got a few beers, went back to post -- post. I never went back in town again.

We were picked up later, put on a train, carried to -- across the country down through Texarkana, Arkansas, right across the desert into Arizona and to California, San Francisco. We went up to Richmond, California, where we got our rifles -- rifles, arms, and back down about two weeks later to a ship called the U.S.S. Admiral Hughes, which was a troop transport, operated incidentally by the Army. The Army during World War II sent many of its transports with soldier -- seagoing soldiers and they were the sailors on the ship, and they carried us to the Philippines.

Just before we got to Luzon, a major Philippine island, largest one there, thank God, it was cloudy one morning about 10 a.m. and we got this call on the deck, All hands, and, Now hear this, now hear this, all hands on deck. So we went up on deck and -- bring you at least -- we were told to carry our life jackets with us and we put on our life jackets, and our commander spaced us all the way around the decks of the ship, because the observation tower had seen two floating Japanese mine hooked together and they were coming across the path that this ship was moving, where the ship was at.

The captain said, Everybody don't move, stand in the same place so we don't tilt the ship and I'm going to make some maneuvers. And he made two circles away from those Japanese mines. So that was my second time I had avoided death in the Army. They -- they -- good pilot, a good -- good captain, a good -- good skipper. And so he saved about 4,000 troops from hitting those mines, and those mines passed the ship and kept on down toward Australia. Anyway, in the Philippines, the Japanese had surrendered in the last big battle of Walled City, called Intramuros.

Those Japanese prisoners were assigned -- about 200 to my unit, a -- eight aviation engineers. We were really a labor battalion. We put in airstrips. We put in the airstrip at Nielson Field -- N-i-e-l-s-e-n -- on the outside of Manila, and also Nichols Field in Pasay -- P-a-s-a-y -- a subdivision outside of Manila, a place like Arlington and Alexandria would be to Washington, D.C. Also, we moved up Highway 57 about 75 miles to Clark Field, which we had for many years but it's no longer in use because the volcano Mount Pinotubo exploded and just wiped it out.

In -- in Manila, we had this incident. I joined a group of blacks who were upset with the Manila Times printing a daily newspaper, GI black headlines, rapes, GI -- black GI robbed, black GI rape, all of that. So we met with the editors of the Manila Times, and one of the writers for the Manila Times was a half-black half-Filipino whose father was a dentist who was a Harlem graduate and had gone to the Philippines before the war, before 1941, to practice, and he married a Filipino woman, had a family.

We were able to get the Manila newspaper to put incidents involving crime among blacks -- and it was crime a lot, we admit to that -- on the same page that they put it on where they put articles on white wrongdoers in the military. That would be on Page 32, Column 8, far down in the paper, what you don't read, out of sight. And so I think that that was a very significant thing.

While I was in the Army, because my father was a labor organizer in Richmond when I was a kid, we subscribed to the Daily Worker, which is a accomplished newspaper, and I got the Daily Worker while I was in the Army and it was -- I was suspect. But also, I got the Afro-American, another black paper, which was also suspect, but I survived Korea and got a honorable discharge before it was all over. So, now, what was I and what did I do? I confess to being in a labor battalion doing labor, which later we were able to hire Filipinos to do for us and we used Japanese prisoners also to work with us. But it was a meaningful thing because we were preparing those airfields for takes off to Japan, and had it not been for the dropping of the atomic bomb in August of 1945, I may have been one of those soldiers killed trying to run up on one of those Japanese islands. And so it was a worthwhile work.

And most importantly, the government did one fair thing. It gave black GIs the same opportunities as it gave white GIs to get an education and -- and also to make loans to go into business, and I was able to take advantage of two phases. In 1956, my wife and I bought our first house in South Arlington on the GI Bill and -- and also, as soon as I got back to the States after I attended the accomplished convention in New York City, went back to Washington to trade with the Wallace people, Progressive, voted as a third party -- for the third party candidate in the 19 -- 40 --

Robert Morris:


Robert M. Alexander:

-- 8 election. '48 elections. And then I went to Howard University, September '48, graduated December -- June '51, and Georgetown Law School after that. And at Georgetown, I met Joe Gumbel, father of Bryant and Greg Gumbel, you know, the newspaper reporters, and they and my oldest son attended our graduation.

We -- I think that the PI benefits that I got and education were very meaningful. I did not have to pay a single nickel to finish college or law school. And that GI Bill, thankfully, created a larger middle class which was more learned to the needs of Americans.

And blacks went in for civil rights, white women went in for women rights, and the black males -- white males went in for making more money in the corporate 500. But anyway, everybody prospered, which has been good, and I hope that we can get back to an understanding after this war is over that we are engaged in in Iraq now, that we can build the country more and do more for the underclass, people who are without. We are able to house, clothe and feed and give good health service to every American, irrespective of race, creed, or color, or gender. Thank you.

Robert Morris:

Well, maybe I can ask you a few questions. So you were always in segregated --

Robert M. Alexander:


Robert Morris:

-- units, always --

Robert M. Alexander:

No. Until the end. When I came out, President Truman had a study made in the Army and it was headed by a man who was an orphan, married, had children, who was a paratrooper, General -- Gavin. He was one of the founders of Booz Allen. He was one of their directors. Yeah. A brilliant man, tall, thin, handsome. I met him. And after he gave a report to President Truman that was just not good economic sense, no -- not purse string sense to keep Jim Crow units and people doing duplicate work when you can train these people to do more skilled work and reduce the Army in size.

Truman fell for it, and he integrated the Armed Forces very early in 1947 -- '46 or '47, and I was in a white unit -- mixed unit when I came out of the Army and when I was discharged July -- June of 1948. But -- and then of course, you know, the Korean War was started in June of 1950, in which a lot of my buddies -- about half of them -- were killed in the first three months on the mines in Korea.

Most of the black units who held back the Chinese side -- the Chinese army -- in Korea, they were black. But they were -- had white units beside them and some of them were white units.

Robert Morris:

So Italian and German prisoners served you at Fort Meade?

Robert M. Alexander:

Yeah. And another thing, they were given more privileges. I had to wear used uniforms. They had clean new stuff. I had one OD jacket -- that's an army draft shirt -- that had bullet holes in it that came here from Europe. And -- but, you know, recruit -- recruit, I do what they gave me.

My father told me -- well, probably when I left home, he said, Bob, I been in service. There are only three answers. They are -- he was in World War I. He said, They are -- and my grandpa told me when I was on the farm. They're yes, sir, no, sir, and no excuse, sir. And I remembered that and went through that mess. Don't -- don't get beyond yes, sir, no, sir, no -- no excuse, sir. You're in the military.

And so that's what I did. Yeah. We were in black units, but some of us did well. I had a buddy in the Philippines who was in the black-marketeering and he came back here with, oh, over a hundred thousand dollars in duffel bags. He had three guys with stolen Army 45s to protect them, and when we got off the ship in San Francisco -- incidentally, it took fourteen days, one week, to travel that time -- he disappeared. I don't know what happened to him, but I knew he was rich. So we -- we -- we got over.

Robert Morris:

Was it -- what -- what was it like building -- being in a -- in a civil engineering squadron --

Robert M. Alexander:

Yeah. Right. Yeah. Well, it was okay --

Robert Morris:

-- in the Philippines?

Robert M. Alexander:

One thing, the Army gave us all good food all the time. We had turkey, big cans of onions -- I'll never forget -- lots of potatoes. I mean, we had good food all the time. And we had a lot of powdered eggs, too. Powdered eggs, you know, you mix water in it.

And this -- one of the sergeants in this black-marketeering thing had sold our powdered eggs, and we came up to breakfast one morning -- it was hot in the Philippines, you know -- and so he had his kitchen crew trying to get enough egg powder to stir it up to give us breakfast. He couldn't do it. We had egg soup. But we didn't care none because he, you know, at the nightclub, he gave us drinks and bought us cigars. He took care of us. So what the hell we going to worry about a little breakfast for? That would be right. So we -- we -- we -- it was an experience. I grew up.

Robert Morris:


Robert M. Alexander:

Yeah. But I remember what my father told me: Do what you have to do in the Army, hurry up and get out, and when you get out, go back to school so you can help dismantle this Jim Crow system. And I carried out my parents' wishes. One of my cases integrated all private day schools in America. It's called Fairfax-Brewster. And the other case integrated all of the facilities and housing subdivisions. We had a black doctor who paid monthly association dues for the homeowners to play on the tennis court and he had -- the kids could play on the playground. But he couldn't muddy the waters. He couldn't swim in the pool. So he went to the Supreme Court and he won that case. So -- so it's -- we're into this larger scope of getting ahead and doing things and -- that's where we are.

Robert Morris:

Well, thank you.

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