College Park, 10 November 2005
Went straight to NARA (the National Archives) in the morning. As usual with anywhere official in America, it takes twenty minutes just to get through security. On the one hand, NARA is brilliant. The facilities are good and they have huge and fast photocopying machines and allow digital photography. On the other, it’s truly awful. The staff are, by and large, sullen and unhelpful, and the means of ordering documents is mind-bogglingly confusing and incomprehensible. Moreover, you can only order documents at certain times of the day, so very careful management of time is required. Anyway, I just about managed to look up and order a number of documents which I can at least keep out for a few days. Specifically, these are OSS files and files relating to the 88th and 92nd Infantry Divisions.
It was to see a former member of the 92nd Infantry Division that I headed off at lunchtime. Albert Burke lives in an almost entirely black suburb of northern Washington DC and fortunately not so very far from NARA. I wondered whether I should bother addressing the 92nd Division in the book, as it is a thorny issue and in doing so I could be opening a whole bag of worms I should have left well alone. But the 92nd Division did play a significant role in the campaign and they were the first all-black combat unit to see action in the war. In a nutshell, the issue is this: at the time, and for some years afterwards, they were seen as a massively underperforming unit, whose men were all too quick to turn and run the moment the going got tough. Recently, however, in these more politically correct times, this view has changed, with a number of books coming out refuting the claims as little more than flagrant racism.
Albert Burke seemed to be quite frank about his experiences. From Ohio, he grew up with little racism around him and admits he was shocked at the level of discrimination on show when he joined the embryonic 92nd. Most of the officers were white, southern and clearly racist. He admitted the division did under-perform but pointed out that unfortunately, losses once in the front line could not be replaced quickly enough and so under-trained troops from the US were hurried out before they were ready. This strikes me as very likely. The experience of the 92nd also seems to me to be very similar to that of the 34th Red Bull Division, who were hopeless when they were first flung into action in Tunisia. The US Army grew exponentially in the first years of the war, from 220,000 in 1939, to 13 million in uniform by 1945. Whole divisions were born, trained and shipped out to fight as one; there wasn’t that core of experience that most British Army units could call on. Training was insufficient, (often recruits never saw tanks or artillery until they reached the front line), and so it is unsurprising that they were underachievers to start with. In war, the best training is experience – the 34th went on to achieve great things after their faltering start, as I’m sure the 92nd would have done too had they had longer at the front.
Anyway, Albert Burke became Divisonal HQ Staff Sergeant and was therefore at the very heart of the 92nd. He found it very emotional talking about it all and repeatedly broke down. I kept telling him it was OK, that he didn’t have to go on, but he insisted he wanted to. He was a lovely fellow, and I felt terrible for making him relive what was clearly such a difficult time for him.