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Monday, April 13, 2015

Richard Overton and Elmer Hill, they fought for a freedom they were denied

This will be my only post today. I am on the road.

Richard Overton and Elmer Hill were black in a segregated Texas in 1906, a few hundred miles apart. Despite their similar experiences, they would not meet until more than a century later. What brought them together was being the oldest survivors who fought in World War II -- a war which brought freedom to Europe and Asia.

A freedom that they were denied in their own land.

Hill grew up on a sharecropper's farm outside of Henderson, Texas. His son, Ray, would recall his own visits to that farm when he was a lad in the 1950s, "I was the oldest grandchild, so I was involved with picking the corn and cotton. That might be why my dad is so healthy. They grew their own food and raised their own animals. I remember them raising livestock, pigs and hogs. I used to go and see them when the weather got cold and they would butcher and process the pigs."

However, his father also grew up discriminated against. He was one of 12 boys in the family. They attended Lone Star Baptist Church, where Hill and his brothers, "The Hill Brothers Quartet," would sing gospel music. He decided education was his way to advance despite his limited opportunities. Upon graduation from Henderson Colored High School, Hill went to Butler College to get his teaching certificate, and came back to teach mathematics at his alma mater.

"Back then, high schools went until 11th grade," Hill later told Reese Gordon of the Longview News-Journal in Texas. "I became the principal before being drafted into the Navy."

Hill served in the Pacific aboard the USS Saginaw Bay, an aircraft carrier commissioned in 1944 and commanded Captain Frank C. Sutton. Hill's job was to relay messages between the brig and the gunners.

Elsewhere in the Pacific, Richard Overton of Austin, Texas, was a member of the 1887th Engineer Aviation Battalion (Colored) in the segregated Army. In a tradition that dated to the Civil War, the 1887th was a unit of black soldiers commanded by white officers. They built airfields as the Marines took island upon island. White soldiers saw combat, black soldiers did not and surprisingly, the black soldiers resented it because they wanted to have the same opportunity to prove the mettle of their race in World War II.

"With a segregated army, there wasn't a lot of motivation to serve," Nick Mueller, president and chief executive of the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, told Rick Jervis of USA Today. "But once the country was threatened, African Americans rallied to the flag just like every other American. They wanted to serve their country."

The work of the aviation engineers was crucial to winning the war. General Hap Arnold, who would command the Army Air Corps in World War II and later achieve thee five-star rank, developed the idea in 1939 of such units to build airstrips in remote locations as the armed forces advanced. Of the 157 aviation engineer battalions in the war, 48 were segregated units designated as "Colored."

"War's nothing to be into," Overton told Greg Toppo of USA Today. "You don't want to go into the war if you don't have to. But I had to go. I enjoyed it after I'd went and come back, but I didn't enjoy it when was over there. I had to do things I didn't want to do."

Overton can look back proudly on his service. The 1887th built the airstrip on Guam that would be used to launch Enola Gay's trip to drop the atomic bomb (Little Boy) on Hiroshima, and Bockscar's trip to drop its atomic bomb (Fat Man) on Nagasaki.

In 1946, Overton returned to Austin, and built a house that he would live in for the rest of his life. Hill went back to Henderson to resume his duties as principal of the colored school.

But their efforts helped change a nation. President Truman integrated the Army. The Supreme Court integrated schools. President Eisenhower sent troops to enforce the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Richard Overton and Elmer Hill lived to enjoy their civil rights as Americans -- and the election of the first black president. Texas renamed Hill's school Hill High School in his honor, after integration.

American history is in parts ugly, but the one saving grace is America's willingness to admit its mistakes, learn from them, and correct them.

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  1. Don,
    "Hill's job was to relay messages between the brig and the gunners." Isn't that bridge?

    " The 1887th built the airstrip on Guam that would be used to launch Enola Gay's trip to drop the atomic bomb (Little Boy) on Hiroshima, and Bockscar's trip to drop its atomic bomb (Fat Man) on Nagasaki." Guam was an interim stop from mainland to Tinian.



  2. The B-29s flew from Tinian, which is north of Guam by 100 miles (roughly, + or -).

    Even so, those men served, took their chances at being killed.

    I'm glad you told us of them.

    1. Thanks. I shall delete the erroneous portion.