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Bearing Witness: One Black Troop's Trip to Buchenwald

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
February 16, 2023 3:03 am

Bearing Witness: One Black Troop's Trip to Buchenwald

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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February 16, 2023 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Rona Simmons, author of The Other Veterans Of World War II, Stories from Behind the Front Lines, tells the story of Bill Scott, an African American combat engineer and photographer from Alabama who became one of the "black angels" for prisoners at Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

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Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there. And we return to Our American Stories. Up next, a story from author and historian, Ronna Simmons. Ronna is the author of The Other Veterans of World War II, Stories from Behind the Frontlines, which features stories of men and women who served in less visible roles to help America and her allies win the war. Today, she shares with us the story of William A. Scott III or Bill Scott.

Take it away, Ronna. Bill was born in Tennessee and when his parents divorced, he actually moved with his father to Atlanta and grew up there. For the time, it was actually, I'd say, relatively a different experience. He was a young black boy and his father was a black businessman in Atlanta back in the 30s. So his father was the head of the Atlanta Daily World, a newspaper, a successful black-owned enterprise, one of the only successful black-owned newspaper in the country. So one might say he had a life of privilege.

Of course, I think he would absolutely deny that. He was able to spend time with his father and get to know the newspaper business, but his father insisted that he not start anywhere, of course, even as a child, that it wouldn't be working. But when he grew up, that he would not just assume a role of president or vice president of this or executive that, he said, no, you're going to sweep the floor and you're going to start at the bottom and you're going to learn the business.

You're going to learn about business as well as learn the business of the newspaper. So he did. And every once in a while, he and his younger brother, of course, like any child, wanted a few nickels or dimes to buy something that had caught their eye. And so his father said, well, if you want nickels and dimes, guess what?

Here are a few papers. You get to go sell them. So he learned about selling newspapers. So it wasn't the life of anyone of privilege. He learned the business. But his father was shot and killed in an accident in Atlanta one evening. And the family fortunes took a downturn. He adored his father. And so it was not the happy childhood that he had expected. And he didn't have a guiding light. He didn't have his father to tell him what to do or how to go further in life. But I think he had that early, early training that stuck with him. At least he had that much of his father to carry with him and to remember. He then went on to Morehouse College in Atlanta and started volunteering for the newspaper in Morehouse College.

And beyond just writing stories, he became the photographer for the Marine Tigers. And he really hadn't thought about the war. The war was not at the top of mind at that point in time and had more intent on finishing college in Maryland than he had at the time.

He had more intent on finishing college and marrying his sweetheart than having anything to do with the war. But we were preparing for the war. So in 1940, we passed the first peacetime draft in history. And everyone was required to go down to their local draft board and register, black, white. Unfortunately, while the blacks were registered because of the prejudices that came with the peacetime and perhaps the feeling or not, probably more than perhaps, but the feeling that blacks would not be able to perform as well as whites in the war, they were often registered but looked over. So if a request for a troops came to their area, they would pick the white soldiers and send them off first.

And it was actually worse than that as the war went on. Not only were blacks cast over for prejudices because of the segregation of blacks and whites, even in their communities, that was also found to be true in the army. Where there were no separate facilities available, they would not send black soldiers. So unless there were barracks that had been constructed, sanitary facilities, eating facilities, water supplies, everything replicated for the separate from the whites, the boards would not refer the black soldiers to foreign units. And while that did allow blacks to then be deployed, they had further stumbling blocks. At one point in time, the officers or the commanders in the field were not accepting of receiving black units. So if you were an officer in Europe, whether it was England in the early days or even in the Pacific, you had the right to approve the soldiers that were being sent to you. And so they would often not accept black troops, believing they would not perform as well. So it was fruitless for them to submit these black troops to them, they overlooked them.

But the draft found Bill. He really wasn't interested in going, he hadn't thought about it, but when the army calls, the answer is yes. And so he was drafted and went into the army in 1943.

He was to some degree lucky by 43, it was a little more tolerant. However, he was still assigned to an all-black unit that was the norm and that would persist throughout the end of the war. All-black units would be generally non-combat units and would almost all be supervised by white officers. And that was his case. He was assigned to the 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion, which is a group of men who were responsible for following behind the army or behind the advancing army, the combat units, and maintaining roads, laying the groundwork for airfields, widening roads, you name it. That was their job and he did that, but he did have the experience of having been the photographer for his college newspaper and some sense of not only photography, but what to take, when to take, because of his journalism experience. And I think those two things, when that was seen on his record, the army within that one combat battalion decided to make him their photographer as well. So he was known as a reconnaissance sergeant, so would go out and take photographs to the extent they needed to and could get an advanced look at the terrain that they were having to cross or any enemy activity. And he was an archivist, so he also was recording what his unit did from day to day. Not that that allowed him to escape from building a bridge or a road, but it meant he did that in addition, which was very fortunate for us that they picked Bill because of his training. His combat battalion was assigned to the Third Army, which is Patton's Army, so he was seeing the major battles through Europe as we pushed the Germans back, so you know he was in some of the thick of it.

The Ardennes, the Battle of the Bulge. Now he again was not in the combat, he didn't see the battles, but he saw the aftermath. He saw the bombed out or shelled villages, he saw the devastation both human and to buildings, and he was not so much writing about those times, but he was observing, as any good journalist would, what he saw. And at some point, Bill got orders with his group of black soldiers to go to Buchenwald. And you've been listening to Ronna Simmons tell the story of Bill Scott and what a story it is. My goodness, what happened to him as a young boy, his father shot and killed. By the way, before that, his father teaching him that his father teaching him how to put in a day's work, not just giving him money, even though his father ran a very successful newspaper. And then what we learn about, well, as we always do, and we go back in history, how blacks were treated in this country, even in our military at the time during World War II.

When we come back, more of the story of Bill Scott here on Our American Story. So you're in the garage working on your car and you need the valves you bought last week. You look in the cabinets and on the shelves, but the parts are never in the right place. eBay Motors has the car parts you need, over 122 million of them all in one place and all at the right prices.

Find parts for everything from your classic coupe to your brand new truck at eBay Motors.com. Let's ride. And we're back with Our American Stories and Ronna Simmons, author of The Other Veterans of World War II, stories from behind the front lines. When we last left off, Ronna was telling us the story of Bill Scott, an African American army engineer and photographer from Atlanta, Georgia. When we last left off, Bill had just received orders to go to the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Let's continue with the story. For the most part, the Holocaust, which of course was not called the Holocaust at the time, was not well known. We didn't know a lot about it.

There were rumors. There were newspapers to be read, accounts that were coming out from Germany, from Austria, Poland, where the camps were. But people didn't take it seriously. They could hardly believe that something like that was going on. They might know that, of course, there were prisoners of war that were probably not treated as well as we would like to think we do.

But what was happening was largely ignored or just not believable. And at some point, the U.S., the American War Intelligence Office, decided that they needed to start preparing the troops for what they were going to see and what they might encounter as they moved into these war-torn areas. And so they produced a number of films from captured newsreels in some cases, from first-hand accounts in other cases, and produced these black and white films that they decided they should show the troops who were advancing so that if they saw this, they would know what to expect, know the extent of the devastation they might see. So Bill was one of the ones, his unit saw the films, and he remembered saying in the discussions that occurred later that this is all propaganda. There's no one that can be as cruel and inhumane as what these films are telling us.

So they sort of watched but didn't take it to heart and didn't believe that they would see anything quite like what was portrayed on the film. But at some point, after seeing these films, Bill got orders with his group of black soldiers to go to Buchenwald. It is said, and I don't think anyone can exactly substantiate this, that our officers knew that going into a camp that the prisoners might not believe after all these years they'd spent there that these in fact they were in fact now free because the prisoners had been tricked in earlier circumstances. The Germans might throw open the gates and tell the prisoners that they were free, only to execute them as they tried to flee the camp. So just having the doors open, they weren't going to leave.

Very hard to believe. Eisenhower himself realized this. And so when they were coming close to liberating the camps, his orders came to send the black troops. They knew that the prisoners in the concentration camps, when they saw the black soldiers come in, that there was no way that those were German soldiers.

So this had to be true. They were in fact liberated. Black troops would be obviously American troops and obviously they are to liberate the people. In fact, they became known as the black angels to the prisoners in the camps. And that's why it was specifically Bill's unit that went to Buchenwald. Now Buchenwald might as well have been Berlin, Munich, or any other German city at that point.

Buchenwald meant nothing to Bill or to his fellow troops. And he thought, well, what do you want me to do there? And he asked one person or another, and the other men in his group did the same, and they didn't get any explanation. And of course the army doesn't owe them an explanation, but he still wanted to know what he was expected to do in Buchenwald. And finally, one of the officers said, just go and see.

And that's sort of chilling to us now because of course we know what he's going to see. But there were no other instructions. So he hopped in his jeep, went with the other troops, found his way down to Buchenwald. And when he got there, there was a camp, there was barbed wire, fencing, and the Germans had fled. And so they said, well, this is one of those camps, but it's, there's nothing here.

There are some people, there's a fence, but nothing's going on. And he said, as he got closer and closer, he started seeing the people who had been imprisoned. And they were of course emaciated. Certainly many of them might have shown wounds or wounds, many of them might have shown wounds or sores that might not have healed.

Many of them couldn't walk, couldn't stand, all of the horrible things we see. And that's when he got out of his jeep and he realized what he was there to see, to bear witness in a way, or to have leave a testament had gone on. So he, again, as a journalist, grabbed his camera and began shooting some pictures. Prisoners would beckon them, come look at this, come see this. And so he and his fellow soldiers, aghast, followed the prisoners to see. And as he went further into the camp and was so struck by what he was seeing and the realization that those films were real, he said, I stopped filming.

I put my camera down. I could not go on. And even here, knowing that he was there to see and there to bear witness, he couldn't do it. He said that the extent of man's depravity was so overwhelming.

He couldn't go on. It was so foreign to Bill. He is just against everything he had been brought up to know and to think about other people. In fact, he said later as he contemplated this, that he knew or thought of the German people as being an educated people. And he, through his father's influence, had been educated and could not imagine how an educated group of people who had to know what they were doing, who had to know right from wrong, who had to know what the value of other human beings is. And so it just was incomprehensible to him. He thought surely education would have prevented this from happening. And it clearly had not. And so that was one aspect of the war that he brought home with him.

And it was really fundamental to him having regarded education so highly. I don't think he ever could come to grips with how that had happened and why it had happened. But thankfully he did take some pictures, even as horrified as he was, because he could have easily said, I can't do this. I won't do this. This is so awful.

No one should see this. And yet the journalist in him came to the fore and he said, we've got to have this as a record. He then went on through Europe, finished his tour of duty, but they now had a second fight. Unlike their white counterparts, when the blacks returned, they were still in a sense at war.

They were at war to establish their own place in our society. What he learned about after he returned from the war was something that I think a lot of people don't know about, which was the double V campaign to recognize the war that blacks had to fight. It was considered double V if they were able to accomplish what they wanted in terms of getting blacks integrated into our society. Bill began working to that extent. He went back to the paper, but he also spent much of his time working for the NAACP, for other foundations like the Educational Foundation of Metro Atlanta, the Greater Atlanta Council of Human Relations. He was very active in the community and thankfully had a voice and a platform through his paper to help move that along. And he became recognized for it by not only participating in the associations I mentioned, but also he got several awards. He was recognized for the Holocaust contribution, the photography that he did, by having his photographs placed in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. But a year before he died, Governor Joe Frank Harris awarded him a charter membership in the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust. And in that same year, President George H.W. Bush appointed him to the U.S.

Holocaust Memorial Council. Two things that really told him that he had actually been able to realize that double V campaign. He had helped the U.S. win the war in Europe and he had come home and done his part to help win recognition for the black soldiers and the blacks in our society. And a terrific job on the production by Monty Montgomery and a special thanks to Ronna Simmons for sharing the story of Bill Scott. And what a story indeed, I mean to see what he saw in Buchenwald. What a thing to witness and bear witness to and to photograph and then to come back and fight that second war for integration and for equal treatment and then ultimately to be on these dual Holocaust commissions to have finally made it as an equal member of society. A tragic and beautiful story here on Our American Stories.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-19 15:33:20 / 2023-02-19 15:41:13 / 8

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