Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Harold Fleming, January 24, 1990. Interview A-0363. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Fleming gains empathy for black Americans through service with black soldiers

Fleming learned about race relations while commanding black troops in Japan. He experienced prejudice with them and saw how prejudice led to anger and cynicism on their part. It made him more critical of racist whites and endeared him to some of the black troops.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Harold Fleming, January 24, 1990. Interview A-0363. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

HAROLD FLEMING:
God almighty, that depressed me, needless to say. I don't think anybody talked about the ethics of that [the bomb], not at that time. It was regarded as a godsend. We had Japanese POW's and this was another cross one had to bear commanding black troops because our men were often assigned to guard them as guards of work details, not as round-the-clock guards. They would send out detachments of Japanese POW's. For example, I had charge of the work force for the gasoline and oil supply dump for all of Okinawa. Our biggest problem was to keep these dumb clucks from going and hiding behind a great mountain of barrels of gasoline and lighting up a cigarette. There was a lot of heavy equipment, cranes and all those things which I was responsible for. We had the Jap POW's and some of my men were assigned, while they were working, to stand guard over them. The big fear of the brass, who were mostly southern-that was to be expected because most of the brass in the Army was southern-was fraternization between the black soldiers and the POW's. They didn't trust them worth a damn. Long before they took the amunition away from other units they blatantly, they didn't make any bones about it, made us turn in every round. I protested about it and it was not a very smart thing to do. I asked, "why? There are still Japanese guerillas on this island. We have brought several of them in. We are out there vulnerable to this and the other companies are keeping their amunition." He said, "damnit, you know why." I said, "I think I do, but I don't think it's fair."
JOHN EGERTON:
At that point you are just twenty-three years old. Do you think your sensitivity to all this racial stuff had been heightened by your experience in working with those guys or were you still pretty much . . .
HAROLD FLEMING:
This is what did it for me. I mean, it was a very good way to learn about race relations. In the first place, you could really see it plain if you had any sense of fairness and if you weren't just under the total mercy of your prejudices, you could see. And if you got to know any of these men at all and there were some very nice guys, great guys, and there were also a bunch of guys who were so alienated or so coarsened by life that they were not admirable people at all. They were people you wouldn't trust around the block, they would kill you it they thought they could get away with it. It was not the noble savage thing at all, but it was just the sheer human experience of, "good God, how can these men stand it, why do they do it?" Here they are being called on to follow the rules, shape up, be a good soldier, work your ass off, be ready to die for your country and then they would crap all over you without apology. "Not a single one of you blacks bastards is good enough to be an officer even with your own people. You don't get the Quonset huts, you stay in the tents and mud. All the Quonset huts go to a white unit that landed yesterday even though you have been here six months." It has that kind of stuff, and I understood why they were bitter. The amazing thing is that they functioned at all. The tendancy was for a lot of them was to use passive resistance with their officers and that was their way of retaliating. "What are you doing here, Jones? Didn't I assign you to go over there and do that?" The response would be, "Naw sir, boss, I don't know nothing about that," a bunch of step-and-fetch-it kind of stuff but done very cynically. Sometimes-very near insubordination-they all had techniques made to screw you good. The whole idea was to drive you up the wall. I just took a tack with these guys, I said, "Look, you are not Step-and-Fetch-it, and I'm not Simon Legree, and this bullshit doesn't go with me. Jones, you know you're suppose to be over there. I know you were supposed to be over there, I know you've got brains, I know you are not an idiot, so get over there and don't let me catch you goofing off again." This worked pretty much, not with everybody. It worked better than letting them suck you into playing your role while they played their role. The role, you get tougher and meaner and harder. What a bunch of dumb bastards, these young white Yankee officers. They would come to me and say, "I just want to tell you, Captain, that I feel you got a bad deal and you're from Georgia, aren't you?" I said, "yes." "I just want to tell you that I understand how you people feel down there and the first thing I'm going to do when I get out of here is get a charter membership in a Kiu Kiux Kian." I said, "look buster, you don't know anything about what I feel and I don't want to know what your views are. I don't want to hear any talk like that around here again. If you value your life, shut your mouth and do your job and don't go in for any of this racist crap because you're going to get killed." Some of them did, you know. It was not a smart thing to do. I didn't philosophize about it with anybody much except Gaylord Nelson. He was my best friend over there.
JOHN EGERTON:
Was he in a similar role?
HAROLD FLEMING:
Yes.
JOHN EGERTON:
Did you know others that you subsequently kept up with?
HAROLD FLEMING:
Not really. Gaylord is about the only one. I've seen a few others since but we haven't maintained a relationship. Gaylord found a guy who was in my company-a corporal-and he turned out to be the Director of Foreign Student Affairs at Howard University. He just stumbled on to him and he brought us together in a surprise meeting. I was surprised he would even want to see me. We had a good time reminiscing and so on. I said, "what did he say when you told him?" Gaylord told him that I've always said that I thought it was unjust as hell. He said I was a follower of Bob Lafollette, a wisconsin progressive, and what did I get from these men but a bunch of shit? They would come in there and say, "you're from Georgia and you're a great guy. There's no justice in the world." I said that to him and he said, "well, he was about as good as you could hope for under the circumstances." I thought that was high praise myself. Anyway, that's how it all happened. When I came back I was sick of the whole goddamn business. I was mad at the Army and mad at the system. And godalmighty the two-governors controversy broke out in Georgia and the Arnall thing went down the drain, and Talmadge came back in. . . .