ROI OTTLEY'S WORLD WAR II: THE LOST DIARY OF AN AFRICAN AMERICAN JOURNALIST
Edited by Mark A. Huddle
University Press of Kansas, $29.95, 208 pages, illustrated
As we see Americans who took part in one way or another in World War II begin to fade from the scene in large numbers, we start to understand the bittersweet feelings that overtook previous generations about other conflicts in our history. But there are many reasons why the term "greatest generation," now almost routinely applied to them, is not so hyperbolic. One of their crowning glories was certainly the correspondents who were so triumphantly a part of the war effort.
Many of them were media superstars in their time, household names like Edward R. Murrow and William L. Shirer, but there were many thousands involved in this enterprise, and it is always good to be reminded of lesser-known characters who also risked life and limb.
Few will recognize the name of Roi Ottley, but you only have to read his accounts of near-misses during combat in France or the terror induced by pilotless buzz-bomb V1s and V2 rockets in London to know that he, too, braved dangerous situations in order to give folks back home a sense of what their compatriots in uniform were going through over there. He could pass along the understanding that came from actually being on the scene:
"Before arrival in France [in the summer of 1944], I was inclined not to believe all the horrible stories I had heard about Nazi brutality, but this eye-witness view has vastly changed my attitude. The propaganda didn't begin to tell the story about these German beasts. Theirs is not a brutality and cruelty of passion or of the moment - say like the lynching-bent Southerner. Theirs is a cold, ingeniously conceived method of torture - both of the mind and the body. ... Their 'buzz bomb,' for example, is another instance. For it destroys morale, though actually in terms of bombing destruction it achieves little."
Back then, Ottley was quite famous, "a fixture in Chicago journalism," according to the introduction to this absorbing collection of his wartime dispatches and related material:
"During the 1940s, he seemed to be everywhere. He burst onto the national literary scene in 1943 with his best-selling description of life in African America, 'New World A-Coming.' Ottley parlayed that success into a military commission and a prolonged stint as a war correspondent, publishing regularly with the labor newspaper PM as well as the Pittsburgh Courier. After the war, he continued to cover international events for the Courier, and experiences from his travels provided the raw material for his book 'No Green Pastures,' a comparative study of American and European race relations that was published in 1951."
It is therefore no surprise that on almost every page of this book, Ottley's sensitivity to, and insights into, comparative racial attitudes are on display. This by itself makes "Roi Ottley's World War Two" a unique and extraordinarily valuable testament as well as a hardheaded, clear-eyed and intuitive look into a past that is thankfully no longer with us.
Ottley is under no illusions about the racial tensions so evident between black and white members of the U.S. armed forces stationed in England. Indeed, he sees instances of it almost everywhere and cannot help noticing that most of the British he meets are without the obvious racial prejudice so volubly and unashamedly shown by his Southern compatriots. Where there is discrimination on the basis of color in Britain, it is at the behest of the U.S. military authorities: "[T]his distressing racial situation must be laid squarely on the doorstep of the white officers."
Yet, as he notes, with admirable fairness, "The declared policy of the American army in regard to the Negro soldier is absolutely clear: 'He is to receive the same treatment, wages, rations as the white troops. He is to have equal opportunities for recreation.' "
Although most of the blacks he meets in his time in Britain, many of them of West Indian origin, seem to blend easily in to their milieu (many are happily married to white spouses), he is very conscious - and disapproving - of his host nation's and also France's role as colonial powers. And rightly critical though he is of the slow progress in the racial situation back home, he still can bridle at the ignorant condemnation he encounters:
"One thing I am faced with here is the very curious situation of having to defend Negroes' advancement in America. Most people here - supposedly well informed - feel and think that most Negroes are almost slaves in the U.S. They believe that Negroes can't even walk on the same sidewalks with whites. So I've been put in the unenviable position of explaining the subtleties of Jim Crow."
"Roi Ottley's World War Two" contains all sorts of insights indicative of its author's perspicacity and dry sense of humor, trained on all sorts of targets. Reporting on some intellectual London conversation, he offers this wry tidbit, expressed in his inimitable manner:
"There was considerable talk about Richard Wright's attack in the Atlantic Monthly on Communists. It now turns out that he isn't as brilliant as every one supposed - instead he is an ignoramus. He will no doubt be ostracized."
Reading Ottley's pointed prose not only introduces us to a man long gone (he died in 1960, aged only 54) and too long forgotten but also transports us back to a time much written about, to be sure, but not usually from this singular perspective.
Martin Rubin regularly reviews books for the Wall Street Journal.
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