MOORESVILLE, Ala. (AP) - World War II veteran Egbert Peebles Jr. bares no ill will toward the Japanese, as the soldiers he fought were just following orders.
The 90-year-old Mooresville resident remains upset, however, at the way his own country treated blacks during the war and in his home county of Limestone.
Peebles was a private, first class, in Company K, 369 Infantry Regiment, 93rd Infantry Division, a segregated division of the U.S. Army. He fought on Guadalcanal, New Guinea and Bougainville in the south Pacific.
“They always wanted to keep the black man in the back,” Peebles said. “I hate to say it, but the white man wanted to win the war without the black man. The white man wanted to keep the black man from having any kind of record of having anything to do with the United States, but it didn’t work. He couldn’t win it by himself.”
The difficulty extended beyond the battlefield. The soldiers were rounded up to vote during a presidential election that would send Franklin Roosevelt to the White House for his fourth term. Peebles said he approached the voting area and was asked where he was from.
Peebles responded he was from Alabama and was told his vote would not count.
“I dropped my M1 down side of me and knocked the safety off,” Peebles said. “The sergeant said, ‘Wait now soldier, what you going to do now?’ I said, ‘You are going to tell me I am over here trying to save the United States and you ain’t going to count my vote? I don’t mean no harm, but you mean to tell me you can’t count my vote and I am over here taking a chance on my life?’
“He didn’t say another word.”
Peebles cast a vote for Roosevelt, not knowing exactly what he was doing. He said he had never been permitted to vote in the United States and doesn’t know if his vote was counted.
Racism was expressed in personally insulting ways as well, he said. Peebles recalled a white soldier coming up to him during a rest period in the Philippines. He walked around looking curiously at Peebles’ back side. The soldier had been told black men were a bear whose tail had been cut off.
“I said, ‘What are you looking for?’ ” Peebles said. “He said, ‘I want to see where they cut your tail off.’ He said, ‘They told us you looked like a no-tail bear.’ “
Facing the Japanese in combat, Peebles found the Japanese soldier was a fierce fighter. The nights were the worst. In the darkness, the Japanese would crawl near the American lines and call out American names, hoping to hear a soldier respond.
“He would walk around at night trying to find names, Joe, Sam, Pete, anybody. If you answered, the next morning you were a dead man,” Peebles said. “Next morning, when you come to yourself, the other guy that answered was dead. They cut his head off or stuck him in his side.”
Peebles was a scout for Company K. His job was to get in front of the main body of troops and locate the enemy by drawing their fire. The Japanese often allowed the scouts to pass so they could attack the main body of soldiers.
“It was like stirring up a bee’s nest,” Peebles said. “It was like sneaking up on a lion or a tiger. First come, first served. If you could shoot faster than he was, then shoot. When you see him first or hear him first, you made the first shot. Knock him off his sight because he didn’t play.”
Fear was a constant companion in the South Pacific. It helped keep soldiers alive, though, he said. Troops always moved in pairs, even when eating, sleeping or going to the latrine.
“Did I ever feel scared? You better feel scared,” Peebles said. “You didn’t know when he was coming, beside you, behind you or whatever. Before you knew anything, he was right there on you. You see a bush moving, you didn’t know what it was.
“You didn’t take no chances. You kept your gun safety off at all times. We were trained and taught: When you see something move, shoot first. Don’t give him a chance to get his aim at you. Knock him off. Shoot right quick.”
Peebles remembers the first Japanese soldier he shot. The soldier was about 14.
“I caught him in the side. The sergeant walked up to me and said, ‘Don’t kill him, don’t kill him.’ I was going to shoot him in the head. He threw up his hands and said, ‘Me give up, me give up.’ We tied him up and carried him back and questioned him,” Peebles said.
His age was revealed during questioning. He had been raised in the military and all he knew was fighting.
Peebles has the lineage of a soldier. His father fought in Europe in World War I in the 92nd Infantry Division. Father and son fought in world wars and neither was wounded. Both served the country in segregated divisions.
Lt. Col. James Walker, U.S. Army retired and the JROTC instructor at Austin High School, said the war changed black soldiers and made them less tolerant of racism and more willing to act against it.
“When the black soldiers returned from overseas, they essentially said we are not going to take it anymore,” Walker said. “We put our lives on the line for the country and we aren’t going to take this discrimination. The black soldiers fought back.”
Peebles was one of those soldiers. An incident outside a theater in Athens in 1946 sparked racial unrest. Two white males accosted a black soldier who recently had returned from the war.
The black soldier fought and beat the two white men and escaped. The aftermath drew a violent response from some whites in Athens, who beat any black person they found on the streets. Blacks marched in protest of the treatment.
“We marched in Athens. Right here in Athens was the biggest race riot there was,” Peebles said. “We told them we wasn’t going to be separated no more. We were going to be treated like a man.”
Walker said the nation owes a great debt to the black soldiers who fought in World War II.
“Tom Brokaw called this generation of soldiers ‘The Greatest Generation.’ I believe the black World War II soldiers were the greatest of the greatest generation. They went to war in the Pacific and helped defeat the Japanese. They went to war in Europe and helped defeat the Germans. They came home and kicked down the walls of segregation. Their service made this country a much better place,” Walker said.
“These guys are giants on whose shoulders all of us stand today. Can you imagine going to war for a country that treated you the way this country treated them?”
After the war, Peebles worked a series of jobs, from farming to cotton ginning to janitorial work, before retiring from a janitorial company that served Redstone Arsenal. He and his wife Classie married in 1964. He has two children by his first marriage.
Information from: The Decatur Daily, https://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml
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