- Associated Press - Friday, May 8, 2015

DECATUR, Ala. — Therman White grew up with obstacles: his race, poverty and Jim Crow laws designed to keep blacks separate and unequal.

World War II changed all that.

“When I went in the military, I was 17 years old,” Mr. White said. “I had never been out of the state of Alabama. I went to Great Lakes, Illinois, where I took boot camp training. After boot camp, I got assigned to Yorktown, Virginia, in an ammunition depot.”

Mr. White, 88, spent the entirety of World War II working in the Yorktown and Asbury Park, New Jersey, ammunition depots.

“We handled ammunition, the bombs and torpedoes in the depot. We worked different shifts. That was what I did during World War II,” he said.

The war service was important to the U.S., but being in the military was important to Mr. White. It opened horizons for him beyond the farm life he had growing up in rural Lawrence County.

“One of the things I realize - and I mention it now and some people kind of look at me like I am crazy - but when I was 17 years old and went in the Navy, the minute I raised up my hand and got sworn in, I stepped right into the middle class and I didn’t know what that was,” Mr. White said. “The Navy was middle class to me, and I learned from that.”

Mr. White was born in Landersville, a few miles west of Moulton, and lived on farms in Red Hill near Oakville and Mount Hope before his military service. When the war ended, Mr. White returned to Lawrence County for four years but rejoined the Navy in 1950 when the Korean War began.

“I was home from ‘46 to ‘50 and went back for the Korean War. I volunteered to go back because the farm wasn’t exactly what I wanted then. I had grown up somewhat and it was different.”

For blacks during World War II, segregation was a reality both at home and in the military. Black soldiers, sailors and airmen served in segregated units, usually under white officers. According to The Gulder Lehman Institute of American History, 1 million black men served in the military during the war either as draftees or as volunteers. They had to fight two enemies.

Lt. Col. James Walker, U.S. Army retired, who leads the JROTC program at Austin High School, said black soldiers faced two enemies and began the “Double V” campaign signifying victory in war over the Nazis and the Japanese, and victory over racism at home.

Mr. White said, “When I went into the military, the country was segregated and I didn’t know anything else. The whites were here and the blacks were here. It didn’t bother me because I didn’t know anything else and that’s the way it was.

“When I went into the military the first time, I didn’t know anything about people period. There was just whites and blacks and that was it. When I went back in 1950, the whole system had turned around.”

President Harry Truman integrated the military in 1948. When Mr. White returned to service in 1950, the military had changed even if Jim Crow laws still ruled the home front.

“I got to know all these races of people, Chinese and Japanese. Now I don’t pay attention to it because I have been around just about every race there is. The military made me, and I will say it in a minute,” Mr. White said.

While Mr. White never faced combat, his job was a critical part of the vast military operation that spread around the globe. Lt. Col. Walker spent his military career on the logistics side and said the contribution of Mr. White and men like him were critical to the war effort.

“I tell you,” the lieutenant colonel said, “combat to us Americans is the ultimate and we really, really, really decorate combat veterans, but without the logistics support, we have a soldier standing on the battlefield naked saying, ‘Give me something. Give me a rifle, a vehicle, bullets, repair parts, fuel. Give me what I need to operate.’ “

Mr. White lived in California for eight years after his retirement from the Navy before returning to his Lawrence County roots. He now lives in Oakville near the farm he worked as a child. Mr. White, along with James Pinion, became prime movers in establishing the Jesse Owens Memorial Park and Museum in Oakville, the birthplace of the famous Olympian.

When the Olympic torch passed through Oakville on its way to the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Messrs.White and Pinion ran side by side holding the torch aloft as it approached the park.

Mr. White said he never knew Owens when he was growing up and didn’t hear anything about the 1936 Olympic games until years later. Owens’ performance in the Games kicked dirt in the face of Adolf Hitler’s notion of Aryan supremacy. Mr. White became the first chairman of the museum. It stands near the field where Owens was born and where Mr. White worked on a farm in his childhood.

Mr. White now lives across the road from the museum and a long way from his past.

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