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 “I first went to Germany in January 1959. I had just finished my training in Columbus, Georgia, at Ft. Benning. Columbus, Georgia, was still segregated. There was discrimination, there was racism. For me, a young lieutenant who couldn’t go off the post in Columbus but could go off the post anywhere in Germany, it was a breath of freedom.—Former Secretary of State, US Army General (Ret) Colin Powell

On February 17, the Smithsonian Channel premiers Breath of Freedom, the largely untold story of the one million-plus African Americans who fought to overthrow the Nazi regime in World War II, then fought for their own freedom back home. Hundreds of thousands of them remained in Germany as part of the American Army of Occupation, and many found greater freedom there than they had in America, particularly in the American South. The effects of their experiences in Europe, during the war and after, played a role in setting the stage for the civil rights movement of the 1960s that is often overlooked.

Milton Johnson, who served in Germany and Austria from 1946 to 1957, was the son of sharecroppers from Columbia, Tennessee. As he expressed it, “I wasn’t going back to being a damn sharecropper. The Army gave me the opportunity.”

Narrated by Cuba Gooding, Jr., Breath of Freedom features interviews with General Powell; Congressman John Lewis of Georgia; Charles Evers, a World War II veteran, civil rights activist and brother of civil rights activist and US Army veteran Medgar Evers, whose 1963 murder was a catalyst for the civil rights movement; Leon Bass, who helped build a bridge that allowed reinforcements and supplies to reach embattled Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge; Dr. Roscoe Brown, a Tuskegee Airmen who shot down an Me262 jet fighter; John Hendricks, a D-Day veteran who became a famous jazz musician; Judge Charles Johnson; Theodor Michael, a German film maker and writer of African descent who served as a translator in post-war Germany; and others.

The program seamlessly moves between modern interviews (with African Americans and Germans who experienced the war and post-war Germany) and period film footage of World War II and of segregated facilities in America. In an unusual move, some events related in the program are dramatized by using animated images drawn in a style reminiscent of graphic novels or manga. At first, these are jarring because they seem out of place with the rest of the documentary. Some viewers probably will not care for the technique, but it is a fresh way of showing specific events described in the program for which no visual record exists, such as the little German girl coming up to a black soldier and rubbing his hand to see if the color will rub off.

Overall, the story draws viewers in and flows so smoothly that it quickly becomes engrossing. Breath of Freedom is definitely worth watching. Viewers who do not receive the Smithsonian Channel can watch the program at

At the National World War II Memorial, Washington, DC. Courtesy of Smithsonian Channel.