Seventy-five years after World War II’s end, the “Double-V Campaign” still falls short of being fulfilled.
Midway through director Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna, his 2008 film about a squad in the “Buffalo Soldiers,” the all-Black 92nd Infantry Division fighting in Italy in 1944, an African American sergeant, Aubrey Stamps (played by Derek Luke), explains to his peers what he is fighting for: his home country. “We helped build it from the ground up,” Stamps says. “I’m here for my children and future grandchildren. This is about progress.”
Another sergeant, Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), will have none of it, reminding Stamps of an incident stateside in which a restaurant refused service to the squad as German prisoners of war contentedly dined inside. Incidents like this actually happened: Time magazine reported in July 1944 that Black troops passing through El Paso, Texas, were barred from entering a local restaurant where they could clearly see the POWs seated at tables and served hot food. The American troops received cold handouts.
In addition to capturing the rampant racism that African Americans were facing on the home front, Miracle at St. Anna correctly portrays the resistance and skepticism toward utilizing Black combat soldiers during World War II. In 1942, the U.S. War Department surveyed White enlisted men and discovered, unsurprisingly, “a strong prejudice against sharing recreation, theater, or post exchange facilities with Negroes.” Confronted with this news, Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall simply threw up his hands. “Experiments within the Army in the solution of social problems are fraught with danger to efficiency, discipline, and morale,” he warned. (The postwar desegregation of the armed forces, of course, showed that these problems could be overcome.)
Although activated in October 1942, the 92nd Infantry Division did not see combat for nearly two years until advance units disembarked at Naples in August 1944. The action in Miracle at St. Anna occurs several months later, when the 92nd attempts to cross the Serchio River in Tuscany as a prelude to attacking the Gothic Line, the German defensive line established across Italy just north of Florence. As the Americans approach the river, a German truck with loudspeakers blares a recording of “Axis Sally,” the American-born propaganda broadcaster, who appeals to the Buffalo Soldiers to give up their fight, noting that back home they are second-class citizens. Why die in a White man’s war?
When, in the ensuing assault, one infantry company makes it across the river, its White captain—far to the rear—flatly disbelieves that Black troops could have covered such a great distance against withering German fire. Instead of firing artillery at the position that Stamps identifies as the location of the German defenders, the captain calls down fire upon the company’s own position. Forced to re-cross the Serchio under heavy German machine gun fire and now facing artillery shells from both sides, most of the company is wiped out. Stamps and three other soldiers crawl farther onto the German side instead, setting in motion the film’s main plot as it follows them through a series of harrowing, ultimately tragic adventures.
Miracle at St. Anna, too, accurately characterizes real-life 92nd Division commander Major General Edward M. “Ned” Almond’s distaste for his underlings. Historically, he declared, “The white man…is willing to die for patriotic reasons. The Negro is not. No white man wants to be accused of leaving the battle line. The Negro doesn’t care.” In the film, learning that the four soldiers are on the German side of the Serchio, the Almond character gives orders that the squad capture a German soldier who can be interrogated to confirm reports that German forces are massing for a counterattack. He is unconcerned that to do so the soldiers must leave the tenuous refuge they have found in a small Italian village and face almost-certain death when they encounter any of the German units that surround them. Three of the four squad members, including Stamps, perish in the following scenes.
After all of these injustices, one might wonder what Stamps’s ghost would make of the conditions under which his descendants exist today. During World War II, African Americans championed a “Double-V Campaign”: victory over the Axis abroad, victory over racism at home. Yet even 75 years after the war’s end, the campaign’s second goal still falls short of being fulfilled. Faced with this disheartening reality more than seven decades after his death, could Stamps believe otherwise than that America had broken faith with the ultimate sacrifice he had laid upon the altar of his country? ✯
This article was published in the October 2020 issue of World War II.