Beloit man remembers fighting in segregated unit
BELOIT — Today, every February, the nation celebrates Black History Month and the accomplishments of African-Americans.
But for many blacks, those recognitions came late. Or never.
For William Cole, 90, of Racine and formerly of Beloit, those days remain implanted in his memory as a bleak reminder of the way things used to be. Cole, a proud veteran of the 93rd Infantry Division, served in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Many people never knew much about the 93rd Division or what it did.
"We were in almost every campaign," he said. Yet, little recognition was given to the all-black division of enlisted men led by white officers.
At the time of his induction, Cole was 19 and didn't realize he would be separated and segregated while serving his own country.
Cole and all the other recruits from Beloit were first sent off to Camp McCoy in Wisconsin. From there, they were moved to Fort Custer for training in Michigan.
"That's where we found out the color lines were changing," he told the Beloit Daily News (http://bit.ly/1c1mKTV).
On the next journey in their training, the units were separated by race.
"By that time, we got the message," he said of being part of an all-black unit heading for Camp Wheeler, near Macon, Ga.
Cole said among the training concerns was that many of the black units were given wooden rifles with which to march. Those concerns were raised and finally, real rifles were provided.
Eventually, they were sent to the South Pacific in 1944. There they were trained in jungle-type warfare, Cole said.
The 93rd Division campaigns included New Guinea, Northern Solomons (Bougainville), Bismarck Archipelago (Admiralty Islands).
While Cole was in combat from time to time, he was mostly behind the lines working as a communications technician with a radio.
"I was fired on but never injured," he said.
Cole worked with his unit in covert operations.
"It was a different kind of war than in Europe," he said.
During one period, he was reported missing in action. He wasn't missing, but the government didn't want anyone to know where he was because they didn't want the enemy to know troops had arrived.
"I was on a special mission in one place where the Japanese were moving supplies. We were to report back by radio," he said.
In April of 1945, while serving on the island of Morotai, the 93rd Division is credited with capturing the highest ranking Japanese officer, Colonel Muisu Ouchi. But Cole believes the 93rd did not get the recognition it deserved.
Then, in August of 1945, "We were in the Philippines when they dropped the (atomic) bombs on Japan. We were having dry runs and didn't know they dropped the bombs," Cole said.
In all, he spent four and one-half years in the military, two of which were spent in the South Pacific.
At first, many blacks were largely stereotyped as not having an adequate education to be officers, Cole said. But there were enlisted blacks who had been college educated. There also was fear that white soldiers wouldn't take orders from black officers, Cole said. That changed somewhat during Cole's service and eventually he served in an integrated unit.
"There was a small amount of friction when it first started," he recalled.
President Harry Truman declared a legal end to a segregated military when he signed an executive order in February of 1948.
After his time in the service, Cole came back to Beloit.
"GIs were treated well," he said, although some places still refused service to a soldier if he was black.
Civilian life was a different matter.
Back in Beloit, Cole became an apprentice at Fairbanks Morse where his father also worked in the foundry. When his training as a mold maker was finished, he was told by his trainer he should now ask for a job on the molding floor. However, he was told he'd have to take a job as a molder's assistant.
Cole had words with the supervisor and left. At the time he was earning $1.18 per hour.
"I thought I had earned the right to be treated like an American. I had served my country, I had been shot at," he said.
He obtained a job at Case Company in Rockford and became a floor molder there. He started at $2.50 and soon was making $3 per hour, he said.
Cole later went to work at American Motors and stayed for 30 years.
As a veteran, he also had earned the right to obtain a small down payment to purchase a home.
But when he tried to obtain a home mortgage in Loves Park, he was denied and told he could buy a lot instead.
At the time, it was a common practice for blacks to buy lots from white land owners. In Beloit, the areas along Athletic, Broad, Keep and Booker streets were such areas, Cole said. Many families would buy a lot and obtain house plans, figure out what they could build themselves, and then hire out for part of the work to be done.