African Caribbean Soldiers during WWII (Part 2)

| November 8, 2015
Social and Cultural Anthropologist and contributor Scherin Barlow-Massay

Social and Cultural Anthropologist and contributor Scherin Barlow-Massay

From Jamaica, we took a troop ship to the United States. We arrived up the Hudson River to New York Docks and from there; we took a boat train to part of the American Deep South. When we arrived, we were in transit; waiting for a convoy going to Europe.

In those days, the German submarines ruled the Atlantic Ocean; no single ship or boat could go through to Europe. The German submarines would sink it if it were alone, so there had to be a convoy of ships. There were smaller cruisers and motor torpedo boats that escorted these convoys. The smaller boats carried goods for the war effort in Europe for England, and air-craft was secured on the deck of the boats along with a certain amount of food, that was the only way they could bring food from the Caribbean to England.

While in transit, we waited on an army base in Newport, News, Virginia. One of the things we were disappointed by at this army camp, was on one side were African-Americans and the other side of the camp were white Americans.

In effect, the American Armed Forces was segregated. The soldiers from the West Indies could not understand because we were all fighting men and it was a shock to come across this situation. But we decided not to interfere because it was none of our business.

German U-boats sank 3,000 ships during World War Two. Photo courtesy www.dailymail.co.uk

German U-boats sank 3,000 ships during World War Two. Photo courtesy www.dailymail.co.uk

Another thing that surprised us in the town of Newport was a sign that said ‘No Coloureds’, outside a photographer’s shop. We never realised that this was the mighty America. We were impressionable young men; we couldn’t understand it because in the America we saw on the films, everybody was nice and well behaved. So all the boys decided that we needed photographs to send to our family and friends, so we went into one marked ‘No Coloureds’ and they served us.

Then we travelled to Europe. We went up the Clyde to Scotland. As we were coming off the troop ship, there was a military band welcoming us and on the wharf the Salvation Army served us tea and cakes. It was the height of winter then. We boarded the troop train to different camps because we were new recruits and after eight weeks of basic training, we were sent to different parts of the country.

While we were in Scotland, they organised receptions at the local church where servicemen would have tea in the afternoon. There was a lady steward, the widow of a top colonial civil servant in Glasgow and she used to have us while we were on leave in Glasgow; both black and white servicemen. Some of the prettiest girls were the hostesses. But they were told, no dates. So we could talk, but only refreshments were served. It was a way to make us feel welcome because we were thousands of miles away from home.

World War II Red Tails pilot. Photo courtesy www.caribbeanaircrew-ww2.com

World War II Red Tails pilot. Photo courtesy www.caribbeanaircrew-ww2.com

The Second World War went on, and everything was rationed during war-time because food was hard to come by. Understandably, there were ration books, even cigarettes were rationed but that was no problem for me because I never smoked. 

When we went out for the evening to the pub where we were stationed, we encountered English women. Until this day, the English women would always have my respect and admiration because of their contribution to the war effort. They were in the Land Army working on the land; they were housewives, looking after their children while the men were in the Armed Forces. And they also worked in the munitions factories, making military supplies.

When we went to the pub, the landlord would say, “These women want to buy you a drink.” And naturally they treated us. And in my personal experience, the English woman is highly respected because of the way they treated us. We never considered ourselves foreigners because we were part of the British Empire.

Royal Air Force woman Pilots of the Caribbean, and Africa. Photo courtesy www.culture24.org.uk

Royal Air Force woman Pilots of the Caribbean, and Africa. Photo courtesy www.culture24.org.uk

Every ten or so days, we went to the local YMCA in Manchester that catered for service men. We were issued travel warrants to travel wherever we wanted to go. So if you were stationed down in Cumberland, which is now part of Cumbria and wanted to go to London, you’d get a railway warrant to London and back.

I was standing outside the YMCA in Great Peter St, Manchester, when a young English couple came along and invited us to have supper or something to eat at their home. English women would extend their hospitality to foreign troops, all troops.

It was the Empire in those days, you had Australians, New Zealanders, the Ghurkhas, Indian regiments and some Polish servicemen, all came over. You had the British Armed Forces, Canadian, and American who were in their thousands and not forgetting our West Indian, Indians who also joined the Armed Forces. Women from the Caribbean also came to the war. They came to work as nurses, secretaries, tele-printer operators and ambulance drivers; they did a wonderful service for this country.

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