Kimberly Windham and Patricia Glaser are Junior Fellows working for the Veterans History Project this summer. This guest blog post, written by Kim and based on research done by both Fellows, describes their experience exploring VHP collections.
As Junior Fellows, our mandate was to discover and elevate the voices of African Americans in the Veterans History Project archive. We listened to hundreds of oral histories and searched thousands of records from all service branches and conflicts since World War I, seeking to discover the experiences of war through the donated collections of individual veterans who identified as African American. Time and time again, we heard these veterans not only recall the desire to “see the world” as a reason for joining the service, but also that travel itself—to theaters of war, to duty stations, and on leave—was essential to shaping their perspectives on war.
Beginning in World War I, military recruitment posters explicitly promoted travel, the opportunity to “see the world,” as a benefit of service in the armed forces. The slogan, though no longer in use, has continued to persuade veterans to serve for more than a century. In every conflict and branch of service, veterans cite the opportunity to travel as a reason for their commitment to serve. Air Force Technical Sergeant Kaye Graves, a Persian Gulf War veteran, said she enlisted because “I wanted to travel, see the world.” World War II Merchant Marine Luther Smith recalled, “I had a high school friend that went into the maritime service, and he hit so many places, traveling in the maritime service, so I decided… that’s what I wanted to do. I hit three continents in three years.” Vietnam veteran Howard Hunt said he wanted to “join the Navy and see the world—and boy, did I see it!”
Seeing the world also raised awareness about systems of racial oppression, both at home and abroad. On stateside military bases, Army Air Corps Lieutenant Pompey Hawkins and Sergeant Frederic Thomas resisted racial discrimination with nonviolent protests that predated the sit-ins of the civil rights movement. Even abroad, where racial discrimination was all but unheard of in civil society, American military installations upheld segregation on base. While stationed in India, Army Air Corps PFC Louis Douglas recalled turning to the recreational facilities of the British armed forces when he found the American recreational facilities closed to him.
Foreign cultures opened the eyes of African American service members to new ways of seeing. After serving in Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Korea, Army Major Christopher Bell discovered, while sitting at a sidewalk café in Bordeaux, France, that “I forgot my native blackness/ That is un-forgettable in America’s settings.” Foreign cultures also exposed veterans to the material advantages of American life. Stationed in North Africa and Italy during World War II, Army Corps Technician Otha Smith recalled how his wartime experiences of travel affected his outlook: “I did get to see what’s happening in a lot of parts of the world, and… it made me realize that I should be glad to be an American by seeing what’s happening in a lot of these other countries.”
Still, overseas deployments were not always a source of liberation for African American veterans. Army Colonel Vandy Miller, a Vietnam War veteran, recalled the curiosity aroused by his presence while stationed abroad:
When we would visit a country, you know, we were different. And these people of the country that we were in, they looked at you pretty strange… In fact, some of them would just come up and feel your skin and stuff.”
Army Lieutenant Dodson Curry brought his family to his duty station Japan, where they, too, were subjected to the curiosity of locals who had never before encountered a Black person.
Since World War I, veterans in every service branch and every conflict have cited travel as a reason to join the armed forces. Yet, to see the world is also to experience the world; the effect of this exposure to other cultures lingers beyond the term of service, beyond the conflict, and beyond the armed forces. Army Sergeant Tammi Kinchlow, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War, said she “appreciated being around different people… I’ve seen people overseas, I’ve worked with people, you know, Italians, Germans. You see it’s so diverse… I think that the military helped me… be able to deal with different people, different backgrounds.” When veterans return to civilian life, their experiences abroad reflect the American values of diversity and inclusion. After all, at the end of every journey, there’s no place like home.
Please join Junior Fellows Patricia Glaser and Kimberly Windham for a special display of collection materials related to their summer research. The Junior Fellow Display Day, featuring items from divisions around the Library of Congress, will take place in rooms LJ-110-119 of the Thomas Jefferson building from 10 am to 3 pm on Wednesday, July 24.