Archive for February, 2021

SHAKO: Black History Month — African Americans in War Movies Part II

An Additional Four Movies to explore how Hollywood changed in its treatment of black actors and black history in films about war and life in the military.

RED BALL EXPRESS (Universal Pictures, 1952)

This film is on this list for all the wrong reasons. Puportedly, it’s the story of one of the little known Army operations involving a great many black soldiers during World War II, the eponymous Red Ball Express.” But there aren’t many blacks in the film.

Three months after D-Day, it was hard to supply Gen. George Patton’s hard-charging Third Army which was advancing as much as 80 miles a week. French railroads, as well as highways and bridges had been wrecked by Allied bombing. The only open seaport was in Normandy, far from the front.

To meet the need, thousands of trucks and hundreds of soldiers to drive them were pressed into service to deliver food, fuel, ammunition and other supplies to the front-line troops. The truck convoys had a dedicated route marked by round red signs — red balls — an old railroad term for high priority freight trains.

Almost 75 percent of Red Ball Express drivers were African Americans, who dealt with breakdowns, accidents, land mines, air attacks, bad roads and exhaustion on their 57-hour round trips.

But it’s hard to find many black actors in the movie. One of the few was a young Sidney Poitier in his third motion picture. Poitier’s character, Private Robertson, has a run-in with his C.O. and practically disappears for the rest of the movie. Nearly all the heroics are performed by white soldiers in the movie.

In a 1979 symposium at UCLA, the director, Bud Boetticher, revealed that the Defense Department pressured Universal Pictures to alter its portrayal of the tense race relations that existed at the time and to emphasize an upbeat, positive spirit, according to the IMBd website. Commenting on the studio’s whitewashing of history, Boetticher said, “The army wouldn’t let us tell the truth about the black troops because the government figured they were expendable. Our government didn’t want to admit they were kamikaze pilots. They figured if one out of ten trucks got through, they’d save Patton and his tanks.”

That sounds plausible when you see the official 1945 Army short film about the Red Ball Express, “Rolling to the Rhine,” only shows black drivers taking a break smoking and drinking coffee. This contemporary footage, which includes much of what’s shown in “Rolling to the Rhine,” shows blacks loading, driving and repairing trucks.

By The Way: Actor James Edwards (“Home of the Brave” and “The Steel Helmet’) was originally cast in the role of Robertson, but was fired during production when he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was replaced by Poitier, according to IMDb.

PORK CHOP HILL (United Artists, 1959)

While peace talks are underway at Panmunjom to end the Korean War, reluctant U.S. troops fight to retake a hill from Communist Chinese forces and then hold on to it despite rising casualties, in this film based on actual events. Directed by veteran war film maker Lewis Milestone (1930’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “A Walk in the Sun” from 1945), racial tensions in the recently desegregated U.S. Army are a key element in the film.

Instead of white bigotry against Soldiers of color, the focus in “Pork Chop Hill” is on a Black soldier, Franklin, played by Woody Strode (in the photo above on the right), who doesn’t want to die fighting for Korea when he’s sure he wouldn’t even die for the squalid conditions he lives in back home. After two confrontations, his company commander orders another Black Soldier, Corporal Jurgens (James Edwards, same photo on the left), to keep an eye on Franklin and shoot him if he refuses to fight. A verbal confrontation between the two black men is equally tense.

SERGEANT RUTLEDGE (Warner Brothers, 1960)

This movie is the only one that strays from wars in the 20th Century, but it’s one of the first films, if not the first, to portray the black Buffalo Soldiers of the Old West. Directed by legendary film maker John Ford, it’s part Western, part crime thriller, part courtroom drama and part social justice advocacy.  

Woody Strode is Sergeant Braxton Rutledge, the black 1st Sergeant of the 9th Cavalry in the Jim Crow Army. At an Arizona Army post in the early 1880s, he is being tried by a court martial for the rape and murder of a white girl as well as for the murder of the girl’s father, who was the fort’s commanding officer. The story of these events is told in several flashbacks.

Strode gives a memorable performance as a Top Soldier who loves his regiment and fellow black troopers but knows he can’t get a fair trial because he’s in the worst kind of trouble a black man can get in — “white woman trouble.” While the film is another paean to the U.S. cavalry and an attempt at a fair telling of the heroism and professionalism of its black soldiers, this trailer from Warner Bros. makes it look more like a lurid thriller.


ALL THE YOUNG MEN (Columbia, 1960)

This Korean War drama is much like some of the others listed before, a small group of Marines must hold a farmhouse that controls a valley their battalion will pass through, despite relentless enemy attacks.

What sets it apart is that it takes place in winter (filmed in Glacier National Park) and the sergeant in charge is black. Also unusual for it’s time, Sidney Poitier’s name appears with co-star Alan Ladd’s above the title in the opening credits. In fact, the film was written as a star vehicle for Poitier, but the studio would only back it if a major white co-star could be found. Ladd (“This Gun for Hire,” “The Blue Dahlia” and “Shane”) apparently was the only one who would agree. In fact his Ladd Company co-produced the movie.

The Story:  Poitier plays a young sergeant unexpectedly placed in command of the survivors of an ambushed platoon. Not only does he have to win the trust and respect of the other men who are all white, but he has to contend with the contempt of one who is an out-and-out racist, and the second-guessing of Ladd’s character, a more experienced former top sergeant from the South who was was busted down to private.


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SHAKO is an occasional 4GWAR posting on military history, traditions and culture. For the uninitiated, a shako is the tall, billed headgear worn by many armies from the Napoleonic era to about the time of the American Civil War. It remains a part of the dress or parade uniform of several military organizations like the corps of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York

February 28, 2021 at 1:08 am 1 comment

SHAKO: Black History Month – African Americans in War Movies Part I

Eight War Movies Worth Seeing

As Black History month draws to a close, at 4GWAR we thought we’d leave you with some films to explore how Hollywood treated black actors and black history in films about war and life in the military during wartime.

This is a far from an all encompassing list of films made during — and right after — World War II and the Korean War, when the Jim Crow era (at least in Hollywood) began to give way to the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, desegregation of the military and (slowly) growing media coverage of racial issues from the non-white point of view.

Black U.S. Army Force pilots of the 15th Air Force confer by one of their P-51 Mustangs in Italy. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

Because the military was segregated until 1948, and little attention was paid to the contributions of all-black units, even less attention was paid to people of color — except as servants, savages, token players in crowd scenes or comic relief — in the movies.

There were few or no black actors in “The Longest Day,” “Sands of Iwo Jima,” or “Twelve O’Clock High,” because there were few or no black Sailors, Solders, Airmen and Marines in World War II — or so we thought.

The movies on this list started to change that, not always sensitively, but changes were beginning.


With a timeworn plot — a small, rag-tag band of soldiers thrown together against overwhelming odds — (at least two other films on this list have similar story lines),  “Bataan” might seem like nothing special. However, Bataan was one of the first war movies to cast an African-American actor, Kenneth Spencer (bare-chested in the photo above), as “a soldier of equal standing with the rest of his multi-cultural unit,” according Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz.

The Story: During the retreat to the Bataan peninsula of the Philippines in early 1942, 12 soldiers from different units and one sailor are tasked with destroying a key bridge to slow the invading Japanese. They’re also told to stay at their posts as long as possible to keep the enemy from rebuilding the bridge.

Spencer, a trained opera singer as well as actor, portrayed Private Wesley Epps, 3rd Engineer Battalion, who was studying for the ministry before the Army and sings or hums hymns in a rich voice while he works. Except for some surprised or skeptical looks at the first roll call,  the men generally accept Epps as a soldier and demolition expert.  Producer Dore Schary deliberately did not tell his writers he was planning to cast an African-American as one of the soldiers, in order to avoid any racial speeches in the script. The NAACP gave MGM two awards for presenting an African-American in an intelligent and sympathetic manner, according to Internet Movie Data base (IMDb). However, some theater organizations in the Jim Crow South refused to show it.

By the way, it’s Spencer’s voice singing the title ballad of “A Walk in the Sun,” (1945) another acclaimed war movie, in which there are no actors of color.

CRASH DIVE (20th Century Fox, 1944)

While most World War II movies, particularly those made during the war, feature few, if any, African-American characters,  “Crash Dive” is another notable exception. It’s primarily a combination war and romance film with submarine commander Dana Andrews and his brash Exec, Tyrone Power, vying for the same girl when they’re not battling Nazi  U-boats and anti-submarine decoy ships  in the North Atlantic.

One significant role is played by veteran African-American actor Ben Carter (in photo above). As Oliver Cromwell Jones, a messman (kitchen steward) the only job open to blacks on Navy ships, While it’s a stereotypical role, Carter’s character is more developed than most available for black character actors in the 1940s. “Crash Dive” doesn’t forget about Jones for long periods of the story as so many other war movies did. A subplot is the camaraderie he develops with a crusty senior chief when he discovers the chief’s heart medicine, noting “A man don’t take nitroglycerine for dandruff.” Jones agrees not to tell anyone so the chief can go on one last mission. When the ship’s crew launches a commando raid late in the film, nobody stops Jones from gearing up and joining the raid. But remember, this film was made in a less racially sensitive time. As the white sailors blacken their faces in preparation for the nighttime raid, Jones bursts out laughing: “I’m the only born commando here!”

HOME OF THE BRAVE (United Artists, 1949)

Because all of the U.S. armed services were segregated in World War II and little was known about the heroics of black units like the Tuskegee airmen until years later, the previous two films were remarkable for simply including any black characters in the story. In “Home of the Brave,” the black soldier and his treatment by others  is the story.

Stage and film actor James Edwards plays the only black soldier, Private Moss, among a five-man reconnaissance team sent to map out a Japanese-held island before an amphibious landing. Racial tensions between Moss and the others, builds along with the overarching terror of  stealthily gathering topographic data in the steaming jungles of an island occupied by 15,000 Japanese troops.

The story unfolds largely in flashbacks as an Army psychiatrist tries to determine why a bedridden Moss can’t walk, even though he was not wounded when Japanese gunfire forced the team to run for their lives.

It’s a low budget film with a small cast, based on a stage play about racism — although in the play the outsider is Jewish, not black. The film’s producer and screenwriter decided to change the central character’s race because they believed antisemitism “had been done” already with 1947’s Oscar winning “Gentlemen’s Agreement.”

The film was well received by many black newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier, where columnist Billy Rowe called it “without a doubt one of the most important milestones of the generation. One that no good American , and surely no Negro, can afford to miss.”   The film “reveals intimately the reactions of one who feels himself universally defamed and unwanted,” said Bill Chase, writing in New York Age.  Al Andersen of the Baltimore Afro-American, while praising the film said it was “not without shortcomings, however. The most glaring fault was the fact that It shoved some of the blame for our country’s diseased race relations on colored people themselves.”

THE STEEL HELMET (Lippert Pictures, 1951)

Even if you’ve never heard of it, “The Steel Helmet” is famous for a lot of reasons. It was the first Korean War movie made during the Korean War.

It was a small, low budget film by iconic and iconoclastic director and screenwriter Samuel Fuller, who went on to make films like “Shock Corridor,” “Fixed Bayonets,”  “House of Bamboo,” “Hell and High Water,” “Underworld U.S.A” and “The Big Red One.”

Fuller, a World War II infantry combat veteran, shot the film in 10 days, and released it just six months after the war began, according to TCM host Dave Karger.

James Edwards is in the cast (as a medic) and like “Bataan,” the plot follows another thrown-together team of survivors with an impossible mission to carry out.  It’s also famous for tackling issues like the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the mistreatment of blacks in and out of the Army, when a captured North Korean major tries to radicalize the black medic and a Japanese-American sergeant guarding him.

Four More Films tomorrow in PART II.

February 26, 2021 at 11:57 pm 1 comment

FRIDAY FOTO (February 26, 2021)

Letting Off a Little Steam.

(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Austin Ingram)

Italy’s Mount Etna volcano releases some steam in the background of this February 16, 2021 photo of P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily. (Click on the photo to enlarge image).

The planes are assigned to the “Grey Knights” of Patrol Squadron (VP) 46. The squadron is forward-deployed to the U.S. Sixth Fleet area of operations and is assigned to Commander, Task Force 67, responsible for tactical control of deployed maritime patrol and reconnaissance squadrons throughout Europe and Africa.

Located on the island of Sicily, Mount Etna, Europe’s largest and most active volcano erupted the same day this photo was taken. The volcano is located about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the base.

According to the Associated Press, Etna’s latest eruption has caused neither injuries nor evacuation. Occasionally, the airport at Catania, eastern Sicily’s largest city, has to close down for hours or days, when ash in the air makes flying in the area dangerous.

For over a week, Etna has been belching lava, ash and volcanic rocks on a regular basis. The Catania Airport closed temporarily, and residents of the town of Pedara said it appeared one day last week as if it were raining rocks as a thick blanket of ash covered the town, according to the website, Phys.Org.

February 25, 2021 at 11:57 pm Leave a comment

FRIDAY FOTO (February 19, 2021)

The One and Only.

(U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Cynthia Oldham) CLICK ON PHOTO TO ENLARGE IMAGE.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star (WAGB 10) transits south in the Bering Strait early on January 19, 2021. The 45-year-old heavy icebreaker is underway to project power and support national security objectives throughout Alaskan waters and into the Arctic — including along the Maritime Boundary Line between the United States and Russia.

The Polar Star arrived in Juneau, Alaska on February 12, for a logistics stop near the end of their months-long Arctic deployment conducting scientific research and protecting the nation’s maritime sovereignty and security throughout the polar region, according to SEAPOWER magazine.

In addition to Polar Star’s strategic national security objectives, the nation’s sole heavy icebreaker sailed north with scientists and researchers aboard to work in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), University of Washington, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) to gather data and lessen the void of information from the region and better understand how to operate year-round in Arctic waters.

February 19, 2021 at 11:58 pm Leave a comment

SHAKO: Hearts and Heroes

Valentine Hearts and George Washington.

The Purple Heart medal.

Sunday (February 14) is Valentine’s Day. Monday (February 15) will be this year’s official commemoration of George Washington’s birthday.

And while these two special February days seem to have little in common, here at 4GWAR we see a link between the romantic holiday, with its ubiquitous traditional symbol of the human heart, with the Founding Father of the United States — who also created the first U.S. military award for bravery: The Purple Heart medal.

American Valentine card 1910 (Via Encyclopaedia Britannica website)


February 14th, in Western Christianity, is the feast of Saint Valentine, and since the late Middle Ages, that day has also been commonly associated with “courtly love.”  The story of Saint Valentine is complicated because there was more than one. Click here to read more.

Reportedly, the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer linked romance with Valentine’s Day — which was believed in some circles to be the first day of mating season for birds. No record exists of romantic celebrations on Valentine’s Day prior to a poem he wrote around 1375, according to the HISTORY website. In his work, “Parliament of Foules,” Chaucer linked a tradition of courtly love with the celebration of St. Valentine’s feast day – an association that didn’t exist until after his poem received widespread attention.

By the middle of the 18th Century, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes in Europe to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes, and by 1900 printed cards festooned with hearts and cherubs began to replace written letters. Ready-made cards were an easy way for people to express their emotions in a time when direct expression of one’s feelings was discouraged. Cheaper postage rates also contributed to an increase in the popularity of sending Valentine’s Day greetings.

Americans probably began exchanging hand-made valentines in the early 1700s. In the 1840s, Esther A. Howland began selling the first mass-produced valentines in America, according to HISTORY.

Where does George Washington fit into all of this? For starters, America’s first president was born on February 22, 1732. That day became one of the first widely celebrated U.S. holidays. Congress made it a federal holiday in 1879. However, in 1968 Congress passed the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act.”The law sought to create annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Mondays. The act was also created to provide federal employees with more three-day weekends. Under the new law, Washington’s birthday was celebrated on the third Monday of February. Over the years, that holiday came to be known as Presidents’ Day (since Lincoln’s birthday was February 12) but the U.S. government’s official name for the holiday is still Washington’s Birthday.

On August 7, 1782 — almost a year after the British defeat at Yorktown, but before the Treaty of Paris ended the war of Independence from Great Britain (1783) —  General George Washington, the commander in chief of the Continental Army, created  the “Badge for Military Merit,” a decoration consisting of a purple, heart-shaped piece of silk, edged with a narrow binding of silver, with the word “Merit” stitched across the face in silver.

“… The General ever desirous to cherish virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to foster and encourage every species of Military merit directs whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed, the author of it shall be permitted to wear on his facings, over his left breast, the figure of a heart in purple cloth or silk edged with narrow lace or binding.” — Washington’s General Orders for August 7, 1782

This award was open only to enlisted men (Privates, Corporals and Sergeants) and granted them the distinction of being permitted to pass all guards and sentinels as could commissioned-officers. The names of the recipients were to have been kept in a “Book of Merit,” which has since been lost.

Gen. George Washington awards the “Badge for Military Merit” to three soldier in 1782.  (U.S. Army Center for Military History)

There are three verified recipients of the Badge of Military Merit: Sergeant Elijah Churchill, 2nd Continental Dragoons; Sergeant William Brown, 5th Connecticut Continental Line Infantry and Sergeant Daniel Bissel, 2nd Connecticut Continental Line Infantry, according to the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor.

Washington stated that the award was to be a permanent one, but once the Revolution ended, the Badge of Military Merit was all but forgotten until the 20th century. In 1932, to mark the bicentennial of Washington’s birth, General Douglas MacArthur, then the Army’s chief of staff, spearheaded an effort to revive the medal. It was designed to commemorate bravery, but also recognized soldiers with wounds.

Later, during World War II, the medal was changed into a recognition of combat injuries and deaths. Over time, the military has further modified the award, adding different types of injuries and different types of combat. For instance, soldiers wounded in acts of terrorism now qualify for the Purple Heart, as do soldiers injured in friendly fire, according to NPR.

In addition to aspects of Washington’s original design, the modern day Purple Heart also displays a bust of Washington and his coat of arms. The Order of the Purple Heart is the oldest American military decoration for military merit, according to the History Channel website.

To date, the military has awarded an estimated 1.8 million Purple Hearts to soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen. Their ranks have included future President John F. Kennedy, senators like John Kerry and Tammy Duckworth, future movie and television stars, James Garner, James Arness and Lee Marvin, writers Rod Serling and James Jones, as well as Medal of Honor winners like Audie Murphy and Daniel Inouye.

In 1942, 1st Lieutenant Annie G. Fox, chief nurse in the Army Nurse Corps at Hickam Field, became the first woman to receive a Purple Heart for her heroic actions during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. At that time the awarding of the Purple Heart did not require the service member to be injured. The requirements were changed after the December 7 attack and Lt. Fox was awarded the Bronze Star medal because she was not wounded in the attack. Army 1st Lieutenant Cordelia “Betty” Cook was the first woman to receive both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. In 1943, Cook, who served as a combat nurse during World War II, sustained shrapnel wounds while working at a forward area field hospital on the Italian front.

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SHAKO is an occasional 4GWAR posting on military history, traditions and culture. For the uninitiated, a shako is the tall, billed headgear worn by many armies from the Napoleonic era to about the time of the American Civil War. It remains a part of the dress or parade uniform of several military organizations like the corps of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York

February 14, 2021 at 11:37 pm Leave a comment

FRIDAY FOTO (February 12, 2021)

Going to Extremes.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cprporal Andrew R. Bray) CLICK ON PHOTO TO ENLARGE THE IMAGE

U.S. Marines exit the water of a frozen pond at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center (click here to see a video) near Bridgeport, California on February 2, 2021. Marines and Sailors attending the Basic Cold Weather Leaders Course are required to undergo the hypothermia laboratory, a training event where troops experience hypothermia first hand and — more importantly — how to avoid it.

The center is situated at 6,762 feet, with elevations in the training areas ranging to just under 12,000 feet. During the winter season (October – April) snow accumulation can reach near 6 to 8 feet. And severe storms can deposit as much as four feet in a 12 hour period. Annual temperatures range from -20 degrees to +90 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the season.

On the other side of the country, at Fort Benning, Georgia on February 5 – it was Week 3 of U.S. Army Sniper School. (click here to see a short video) This soldier was one of 35 students participating in the ghillie suit wash, which is designed to test the strength and durability of the suits — as well as to weather them.

(U.S. Army photo by Patrick A. Albright, Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning Public Affairs) CLICK ON THE PHOTO TO ENLARGE IMAGE.

What’s a ghillie suit? Worn by civilian hunters and military snipers, the ghillie suit is designed to look like heavy foliage in a forest or field. It was originally developed by Scottish gamekeepers as a portable hunting blind and first adopted for war in 1916. The name derives from a Scottish word for “lad” or “servant.”

Sniper School students use sand, water and mud, all in an effort to perfect one of their most important tools: their camouflage.

February 12, 2021 at 7:49 pm Leave a comment

FRIDAY FOTO (February 5, 2021)

Sunny Snowy Italy.

(U.S. Army photo by Paolo Bovo)

U.S. Army Paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade exit a  C-130 Hercules aircraft over Frida Drop Zone near Aviano NATO base in northern Italy on February 1, 2021 The 173rd Airborne Brigade is the U.S. Army Contingency Response Force in Europe — capable of projecting ready forces anywhere in the U.S. European, Africa or Central Commands’ areas of responsibility. The C-130 is assigned to the U.S. Air Force 86th Air Wing.

February 4, 2021 at 11:28 pm Leave a comment


February 2021


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