The Vets that gave a thumbs up on honesty to Clint Eastwood's sprawling battlefield epic, Flags of Our Fathers at a private screening weren't being totally honest themselves. They almost certainly know that white Marines and GI's weren't the only ones that fought, died, supplied ammo, and provisions, and carried the dead and wounded from the Iwo Jima killing fields.
Nearly a thousand African-Americans took part in the battle and hundreds more played vital support roles. Yet in the sprawling two-hour plus film, no black combatant is seen. This continues the insulting and infuriating pattern in books, films, and TV movies in which the monumental contributions that black men and women made to the fighting in the Pacific and Europe have downplayed, ignored, or deliberately whitewashed.
The invisibility of black soldiers in Flags of Our Fathers, and indeed, the legions of other bio-pic movies on World War II is no surprise to the many black vets that know the true story of the war. They have taken every opportunity they've gotten to protest the sanitizing.
The protest over their exclusion from the war effort began the instant the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. The black press, black leaders, and black servicemen fought a bitter, and prolonged war, largely hidden from public view, for the right to fight the war on equal terms with whites. That war started before the first bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. The first racial battle was with the selective service system. Though three million blacks registered the first year of selective service operation in 1940, only 2000 were deemed eligible for service. They were rejected in droves by mostly white local draft boards. After the loud protests from the black press, and black leaders, more blacks were added to the boards. By 1942 nearly a half million blacks were in uniform, and by war's end nearly one million blacks would serve.
The fighting presence of black troops at Iwo Jima has been amply and meticulously documented in several books. The most recent being Christopher Moore's, Fighting for America: Black Soldiers--The Unsung Heroes of World War II, and Yvonne Latty's We Were There: Voices of African-American Veterans.
The galling thing is that Warner Bros knew about the substantial role that black troops played in the Iwo Jima campaign. A slew of writers and black veteran groups contacted the studio and implored them to accurately portray all those that took part in the supply of the soldiers as well as combat. In response to the criticism, the studio gave the cop out answer that the film was based solely on James Bradley's book. Is that to say that all bio-pics and historical fact based docudramas do or even should follow the book or story that it is based on to a fault? That's absurd and filmmakers know that.
16 million Americans served in World War II and more than 400,000 died in what many still proudly call the world's last great war for freedom and democracy. The record shows that
twenty-two black tank, antiaircraft, engineer, tank destroyer and field artillery battalions fought in the Battle of the Bulge and in six European countries, and black combat, engineer and ordinance units participated in the island hopping campaigns in the Pacific. More than 80 black pilots won the Distinguished Flying Cross for aerial combat. But their gallantry and heroism meant little when it came to handing out the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation's top military award.
Though twenty-three black soldiers and sailors won the award during the Civil War, eleven during the Indian Wars, and seven in the Spanish-American War, not one black serviceman received the award for valor during World War II. It would take a half-century, and the relentless demands of black leaders, before President Clinton in 1997 presented the award to 7 (6 posthumously) black World II servicemen for their heroism.
The fight for equal rights and fair treatment in the military during World War II was the opening gun in the modern-day civil rights struggle. The war waged for freedom on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific as well as the battlefield in America must never be forgotten. Sadly, Eastwood and Warner Bros like so many others forgot that with Flags of Our Fathers.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006), a hard-hitting look at Bush and The GOP's court of black voters.