Saturday, July 26, 2008

Meet Fred Reid, Radioman stationed in Naples ...

...and one of our guests at this year's Day of Remembrance at Port Chicago. And herein lies one of the untold and unheralded heroic stories of WWII:

Sitting comfortably in his magnificently-restored Victorian near the Panhandle entrance to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, one would hardly guess that the still-handsome 84 year-old former Buffalo Soldier was also the victim in one of the many shameful chapters in the history of our armed forces and our nation.

I'd arrived by pre-arrangement at ten o'clock to spend some time trying to capture this story. I had no hint of what might follow though I'd known Fred Reid casually for almost a lifetime. Stories such as his have been too humiliating to share but in this year 2008 -- the community and the nation appear to be finally ready to have these long-silenced conversations. I'm so privileged to be able to be one of those with some limited power and resources to facilitate their exposure to light and subsequent reconciliation.

There's so much to tell -- where to start?

With the very young army radioman Fred? With the proud Buffalo Soldier -- member of the 10th Calvary stationed at Camp Lockett near the California/Mexican border? With the artist Fred Reid who -- along with other black artists -- traveled to Nigeria in 1977 to participate in the historic festival of arts and culture as guests of the State Department? I might describe for you the beautiful stained-glass piece that sits on a lovely antique mahogany table capturing the sunlight in his living-room window (it was his entry into the FESTAC exhibition). Perhaps I could tell you about Fred Reid, head of the Department of Parks and Recreation for the City and County of San Francisco for 16 years. Any or all of these would be fascinating aspects of this one African American man.

But the story that probably is the signature tale since it veers so far from the spirit -- the ideals -- of the nation at a time when we were far less enlightened -- would be this one:

Fred was at that time (1943-44?) serving in Naples in WWII and, as the war in Europe was winding down, Fred (with many others) was re-deployed to the South Pacific theater. He was among 5000 young black serviceman put aboard a ship to join the battles somewhere in the Phillipines.

It's important to remember that at that time black soldiers were largely assigned to the quartermaster corps; were collecting bodies from battlefields; were working as cooks and waiters in the mess halls, serving as valets to white officers, driving supply trucks, and loading ammunition. They were assigned to all-black companies headed by white officers. Such was life in the armed forces at that time. It was several years after the war's end before President Harry Truman -- under strong pressure and threats of boycotts from black leader, A.Phillip Randolph -- would issue his order to end racial segregation in all branches of the armed forces. That was enacted in July of 1948. Though we tend to forget that it would be another six years before the last units were desegregated -- not until 1954.

Fred spoke unemotionally about how those men were aboard the ship and held at sea for 3 months. They'd been sequentially assigned to Manila, Guam, Hawaii, and other ports -- none of which would allow them to leave the ship. No port or company would accept 5000 black servicemen! They sailed endlessly -- reduced to two meals a day to conserve food supplies -- for 90 days in limbo with no sense of how it would eventually end. Idling at sea while the brutal "War to save Democracy and the world" raged on and the white American military power structure tried to figure out what to do with Americans whose skin color was seen as even more onerous than the threat presented by world domination by Facism.
Mel standing top row center

Looking across at Fred last week, I was reminded of my young husband, Mel (also a Reid but unrelated), who never made it into the Navy because his entry point (after volunteering to serve in his senior year at USF) was limited to being a messman. Mel died in 1988 never having told anyone but me of his 3-day service record at Great Lakes, Illinois. After many hours of interrogation he was given an honorable discharge and sent home with mustering-out pay and a pat on the rear.
"By your record, Reid, you're a natural leader of men.  Why didn't you come in as a white man (he was fair-skinned) You could have avoided all this." And, "We can't afford to place you on board a ship with men who might be easily led. It might spell mutiny on the high seas."  How's that for blaming the victim?

Mel died in 1988 never having told anyone but me of his 3-day service record at Great Lakes, Illinois. After many hours of interrogation he was given an honorable discharge and sent home with mustering-out pay and a pat on the rear.

The nation failed both these young Americans and countless others.

The interview with Fred ended with his promise to attend last Saturday's commemoration of the tragic explosion at Port Chicago. He came. Maybe at some level some of that bitterness was -- if only slightly -- lifted. On Saturday, those 320 young men (202 of whom were black) who were lost in that home front tragedy were acknowledged and honored in another of the somber annual ceremonies hosted by the National Park Service. Perhaps, Fred and Mel (had he lived to see it) can find some peace and reconciliation in having the Department of Interior honor their sacrifices; sacrifices of a kind rarely publicly acknowledged until recent years.

In a few weeks I plan to bring the Richmond high school students who make up the television production crew in their media department to Fred's beautiful home to see his art collection; to hear his stories; and to televise proceedings for their peers.

I'm not sure where all this fits in my job description, but since my position allows me to explore the outer edges of community outreach, then perhaps I'm involved in the redefinition of what it means to do this work. Maybe the important thing is to use my long and sometimes painful life experience to open doors for others to walk through ... toward the healing that has no known path. Maybe I'm in the process (with others) of drawing the new map toward reconciliation ...


It's time to bring new minds together -- the young and the tried and true who have survived to face the new frontier -- climate change. In an evolving world, there's little time for reflection. Occasions like the memorial service on Saturday allowed time for that. It also allowed me to renew a sense of obligation to the telling of the stories that are still disturbing to so many -- and with the full support of the National Park Service.

Photo: Fred Reid, his wife Careth Bomar Reid, and Electra Kimble-Price pictured at the Port Chicago Memorial anniversary event on Saturday, July 19, 2008.

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