Last week I revealed the cover of my new book!
Close Up on War: The Story of Pioneering Photojournalist Catherine Leroy in Vietnam is scheduled for release in early 2021. But it is available now for pre-order.
Catherine Leroy spent most of her time in Vietnam in the field with U.S. troops. She rarely saw American women, even female journalists who were there at the same time.
Plenty of military and civilian women went to Vietnam War during the war, but their service and sacrifice was not always appreciated.
More than 6,000 military nurses, most of them female, served during the war. Eight women died.
I first learned of former army nurse Diane Carlson Evans when she wrote the forward for my book Pure Grit: How US Military Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific. She was instrumental the fight to get a Vietnam Veteran's Memorial constructed in Washington DC.
Diane had been born and raised on a dairy farm in rural Minnesota and moved to the city to attend nursing school in Minneapolis, after which she joined the Army Nurse Corps. She arrived in Vietnam in 1968, when she was twenty-two. The blast of heat and the smell of jet fuel hit me first, then the sight of GIs with MI6s and bandoliers of ammunition slung across their strapping chests.
Diane knew that her parents would be watching the war unfold on the nightly news. The saw the body bags, helicopters crashing into the jungle, napalm burning villages and civilians running from the flames.
But what they did not see were the nurses in helmets and flak jackets running to the hospitals and treating the men whose torsos and limbs had been ripped open by high-velocity weapons.
They did not hear the sound of mortar thuds and rockets piercing our billets and hospital roofs and walls or see us throwing mattresses on top of the patients to protect them from shrapnel.
They did not see us hanging blood bags, suctioning tracheotomies, and frantically evacuating patients from the hospital to allow more room for mass casualties.
Diane, shown below at work at the 36th Evac Hospital, had seen trauma close up as a nurse in Minnesota. But farm mishaps, auto accidents, drownings, and homicides, she says, could be understood and accounted for.
In Vietnam, I was overwhelmed by the hundreds of our young soldiers, Vietnamese and Montagnard civilians who had been blown apart by heinous weapons of war.
I hadn’t realized how much loving the soldiers would make me hate the war. I wanted to know what they were dying for.
Two decades after her year-long tour, Diane founded the Vietnam Nurses Memorial Project, later expanded to include all American women of the Vietnam War. She had no idea it would take seven years of testimony before three federal commissions and two congressional bills to gain permission for a memorial to honor the women she had served with in Vietnam.
One man represents the kind of attitude Diane and her fellow veterans encountered. Carter Brown led the federal Commission on Fine Arts, which they hoped to get on their side. But when the group approached him for support, he demurred. Brown said if the committee considered installing a statue honoring women, "then they might find themselves having to consider doing one for the dogs who served."
After what these nurses accomplished in Vietnam, one misogynist bureaucrat and those of similar attitude would not stop them. After their steady efforts for nine years, this statue was dedicated, November 1993, on the Mall in Washington DC near the famous Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The 15-foot bronze, designed by sculptor Glenna Goodacre, helps serve the mission of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project Foundation, including to promote healing of the 11,000 women, including nurses, other military women and civilians who served.
The sculpture also helps educate the public about women's roles in the conflict and helps facilitate research into the after affects of their wartime experiences.
Vietnam Women's Memorial: History of the Vietnam Women's Memorial
Foreword, Diane Carlson Evans, Pure Grit: How American WWII Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific
This past week marked the anniversary of one of the most crucial moments in American civil rights history. February 7, 1942, African Americans launched the Double V Campaign.
It started with one man's question. "Should I sacrifice my life to live half American?"
And it burgeoned into a force for equal employment opportunity for blacks during World War II, and laid a foundation for the civil rights marches in the 1960s.
I wrote about the Double V Campaign in my book Standing up Against Hate. There's one passage that still chokes me up every time I read it.
The Enemy at Home was the working title for my book chronicling black women's service in the US army during WWII.
One of the things that struck me most profoundly when working on the story, was the women's willingness to join a segregated army and serve a country that did not recognize them as equal citizens. Some recruits from the north arrived at basic training to face the shock of segregation for the first time in their lives.
Not Dovey Johnson, who'd grown up in Charlotte, North Carolina. When she tried to apply for the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, nobody in Charlotte would give her an application.
She moved to Washington DC to get her hands on an application. After completed the segregated training, Dovey became one of the first black women commissioned an US Army Officer.
Was it coincidence Lieutenant Dovey Johnson was assigned to recruiting duties in Georgia, and North and South Carolina? Maybe, maybe not. But they sent one very determined woman south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Dovey feared the small gains black women had made in becoming officers in the army would be lost, unless more black women volunteered.
“That, I determined, would not happen—not on my watch, no matter how tough a sell I had on my hands in pitching a Jim Crow WAAC in the Deep South.”
“Was that opportunity precisely, mathematically, documentable equal to that of whites? probably not. But the WAAC offered a chance I believed would never come again in quite the same way: the chance to advance, to train for careers, to build the kind of future we women wanted for our children, to stand behind the men who were fighting in Europe and North Africa and the Pacific. That mattered most of all. Our boys were dying for freedom, I pointed out in every speech I made. What was segregation compared to that?”
Across the country, many blacks did not share Dovey's enthusiasm. Popular V for victory signs had popped up to cheer the fight against race prejudice, aggression and tyranny in Europe and Asia.
One black man, James G. Thompson, wrote a letter to a prominent black newspaper,
The Pittsburgh Courier.
Thompson wrote in part: Being an American of dark complexion and some 26 years, these questions flash through my mind: “Should I sacrifice my life to live half American?”
“Will things be better in the next generation for the peace to follow?”
“Will Colored Americans suffer still the indignities that have been so heaped upon them in the past?”
These and other questions need answering: I want to know and I believe every colored American who is thinking, wants to know.
Thompson went on to suggest doubling the V for Victory.
The first V for victory over our enemies from without, the second V for victory over our enemies from within. For surely those who perpetuate these ugly prejudices here are seeking to destroy our democratic form of government just as surely as the Axis forces.
The Pittsburgh Courier had swiftly drawn the connection in 1939, between treatment of blacks in the US and Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked the Courier to tone down its rhetoric about racial discrimination. And the paper did let up. Until the US joined the war, and huge numbers of blacks were drafted for service.
The newspaper asked readers what they thought about this Double V. Hundreds of telegrams and letters inundated the newspaper's office voicing agreement.
The Courier established the Double V Campaign as "the true battle cry of colored America....the Double "V" war cry–[signifies] victory over...our enslavers at home and those abroad who would enslave us. WE HAVE A STAKE IN THIS FIGHT....WE ARE AMERICANS TOO!"
By the summer 200-thousand black people had joined the Double V Campaign, each paying a nickel to the Courier, which continued to promote the slogan, dedicating close to 15% of its newspaper to the subject each week.
Newspaper Historian Patrick Washburn describes the fervor. "You had women walking around with Double V's on their dresses. You had a new hairstyle called the Doubler where black women would weave two—;two V's in their hair. You had Double V baseball games, Double V flag waving ceremonies, Double V gardens. I mean it's just Double V this, Double V [that]....There was even a Double V song."
But no amount of Double V's guaranteed progress against racism in America and skepticism ran deep. Civil Rights activists A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin knew that now, when the country was in crisis and needed them, it was time to demand equality.
They organized a massive March on Washington to pressure President Roosevelt. The president had promised the US would become the “arsenal of democracy." American industry and manufacturing would have to gear up as never before.
Randolph and Rustin organized tens of thousands of blacks to march on the capital demanding equal opportunity to the millions of high-paying jobs that would result.
Such a display of America's racial injustice would be embarrassing on the world stage.
President Roosevelt asked Randolph to call off the demonstration promising an executive order to increase job opportunity for blacks.
In June, 1941, Executive Order 8802 banned discrimination in defense industries and government and created the Fair Employment Practices Committee for enforcement.
Luedell Mitchell and Lavada Cherry helping build an airplane in the El Segundo Plant of the Douglas Aircraft Company (Library of Congress)
Executive Order 8802 was the first time since Reconstruction that the federal government explicitly protected equal rights for African Americans. Though enforcement was not ideal, civil rights activists now had a tool in their "arsenal for democracy."
Despite the Double V campaign, segregation and racial injustice continued after the war. But it helped lay the foundation for 1960's protest marches in the fight for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
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The Double V Campaign (1942-1945) (blackpast.org)
First Person Oral Histories - Ray Elliot (mass.edu)
Executive Order 8802 - Teaching American History
It's been a crazy month.
A divided nation, reeling from the pandemic, now hit with cruel storms from coast to coast.
I support our new president, but politics is not going to solve our problems. We the people...have to step up. All of us little people, doing little everyday things, but with intention and courage like never before.
Americans have done it before. Take, for example, Mary Richards Browser, an almost completely unknown black woman, who risked her life to become a spy in the Confederate White House, help free her people and preserve the union during the Civil War.
There are few records to help us reconstruct the life of Mary Richards Browser, but there is evidence she worked as a spy in the very seat of the Confederate government, reporting secrets to the Union Army until fleeing for her life.
No existing photos are known to picture Mary, though at least one floating around the internet is falsely reported to portray her.
So up stepped a girl, who imagined how Mary Richards Browser might have looked, and posed for a portrait.
She's not claiming this is an exact image of Mary. It's an effort to discover and connect with a significant women of history, one of many black women who've never been written about in our history books.
"Our goal is to highlight their contributions to this world," says her mother, "to make their stories accessible to all women and girls that are in the process of creating their own history."
We know something of Richards Browser from Church records of her baptism: “Mary Jane, a colored child belonging to Mrs. Van Lew” St. John’s Church in Richmond, May 17, 1846.
John Van Lew and his wife, originally northerners, became prosperous in Richmond and moved in elite social circles. But their daughter Elizabeth was educated in a Quaker school and believed slavery was wrong.
When her father died, she and her mother freed the family's slaves, and Elizabeth took Mary north to get an education. In 1855, at what appears to be Elizabeth's direction, Mary sailed to Liberia as a missionary. Five years later she returned to the Van Lew's mansion in Richmond.
According to Saint John's records, she married Wilson Browser another of the black servants of Mrs. Van Lew the following year, April 16, 1861. The next day, Virginia seceded from the United States. An in August Jefferson Davis moved to a mansion which would serve as the Executive offices of the Confederacy until the end of the war.
Only ninety miles ran between the White House in Washington D.C. and the White House in Richmond and soon Elizabeth Van Lew ran a sophisticated spy ring in on behalf of the Union Army.
"The chief source of information to the enemy," Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army, said in May 1863, "is through our negroes."
We don't know when Mary Richards Browsers took a domestic position for the president of the Confederacy, but President Davis complained of an intelligence leak throughout the war. His wife Varina Davis publicly denied that any black enslaved woman could have spied on them.
It's believed that Mary, an intelligent, educated free woman played the part of a simple-minded, though competent domestic slave.
She listened in on dinner conversation at the president's table and possibly even his meetings. Davis assumed she was illiterate, so when cleaning his office, she had free access to his papers.
Whatever intelligence Mary gathered, she passed to Elizabeth Van Lew, though other spies in the network.
Elizbeth was spurned by other Richmond families for being an abolitionist, but they never knew the extent of her work. She kept a hidden diary where she on May 14, 1864, she wrote, "When I open my eyes in the morning, I say to the servant, 'What news, Mary?' and my caterer never fails! Most generally our reliable news is gathered from negroes, and they certainly show wisdom, discretion and prudence which is wonderful."
Mary fled the Confederate White House, near the end of the war and all records of the Van Lew spy ring were destroyed to protect Mary and the others. Mary traveled in the north for a time speaking to gatherings of people about her work as a spy. But she did so under several different aliases, continuing to fear for her life.
Mary also worked tirelessly to educate blacks. In 1867, she started a freedmen's school in Saint Mary's, Georgia. Correspondence has been discovered and preserved between Mary and the Georgia Superintendent of Freedman Schools.
On April 7, 1867, she wrote: “I wish there was some law here, or some protection. I know these southerners pretty well and their present appearance is not at all favorable. I have been in the service so long as a detective that I still find myself scrutinizing them closely. There is little of the open braggadocio that generally characterizes them, but there is that sinister expression about the eye, and the quiet but bitterly expressed feeling that I know portends evil. With a little whiskey in them, they dare do anything. Their apparent good feelings and acquiescence are only a vail to hide their true feelings.”
Soon after, the trail goes cold when searching for details about Mary Richards Browser's life. However in 1995, she was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in Fort Huachuca, Arizona by the U.S. government.
The acknowledgement of her work reads in part: “Ms. Bowser certainly succeeded in a highly dangerous mission to the great benefit of the Union effort. She was one of the highest placed and most productive espionage agents of the Civil War.”
Most likely, Mary did not set out to have her name engraved on a plaque for others to see a century after her death, nor to be inducted in any hall of fame. What Mary did, was to fully engage in the circumstances in which she found herself and follow her inner compass for good.
In the place and time Mary happened to find herself, she made her small everyday interactions with intention and courage, adding them to a larger movement toward justice.
With thanks to these sources:
The U.S. Constitution has jumped into the limelight this election year, taking the stage in everyday conversation in a way I don't remember happening before.
That is not going to change now that Amy Comey Barrett has been confirmed to the Supreme Court cementing an "originalist" majority on the court for the first time in nearly a century. Originalists believe the court should decipher our Founding Father's precise meaning and intent and make sure it is carried out as the law of the land.
Others see the Constitution as a living document to be interpreted in light of changing thought and circumstance. This view has brought us labor rights and protections, equal rights for people of all colors, persuasions and genders. It's brought us social security, Medicare and, so far, allowed the Affordable Care Act to stand.
To shed more light on the Constitutional debate, I've invited author and friend Cynthia Levinson to tell you about her new kids' book and graphic novel Fault Lines in the Constitution.
A graphic look at the
I'm fascinated to discover little-known stories from history. Stories of people and events that provide a new perspective on why and how things happened, new voices that haven't been heard, insight into how the past brought us here today, and how it might guide us to a better future.
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