“They Fought as They were Taught”

On Thursday, Aug. 20, Darius Gray, his sister Sandra, his ninety-year-old cousin Russell, and I gathered with some filmmakers to record Russell’s memories of World War II.

Russell was in the segregated army, on the black side. On his ship, which headed to Guadalcanal and then to Iwo Jima on December 8th, 1941, Black soldiers occupied the under deck, which was perpetually flooded with vomit- and excrement-tainted water–up to six inches of it. The white soldiers occupied the upper decks; black soldiers were not allowed in that more privileged area. Once, the black troops were told that the ship carrying their food had been sunk, and so they went without for two weeks. The white soldiers, meanwhile, ate well. The officers, according to Russell, were all white Southerners. Why Southerners? Because, he said, somebody thought Southerners knew how to handle the “colored soldiers.”

Upon hitting the shore, the black soldiers were stripped of their ammunition–all but one clip. The bulk of amo was then given to the white soldiers.

“Why was that?” asked Darius.

“I think we were expendable,” said Russell.

One black soldier was trapped under a tank after a battle. “We could’ve got him out,” said Russell. “He was begging us to help him.” A white officer calmly shot the injured soldier in the head and pronounced: “He died in battle.”

Russell was on burial duty at Iwo Jima, and after a battle would dig trenches into which both Japanese and American bodies were thrown and then buried. At one point, he was allowed to come home for R&R. When he returned to the battlefield, he was told that his unit (all black) did not exist any longer. Every soldier in that “Colored” unit had been killed.

Russell has not wanted to talk about his war experiences since 1945. But over the past several years, he has insisted that it’s time. He needs to tell his story. As it happened, our cameraman was Japanese. “I don’t blame the Japanese,” said Russell. “I blame their ancestors. Folks today, they don’t know about any of what happened back then. And I don’t blame white people. It’s a new day. I blame their ancestors.”

I wondered how far back that blame would go. Surely it would extend even beyond the founders of the nation, who accommodated slavery and then accepted the common manipulations of scripture to to justify it. But blame is useful only insofar as it instructs us and leads us to become better.

As Darius and I prepare for _Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons_ to air on Utah’s KUED (Wed. Oct. 7th at 9:00 p.m. and Sunday Oct. 11 at 4:00 p.m.), we are aware of how various audiences might react. We suspect the response will be largely positive, but we realize that a few will object to our exhuming the racialist Mormon past at all. We are certainly not the only ones so engaged, however. As recently as last week, I heard from a missionary in the Congo that Elder Holland (who dedicated Cameroon on Aug. 20) had emphatically rebuked the idea that Blacks were fence-sitters in the pre-existence.

We know that the various justifications for the priesthood restriction (curses, lack of pre-mortal valiancy, etc.) still insinuate themselves into the study of true gospel doctrine. We know who said what in the past. And we know that we must forgive them and move on. Part of moving on, however, is bringing the untruths and hard stories into full view. But that’s only part. The rest involves healing–and asks all of us to apply a balm of good will, to mourn with those who still mourn, to listen to the stories of wounded warriors, to acknowledge that they suffered in the tainted water of inequality.

The glorious message of the gospel was given to the woman of Samaria, who met the Lord at a well. Jesus, already aware of her sin-spotted past, said to her, “Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” All are invited to drink at that fountain. This includes former slaves and former slave owners; generals and common soldiers; male and female. And it includes any who have spoken ill of others–whether because of race, politics, or situation. All are invited to partake, and no one is expendable.

I am fully confident that we as a Church will go where we need to go, that past discriminatory statements will be vanquished by the light of Christ, and we will understand the full implications of President Hinckley’s rhetorical question in April 2006: “How can any man holding the Melchizedek priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for that priesthood, but that another, who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color, is ineligible?”

I am impressed by words of Civil War General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of Maine, speaking of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox:

Regiments and brigades–or what is left of them–have scarce a score of arms to surrender; having thrown them away by road and riverside in weariness of flight or hopelessness of heart, disdaining to carry them longer but to disaster. And many a bare staff was there laid down, from which the ensign had been torn in the passion and struggle of emotions…to be treasured for precious keepsakes of manhood’s test and heirlooms for their children. Nor blame them too much for this; nor us for not blaming them more. Although, as we believed, fatally wrong in striking at the old flag, misreading its deeper meaning and the innermost law of the people’s life, blind to the signs of the times in the march of man, they fought as they were taught, true to such ideals as they saw, and put into their cause their best. For us they were fellow-soldiers as well, suffering the fate of arms. We could not look into those brave, bronzed faces and those battered flags we had met on so many fields where glorious manhood lent a glory to the earth that bore it, and think of personal hate and mean revenge. Whoever had misled these men, we had not. We had led them back home. Whoever had made that quarrel, we had not. It was a remnant of the inherited curse for sin. We had purged it away, with blood offerings. We were all of us together factors of that high will which, working often through illusions of the human, and following ideals that lead through storms, evolves the enfranchisement of man. Forgive us, therefore, if from stern, steadfast faces eyes dimmed with tears gazed at each other across that pile of storied relics so dearly there laid down, and brothers’ hands were fain to reach across that rushing tide of memories which divided us yet made us forever one.

(Chamberlain, Bayonet! Forward!, p. 158-9).


  1. Great post.

    I am a doctor. We look at some surgeries that were done several decades ago and think to ourselves, “What were they thinking?”. I am sure that several decades from now, others will look at what I’m doing and ask the same question.

    I wonder the same way about the church. I am sure that there are things that we are so emphatic about now that not supporting them is akin to apostasy. I am also sure that people will look back on us and wonder what we were thinking.

  2. I was just reading last night a passage where Kierkegaard argues that in order to choose ourselves absolutely we must bear the guilt of our ancestors. At first this seemed wrong or unintelligible to me but as I read your post I think I got a glimpse of what he meant. When I speak with a member of the LDS church that denies or covers history there’s something artificial about the conversation. I’m interacting as much with an agenda as I am with a person. When I speak with you, Margaret, because you have the courage to openly face your history, I have to respect you and also respect your faith. Of course, let me be quick to add that we Presbyterians have much guilt in our own history to bear.

  3. Margaret Young says:

    Your words always have a little extra weight with me, Craig, because of the person you are.
    In LDS theology, we talk about “redeeming the dead.” I think at least a portion of this means that we undo their errors and create a better world on the foundation–but also the ruins–of what they’ve left to us. Sometimes, we simply rearrange the ruins like a puzzle which makes a different kind of sense in a different kind of world. They bequeath both a legacy and a burden–and we are called to responsibility.

  4. Methinks the software here could use some auto-tag termination. Methinks…

  5. On his ship, which headed to Guadalcanal and then to Iwo Jima on December 8th, 1941,

    Although not at all central to the point you’re making, Margaret, this sentence doesn’t seem consistent with what was happening in the Pacific in 1941. The only ship movement westward of Hawaii that I’m aware of immediately after Pearl Harbor was a relief mission to Wake Island that turned back before reaching the island, the mission abandoned as too risky–leaving the men on Wake to fend for themselves, and ultimately to be captured by the Japanese. And no ship, then or now, could travel to Guadalcanal and then to Iwo Jima in one day (which seems to be the implication of the quoted language).

    American forces landed on Guadalcanal in August 1942, and eventually succeeded in defeating the Japanese, marking the limit of Japanese expansion in the south Pacific. Iwo Jima was Japanese territory, and had a small civilian population and a small naval base when the war began. In 1944, as the Americans advanced, units of the Japanese army were sent there and they prepared for the defense of the island. The American invasion came in 1945, and was nasty, brutish and short–if six weeks of close combat can be considered short.

    The experiences that Russell recounts are consistent with the accounts in histories of the war–black soldiers in segregated units, often “led” by white Southern officers, often assigned to non-combat roles such as supply and construction and graves registration and burial details (which sounds a lot more genteel than it was–high explosives and shrapnel made a mess of the human body). The account of below-decks conditions on troop ships could apply equally to the conditions that white soldiers endured–with the exception that they might have been permitted to climb up out of the mess and get some fresh air topside.

    Russell and other black soldiers and sailors weren’t the only ones to feel expendable. The “Europe first” strategy of the U.S. in World War II led many in the Pacific, particularly in those six terrible months at the beginning of the war, to feel that they too were expendable, abandoned by their country to fight and die without support from home. Not for nothing did the soldiers on Bataan coin the rhyme:

    “We’re the battlin’ bastards of Bataan.
    No Mama, no Papa, no Uncle Sam.”

    And the book (and the 1945 John Ford movie) They Were Expendable carried that same message.

    None of this is meant to excuse the treatment by the U.S. military of the black soldiers and sailors who served during that period. It was shameful that our country treated so badly men who, whether volunteers or draftees, were risking their lives to defend it.

  6. Thanks, Margaret, for another thought provoking and hopeful post. I’m not too familiar with the literature on blacks in WW II, but my guess is that this story is representative. Thank goodness Truman took the step to desegregate the armed forces, which I think was the first step in improving the experience of those who fought valiantly yet were treated poorly by their own.

  7. #5: Good write up. In 1985, I replaced a retiring man who had been in the Bataan Death March and in a prison camp until freed. They call him in in 1947 and told him he “nuts” (his words) due to his service. He calmed down when they told him he would get $47a month for life because of this condition.

  8. Margaret, this is heartbreaking, but a story that needs to be remembered and retold. Thank you for bringing it out of obscurity.

  9. Thanks Margaret. I especially appreciate your comments about redeeming our dead. I think it is our religious obligation to redeem them in ourselves.

  10. Mark B–I haven’t yet transcribed the tape. It will need to be ‘captured” before I can do that. I may well have gotten somethig wrong as I remembered it. He said he left to fight on Dec. 8, 1941–the day after Pearl Harbor. My memory has him in Guadalcanal and then Iwo Jima after a very long and uncomfortable ship ride, but I am working off my memory of what he said, not yet off the actual transcript.

  11. Antonio Parr says:

    “How can any man holding the Melchizedek priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for that priesthood, but that another, who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color, is ineligible?”

    I remember well this General Conference quote by President Hinckley. Its power was both (i) in its inherent wisdom; and (ii) in the fact that it was being addressed to a people who, for decades, believed precisely what President Hinckley was denouncing, i.e., the notion that race could disqualify one from the Priesthood.

    This was no casual moment in Church history . . .

  12. Margaret, thank you. This is both heartbreaking and inspiring.

  13. Mark B–though it’s a rather inconsequential point, Russell didn’t leave for his battle posts from Hawaii, but from a military camp in the mainland U.S.–and I can’t remember which it was. He had wanted to join the army from the time he saw a relative in a uniform, and was already enlisted on Pearl Harbor Day.

  14. The armed forces are indeed an equal-opportunity employer these days. Since the army was de-segregated, both black and white soldiers have been used as cannon fodder and pawns to die for a lie several times over. To add insult to injury, they aren’t even properly equipped.

  15. Thank you for this post. It is so important and so healing to admit the wrongs of the past openly. I don’t think you can really move past problems that you’re trying to pretend didn’t exist, or weren’t really problems. You have to “see things as they really are” in order to be healed.

  16. Beautiful post about ugly history. Thank you.

  17. All are invited to partake, and no one is expendable.

    I really liked that.

  18. Margaret, I also am touched by the idea of redeeming our dead by building what they were unable to build and letting go of what they could not. I hope my own descendants will redeem me in exactly that manner.

  19. Margaret, I have followed your “professional life” for the last few years. Reading your books, articles and seeing you on Meridian magazine. (Along with Brother Gray)
    I was/am fascinated by the history of blacks in the church and read the Standing on the Promises books.
    I think my favorite thing I have ever read was in the beginning of the first book where Darius Gray describes finding out that the priesthood was being extended to all worthy men. I wept.

    This post made my heart sad and happy at the same time. Sad for the people who lived it and happy that their stories are being told.
    I have a personal work to do in this regard and I am grateful for your example in opening uncomfortable doors.

  20. Thank you as always for your sensitive yet forward-looking insights. Your ability to take the stories of history away from the obvious dramas of injustice and my justified righteous indignation and turn them more towards a hopeful vision of redemption, healing, and progress gives me the words to answer these older prejudices that continue to pop up. Instead of condemning them in the past because I’m smarter, more progressive, or more right-thinking you consistently refocus the cause to include what the real crusade of the gospel should be–forgiveness, healing, love, inclusion–for all. And this idea of continuing to build what the past couldn’t attempt or finish and letting go of what the past couldn’t, echoes Malachi’s promise to turn the hearts of the children to their fathers (hearts to me implies caring, love, consideration) and the hearts of the fathers to the children. We are not just individuals floating through the universe looking our own personal salvation–we are saved as a family of GOD, together, both helping and saving as we are helped and saved. Otherwise, the whole thing wil be smited, or smote, or smitten with a curse, because maybe the whole thing would be for nothing.

  21. Margaret,

    I enjoyed the KUED Interview tonight. Audio file here:



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