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"No Germans ever treated me harshly. They didn't even treat me with disrespect." (1993 interview, Part 1, 1:30:08)

   Isham George Benton
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War: World War, 1939-1945
Branch: Army
Unit: Company B, 365th Infantry Division, 92nd Division
Service Location: Italy; Germany
Rank: Technician Five
POW: Yes
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Isham Benton had plans to be a doctor but his studies were interrupted when he was drafted in 1942. At Camp Wheeler, Georgia, he studied hard to be admitted to Officer Candidate School, but racial quotas blocked his way. Assigned to take courses at West Virginia State and Indiana University, he was again thwarted with a transfer to the infantry as a rifleman. He did enjoy the climate at Ft. Huachuca and the absence of the racial tension he felt in Georgia. When his unit shipped out to Italy, a racist officer would not let them disembark in Naples, announcing there were no black women ashore. A point man on patrol, Benton was captured by German troops in January 1945. He was treated more kindly by his captors than he had by many of his white officers, though he suspected at times the enemy was trying to win his affections.

Interview (Audio)
»Interview Highlights  (18 clips)
»Interiew conducted 8/10/2005 
Download: audio (95 min.)
»Additional Interview conducted 11/15/93  (155 min.)
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 Audio (Interview Excerpts) (18 items)
At Camp Wheeler, colonel calling out black troops out to tell the Northern soldiers that in Georgia they would be expected to conform to the social mores of the area; interested in OCS but the camp was run by Southerners, who discouraged Northerners from going there; his test scores were good and discipline record clean; was told in private by a sympathetic officer how to handle himself in the board of review for OCS candidates; passed it three times, but was told that quota for black officers in infantry had been filled. (10:08) Loved being in 92nd, an all black unit; liked the desert climate in Arizona at Ft. Huachuca. (01:19) In spite of the war, fell in love with Italy, the beauty of the countryside, its history. (01:16)
Was not mistreated after he was captured; people now want to know the worst, and as a soldier he expected it, but it never happened; thrown in with Italian partisans, who brought him straw to help keep him warm; they thought he was African. (04:13) While he was held prisoner in a castle, an Italian fascist drove him to his villa where he lived with his wife; claimed he had been in the US before the war as a part of the diplomatic corps; played "Stardust" on his guitar; photos were taken; took him back to the castle at the end of the day. (07:28) Unpleasant memories of food in Stalag 7A: tainted sauerkraut making everyone sick and sawdust in bread; did get parts of Red Cross parcels; British took their tea breaks every day. (04:38)
After liberation, flying to Rouen, France; driven in trucks to Le Havre by black members of the Red Ball Express; calling out a white soldier for using the "n" word in reference to a black soldier they saw walking down a street with a white woman. (02:40) [Secondary Interview conducted 11/15/93] One black officer at Camp Wheeler, Georgia, a chaplin with no formal authority; one or two white officers who did act humanely; using them to avoid condemning all white people and giving him hope that treatment he and his fellow black soldiers received was only temporary; father was light-skinned but that didn't cut him any breaks; he taught his son not to hate white people, since there were white people in his family. (05:14) [Secondary Interview conducted 11/15/93] Incidents of racial prejudice at Wheeler: white soldiers refusing to swim in the same lake as blacks (an electrical storm later that day killed several white soldiers in the lake), interracial couples (or those perceived to be) denied bus service, white MP assaulting a black soldier, who grabbed his pistol and killed him. (05:07)
[Secondary Interview conducted 11/15/93] Unwritten Jim Crow laws to obey while at Wheeler; some black soldiers having no idea what conditions were like in the South; white officers abusing black soldiers under those customs. (03:40) [Secondary Interview conducted 11/15/93] Up against a quota for black officers; scoring well enough to go to OCS but given training chores, then supply sergeant duties without the rank; going to board of review three times and never getting passed on to OCS; white officer coaching him on how to answer questions from the board; only one black candidate, a Southerner, passing on to OCS; Southerners ran the Army and kept down the blacks; that said, Army offering more opportunity for advancement than other branches. (08:05) [Secondary Interview conducted 11/15/93] Why he loved Fort Huachuca: all-black base with no discrimination; at first, only a few black officers, but gradually there were more. (01:41)
[Secondary Interview conducted 11/15/93] Attached to 365th; made a rifleman; got promised things that never materialized; came to realize these decisions were out of his hands; light-complexioned people got better treatment; when given his assignment, blowing his stack at his CO, who fortunately understood and let him vent. (05:35) [ Secondary Interview conducted 11/15/93] How he got captured; scouting with another soldier, startling a German outpost; buddy was badly wounded; the two left behind by their patrol; house he was hiding under bombed by American planes; surrendering to the Germans in the midst of a circle of men, so no one fired on him; captured and taken to a village jail. (09:00) [Secondary Interview conducted 11/15/93] While a prisoner, treated well by Germans, who were aware of racial prejudice he had encountered at home; for once, not being an officer helped, since he could plead ignorance of intelligence information; German asking him why he was fighting, and he answered that his country was at war and he wanted to serve. (02:54)
[Secondary Interview conducted 11/15/93] Germans not segregating prisoners; had two white bunkmates; first time he was treated with equality was by the Germans; back in the U.S., he hadn't grown up under integrated conditions; knowing of German cruelty to other prisoners; Germans didn't always mark the POW trains, which then got bombed by American planes, incidents the Germans would use for propaganda. (04:30) [Secondary Interview conducted 11/15/93] On his first day in combat, seeing a platoon leader killed; they had scrambled into foxholes after an artillery barrage; the lieutenant got up to use a phone hanging from a tree and was cut in half; shock of it upsetting Benton's belief that only bad guys die in war. (03:20) [Secondary Interview conducted 11/15/93] How the Army changed him; exposing him to wider variety of people and experiences; being a POW showed him what the enemy really was; meeting black African soldiers who were deeply affected by the way they were treated; Zulu soldier serving with Allies denied permission to marry his Italian sweetheart. (04:54)
  
 

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  October 26, 2011
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