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A black soldier’s story of service as Black History Month begins

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Jennifer Richard
  • Nellis AFB Public Affairs
Today's history books include lessons on the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Battle of the Bulge, the racial integration of the military, and more.

You won't need a history book though when you talk with Army veteran Frank Barbee, 87. He'll tell you all about these events from first-hand experience.

As the U.S. recognizes Black History Month this February, stories like Barbee's help paint the picture of what Black History Month is all about.

Barbee's service in the Army spanned four decades, two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart.

On December 8, 1941, a day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Barbee volunteered for military service but was turned down, possibly because of his race, Barbee guessed.

It was only later, in 1943, that Barbee was drafted into the Army as a supply sergeant.

It was different in those days, Barbee said. Most of the units were segregated; the Army never put black soldiers in charge of white troops.

Barbee worked as a supply sergeant until his career took a turn after the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, when the Army called for volunteers into the infantry.

"I volunteered because I was told we were going to be integrated," Barbee said.

"Integrated" back then did not mean what it means today. In Barbee's new infantry platoon, there were only two white men--one lieutenant and one master sergeant.

"The Army has four platoons in a company--we became the fifth platoon, the 'black guys,'" Barbee said. "The whole rest of the company except for our one platoon was white."

By the time Barbee retired as a master sergeant in 1973, he'd seen his share of racial tensions. Through it all, he maintained his belief in equality between people of all races, in and out of military service.

Barbee was raised primarily by his mother who taught him to respect other people's differences. Even though other people were racially prejudiced, Barbee's mother never allowed that in his family, he said.

You can't just make judgments on a whole race, Barbee said. There are good people and bad people in every race, so you can only judge people as individuals, he said.

Barbee has been the victim of racial prejudice but has also seen progress toward racial equality in America.

Barbee moved to California with his family while he took classes at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, Calif. At first, they had trouble finding a place to live.

Barbee finally found a vacancy in an apartment in Pacific Grove, Calif. He went to the apartment complex, and the landlady expressed concern over Barbee's race.

The landlady told Barbee she didn't know he was "colored." She was worried about putting Barbee's family in a unit in the front of the building while a white family lived in the back, Barbee said.

"You have to understand--in her mind, she didn't want to put blacks in front of whites," said Barbee.

Barbee and his family did move in to the apartment, and they eventually won over the once-prejudiced landlady. By the time Barbee finished his classes, his landlady was ready to kick other people out of the apartment building so Barbee's family would stay, he said.

Even today, Barbee continues to challenge the norms of society. Not content to fully retire at age 87, this World War II veteran works part-time bagging groceries at the commissary.

He sees bagging groceries as an opportunity to stay connected to the military and its servicemembers, past and present.

"We have a common relationship [at the commissary]--we're all military," Barbee said. "I'm military inside, even today."

Looking back on his 87 years and the great strides blacks have made during that time, Barbee said that he is proud to call himself an American.

"This is my country," Barbee said. "Even now, things still aren't perfect, but they've come a lot further...This is the greatest country in the world."