An Overdue Reckoning
In South Carolina, a family with multiple generations of service will celebrate this Veterans Day, even as injustice against Black veterans remains unaddressed.
Isaac Woodard Jr. expected an uneventful trip home to Winnsboro, South Carolina, as he boarded a Greyhound bus on the night of February 12, 1946. He wore a United States Army uniform with three chevrons sewn onto its sleeves, identifying him as a sergeant, a leader, and the rows of colorful awards decorating his chest punctuated his honorable service in the Pacific Theater of World War II.
Like Woodard, most other passengers on the bus were discharged service members traveling the last leg of a long and arduous journey home. These victorious young men celebrated with one another as the bus rolled through the night, hopping between the seats to mix and mingle and share a nip of whiskey—violating the codified absurdities of Jim Crow. But the bus driver, Alton Blackwell, and white civilian passengers grew restless and upset as some of the Black servicemen, including Woodard, fraternized with white people and sat where they pleased. At some point during the trip, Woodard asked Blackwell if he could make an unscheduled stop to use the privy. (Buses in this era were not equipped with bathrooms, and stations along the route may or may not have had clearly marked “colored” facilities.)
According to later testimony by Woodard and others, Blackwell replied, “Hell no. God damn it, go back and sit down. I ain't got time to wait.” Woodard reported his response as, “God damn it, talk to me like I am talking to you. I am a man just like you.” According to Woodard, Blackwell then said, “Go ahead then and hurry back,” after which Woodard exited the bus and returned without further conversation.
Blackwell offered a different accounting of the incident, saying Woodard was drunk, belligerent, and disruptive, prompting him to make a detour to Batesburg, South Carolina. Upon arrival, Blackwell searched for local law enforcement and found Chief Lynwood Shull and Officer Elliot Long. He told them two unruly soldiers on the bus, one white and one Black, were causing trouble and asked them to address the situation. Shull and Long obliged, asking both soldiers to exit the bus. Woodard complied, and while attempting to explain the situation, Shull brained him with a 1930s version of a police baton called a “blackjack”—a long, thick leather cudgel with a spring-loaded handle and a wad of steel pellets packed into its business end. The firm-yet-pliable structure of the blackjack generates a tremendous and traumatic amount of kinetic energy, and any strikes delivered to the head could be deadly. Fortunately, this initial blow failed to kill Woodard, but it ended the conversation.
Shull placed Woodard under arrest, and they proceeded together toward the town jail while Officer Long addressed the white soldier. Woodard recalled that as they were walking, Shull asked him if he had been discharged from the army, and when he replied, “Yes,” Shull hit him upside the head again with the blackjack saying, “The correct answer is, ‘Yes, sir.’” According to Woodard’s telling, he then disarmed Shull of the blackjack just as Officer Long was catching up with them. Long drew his service revolver, saying, “Drop it, or I’ll drop you,” and Shull retrieved the blackjack, striking Woodard with repeated blows to the head and face until he lost consciousness. As he came to, Shull ordered him to his feet. But Woodard—battered and bloodied and dazed—never found his footing before Shull delivered another series of blows targeting each of his eyes, so forceful the blackjack eventually broke.
They carried Woodard the remaining distance to the jail and locked him in a cell where he spent the night oscillating in and out of consciousness. When he woke the following morning, Woodard had no vision in either eye. He appeared in court that same day, where he was found guilty on a charge of drunk and disorderly conduct and ordered to pay a fine. Shull then drove him to the Veterans’ Administration Hospital in Columbia, South Carolina, where they examined his wounds and declared him permanently blind. Woodard received treatment there for two months, suffering through agonizing bouts of pain related to his injuries. After honorably serving his nation during a time of war, Woodard was robbed of his sight by a despicable man—who was himself blinded by bigotry.
A New War, a New Generation
Well-documented cases of Black veterans receiving similar homecomings happened across the Southeast after both world wars. Fortunately, Woodard’s heinous beating drew national attention and motivated President Harry S Truman to order the racial integration of all armed services on July 26, 1948; until this time, no U.S. president had ever taken a formal stance against Jim Crow.
Two decades later, with racial discrimination still rampant, another generation of Black Americans answered their nation’s call when summoned to Southeast Asia by the drums of war. And as they mustered for duty from all corners of the country, Milledge Morton from Greenwood, South Carolina, fell into formation.
Eva Morton brought her son Milledge into this world on February 17, 1945—one year and five days before the blinding of Sergeant Isaac Woodard. Milledge’s father, James Morton, volunteered to serve in the United States Navy during World War II, preferring the life of a sailor to that of a soldier after hearing the experiences recounted by Milledge’s grandfather about trench life during World War I. Milledge received his draft notice not long after his twentieth birthday and reported for Basic Combat Training and Advanced Infantry Training at Fort Eisenhower, Georgia (formerly Fort Gordon). He then volunteered to attend Army Ranger School to hone his physical abilities and combat skills beyond those of a regular recruit. Milledge joined his unit—2/14 “Golden Dragons,” 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division—at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, in January 1966 and trained with them there before deploying to Vietnam.
“Thirty-five miles outside of Saigon at our headquarters in Củ-Chi, our first day there, we took small arms fire out on the perimeter that night.... Things became real after that.”
Milledge and his unit arrived in-country during the late spring, when seasonal heat and humidity pressed the upper limits of human endurance, and though intermittent rains offered reprieve from the merciless climate, the Golden Dragons received no quarter from the enemy.
“Thirty-five miles outside of Saigon at our headquarters in Củ-Chi, our first day there, we took small arms fire out on the perimeter that night,” Milledge Morton recalls today. “Nobody was killed or wounded, but things became real after that.”
They marched deeper into their area of operations over the ensuing months, and during their campaign, humble villages and unremarkable terrain features became places of eternal significance, both for the young men who met their demise there and those who survived to grow old. And though Milledge lived through several firefights during his tour, a piece of himself died near the banks of the Tràng-Bàng River.
His company discovered an enemy cache of rice and munitions near a small hamlet during a patrol, and they destroyed it with explosives before continuing with their mission. They covered a few more klicks of ground before stopping to rest, giving Milledge and his best friend, Chuck Turner, a chance to catch up. Chuck and Milledge had forged a friendship over several months together, finding common ground in both the hardships of infantry life and their hopes for the future. Chuck wanted to marry and raise three daughters while Milledge hoped he would have three sons, and they planned to reunite after returning stateside. But on this occasion, the tone and topic of their conversation made Milledge uneasy.
“Chuck kept saying that he had this strange feeling that the enemy was nearby, like they were watching us, and that he wasn’t sure he was gonna make it home,” Milledge says.
As the company marched back to their base camp, they received small arms fire from a bend in the road, compelling their commander to investigate. He ordered Milledge’s platoon forward into the jungle foliage, where the density of its canopy eclipsed the sun and concealed the enemy beneath a shadowy veil. The platoon sergeant halted their advance and ordered the squads to reposition themselves and their heavy weapons crews. Milledge remembered taking only two forward steps before mines, mortar rounds, and a hail of bullets sliced through their lines. Several shards of hot shrapnel from the exploding munitions burned and burrowed into his flesh, and he was hurled through the air like a rag doll before slamming into the ground. Through a paralyzing sensory overload that looked like the gates of Hell…that sounded like ringing eardrums atop screams of agony and hissing, snapping bullets…that tasted like a mouthful of dirt…that smelled like pools of blood and burning cordite, Milledge remembered his training and the words of his drill sergeant.
“He would always tell us, ‘Two types of men never make it out of Vietnam—a scared man and a nervous man,’” Milledge says. “And I decided, if I’m going to die here, I’m going to die fighting.”
As enemy rifle rounds coated with green phosphorous streaked like laser bolts through the darkness above him, Milledge—despite the pain of his wounds—shouldered his rifle and aligned its sights toward their origin and returned fire. What remained of his platoon stayed alive long enough for support to arrive, but not before suffering severe casualties, including Chuck. Milledge saw the eviscerated body of his friend less than an hour after their final, foreboding conversation, compounding his physical wounds with psychological ones.
“From that day forward, I’ve always wondered if you can feel death before it happens?”
“From that day forward,” Milledge says, “I’ve always wondered if you can feel death before it happens?”
Unequal Treatment, Unequal Benefits
Four years before President Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces, Congress had passed legislation called the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944—known commonly as the “G.I. Bill,” which aimed to enhance the lives of every veteran who had honorably served during World War II. The G.I. Bill provided veterans with funding for higher education, unemployment insurance, and housing by having the Veterans’ Administration act as a mortgage guarantor.
Tens of millions of veterans used these benefits to become better educated, launch businesses, and build homes. Many economists credit this investment of government resources with dramatically expanding America’s middle class and creating the prosperity that marked the post-war era.
The original G.I. Bill looked like a victory for Black veterans since it contained no discriminatory language; the NAACP endorsed it at the time.
But Mississippi Congressman John E. Rankin—an ardent segregationist—succeeded in his efforts to vest local banks and state governments with responsibility for administering the benefits. In the South, that meant Black veterans applying for home loans were denied funding by the banks or given loans for homes of lesser value. Most public universities in the Southeast remained segregated during this era, and the region’s historically Black colleges and universities lacked enough resources at the time to handle such a massive influx of potential students. This left millions of Black veterans marooned to whatever level of education they had achieved before the war. This economically handicapped not just the Black veterans of World War II, but every successive generation of their families up to the present day, including Milledge Morton’s family, whose honorable service in Vietnam extended their family’s three-generation legacy of defending our nation.
Most Vietnam veterans, regardless of race, received shameful homecomings that ranged in spirit between unceremonious and hostile, and after having survived the hazards or war, many Black veterans placed themselves in harm’s way again as they fought for civil rights. And though their efforts yielded momentous progress, these gains could not right every past or present prejudicial wrong—made consciously or subconsciously—against Black people. Resolving these issues requires an empathetic reckoning with the sordid elements of our nation’s history.
In Congress, Another Attempt at Justice
To make amends for how our nation treated its Black veterans after World War II, Congress drafted H.R. 5905, the Sgt. Isaac Woodard and Sgt. Joseph Maddox G.I. Bill Restoration Act. This legislation seeks to retroactively extend G.I. Bill benefits to the direct descendants of Black World War II veterans who were denied access based on race.
While Milledge doesn’t dwell too much on the past, it seems fit to wonder how his life and the lives of his children—and perhaps even his grandchildren—might have been different had his father James received any of the G.I. Bill benefits of his white contemporaries. James Morton never applied, but we know he would likely have been denied. Having risked the same perils at sea during World War II as any other sailor aboard his ship, perhaps in some alternate reality James could’ve bought a nicer home once he returned, or become better educated, or built a business that generated enough wealth to send his son Milledge to a university. Had that been the case, as our nation burned through blood and treasure in the jungles of Vietnam, Milledge might have received a student deferment and been spared the hardships of war and the scars it left upon his mind and body.
“I have my problems, but there are lots of veterans out there my age and younger with pains and problems worse than mine. I just focus on the positive instead of focusing on the negative.”
When he returned from Vietnam, Milledge earned his living in auto repair. His friend Chuck never got to raise three daughters, but Milledge and his wife had three sons, who now have children of their own. He still lives with terrible back pain from his wounds but manages it as best he can, with an admirable level of mindfulness and grace.
“I have my problems, but there are lots of veterans out there my age and younger with pains and problems worse than mine,” Milledge says. “I just focus on the positive instead of focusing on the negative.”
We live in an age when extremist politicians leverage fear and anger to discredit or deny systemic racism’s existence. . But our culture and society must understand that acknowledging systemic racism neither discounts the struggle of the white working class, nor defames the history and achievements of our country and its founders. Rather, having discussions about systemic racism allows us to recognize our imperfections and work to improve upon our noble experiment in self-governance.
Today, H.R. 5905 still sits in committee as another generation of Black Americans descended from World War II veterans struggles to gain their economic footing. And though extending G.I. Bill benefits to them would not resolve all past and present wrongs, it would be another measurable victory against systemic racism. We already allow Post-9/11 veterans to bequeath their unused G.I. Bill benefits to their spouses and children. So given that most Black Americans of the Greatest Generation never gained access to their G.I. Bill benefits before their deaths, allowing their descendants to claim them would both continue our nation’s commitment to its veterans of all races, while rectifying an egregious wrong from our past.
And this weekend, as America celebrates another Veterans Day, Milledge plans to reflect on his own family’s generations of service with satisfaction despite any unresolved racial injustices.
“I could look at our situation and say, ‘We’re not treated fairly because we’re Black,’ and I could choose to focus my energy on that,” he says. “Or I can choose to focus on the positive and see the good of what we’ve got here and believe that for all its faults, we live in a great country. And I’d rather be here than anywhere else.”