Local World War II Vet Remembers Being Called Home
Not many World War II veterans are still able to share their wartime stories, but Vivian Taylor, former Jamestown city councilman, recalls Aug. 18, 1945 well, as it was the date when his ship, the first to return to the United States, successfully brought him home alongside more than 3,000 other men.
The U.S.S. General Harry Taylor docked in New York City after having been enroute from Marseilles, France to the Pacific front, where it was expected the war would last for much more time to come. Instead, President Harry Truman announced on Aug. 14, 1945 the unconditional surrender of Japan. Taylor and the similarly named vessel he was riding had no war to travel to, so their final destination became home again.
Taylor had expected to battle in an amphibious landing in Japan, much like D-Day had been in Normandy, France. Instead, his boat ride became an emotional conclusion to his time spent in World War II.
As the southern United States was still segregated, Taylor said he began his World War II journey after being drafted into the U.S. Colored Army at Fisk University in Nashville.
The segregation permeated beyond just branding; treatment differed as Taylor and other African American soldiers were given smaller rations and separated living quarters and were assigned and trained to be land mine sweepers.
“So many good men would die by just making a single mistake,” Taylor said.
Taylor also remembers hearing white members of the army say, “The best way to clear a mine field is by a metal detector or a colored soldier blowing himself up.”
He hated this job, but he also recalls doing other crucial tasks white members of the army did not want to do. Because white British and American soldiers often did not want to deal with the German people, Colored Army soldiers were assigned to handle elderly, women and children German citizens who became refugees as the war was nearing its end.
The role of guarding these civilians fell to the Colored Army, but even so, Taylor said he remembered him and his companions being able to show sympathy to the German people they protected. Taylor and his fellow soldiers would give the refugees rations at night, despite being instructed not to do so. Taylor felt bad about the slim rations and dirty water given to the refugees.
“Hatred is hatred,” Taylor said.
Taylor said that, once their superiors found out, they were ordered to stop giving out rations to the civilians they protected. If they continued, they would be arrested or executed as traitors.
“I didn’t care,” Taylor said after he was threatened to be shot. “Who’s going to shoot me?”
The Colored Army’s response: breaking into a freight car and stealing food and medical supplies for the German people. Taylor’s sergeant, after he saw the gratitude on the children’s faces, decided not to report the incident.
“I got the food off of that train,” Taylor said. “I gave it to the Germans.”
Taylor’s career brought him through the Battle of the Bulge, in which a German counteroffensive was pushed back by Allied troops after many casualties. Taylor was also stationed in London, Belgium and Germany.
After basic training, Taylor had begun his army career at Camp Shank in New York state. He became one of 15,000 troops on the Queen Mary, which crossed the North Atlantic to England. Taylor recalled being stalked by German U-boats on his trip to England.
“It took two hours to get to the top deck,” said Taylor, who had to move his way to the upper decks to avoid an attack. The Queen Mary managed to move faster than the U-boats.
Taylor would later marry Lula Taylor, who became a Chautauqua County legislator and died earlier this year. Taylor met Robert Kennedy Jr., Mickey Mantle, Langston Hughes, Lucie Arnaz, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Sen. Charles Schumer among other celebrities in his life.
He also became the first licensed, African American pilot from Lincoln County in North Carolina. Taylor said he remembered speaking to a man named Johnny Jones who owned a plane, and despite not being allowed to teach a black man how to fly, the plane owner taught him how to operate the craft.