History Wars World War II

World War II: A Black American soldier’s journal

black veterans

World War II soldiers of the 377th Engineer General Service Regiment shortly before their deployment to the European Theater in support of the war effort in the late spring of 1943. T/4 Theodore Wilson is circled in the center of the group. Photo courtesy of the Wilson family.

The information on the Death Notice was spare and emotionless. “Theodore Roosevelt ‘Wheeler’ Wilson, age 81 of Mount Vernon, Indiana. Carpenter, World War II veteran. Death by drowning Dec. 3, 1986.”

There was no real hint of the crusade this American patriot had taken part in many years before.

Like most American men after the Declaration of War in December of 1941, Wilson was expecting a call from his Uncle Sam. He was a fit, athletic man who enjoyed hunting, baseball, football, boxing and swimming. He worked at Gronemeier’s Hardware store in Mount Vernon, constructing and installing cabinets. Many friends and relatives had already received their calls to service.

Theodore Roosevelt Wilson
Theodore Roosevelt Wilson after graduating from Army boot camp at Fort Benjamin Harrison in the fall of 1942. Photo courtesy of the Wilson family.

On a June day in 1942, Wilson received his.

“The President of the United States, to Theodore Roosevelt Wilson. Greeting: Having submitted yourself to a Local Board composed of your neighbors… you are hereby notified that you have now been selected for training and service in the Army. You will report to Fort Benjamin Harrison at 7:15 a.m. on the 17th day of July 1942.”

Wilson said goodbye to his family, friends and old Mr. Gronemeier, and headed off to war.

He made it through the 14 weeks of boot camp and initial training, and then served in various positions, first as a motor pool supply sergeant, then on to work in a carpenter shop, as a truck driver and finally as a warehouse foreman. Probably due to his age (36) and skill set, he was promoted rapidly from buck private up the ranks to Technician Fourth Grade (T/4) just before deploying to Europe in November of 1943.

He corresponded frequently with his mother, Rose Wilson, remarking in one V-Mail home, “Here’s hoping you had a Happy Mother’s Day and many more. I hope you received your flowers I sent you, one dozen roses, hope you like them,” and in another “I mentioned in one letter that it would be fine if Uncle Joe would take my tools if any thing happens. Give all the War Mothers my regards and hope they see their sons soon. Your Son, Wheeler.”

world war ii black soldier journal
Photo of the actual journal of Theodore Roosevelt ‘Wheeler’ Wilson, and a package of actual V-Mails he sent to his mother Rose Wilson over the course of the war. Items courtesy of the Wilson family.

His unit, part of the 377th Engineer General Service Regiment, traveled to Glasgow, Scotland aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth, were moved by train to Newton Abbot, England, and finally to their Port of Embarkation on the coast opposite Normandy, France. They landed on Omaha Beachhead on July 26, 1944, following Patton’s 3rd Army.

Like most segregated units in World War II, his unit served in a support capacity, repairing railroads, building camps and hospitals, repairing bridges and moving supplies to the front.

His service was not without danger.

“Somewhere in France, August 1944. Caught in a crossfire between D Company and F Company of our own 377th Regiment. Men under the influence of liquor or schnapps,” he said in his journal.

As he and his fellow soldiers worked across Europe, by their mettle, they earned two European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign medals, for their participation in the Battle of Northern France, and the Battle of the Rhineland. Wilson was promoted to Staff Sergeant, and earned a Good Conduct Award, too.

As the war wound to a close, Wilson found time to make more entries in his War Journal, pasting clips of his favorite pinups (including Lauran Bacall and Hilda Simms), his favorite tunes (Shoo! Shoo! Baby; Cow, Cow Boogie; Is You Is, or Is You Ain’t My Baby, among many others) and poems and memories of home.

After the German Instrument of Surrender was signed in Reims on May 7, 1945, it was time to begin thinking of home. On a pass to Paris on July 14, 1945, Wilson celebrated Bastille Day with the victorious French, United Kingdom and U.S. soldiers.

world war ii veteran Theodore Roosevelt Wilson
Theodore Wilson in his later years, relaxing on the porch of his home in Mount Vernon, Indiana. Photo courtesy of the Wilson family.

“Parades of Allies and French Soldiers on Bastille Day. Street dances into the wee hours. Fireworks of all description and beautiful flares. Saw the Eiffel Tower and the Bastille,” he wrote.

Shortly afterward, his unit and many others prepared for the long trip home. “Arrived at Camp San Francisco, near Paris, 27 July for processing,” he wrote. “Men from the Regiment transferred for shipment to the States 34 years or older,” he said.

After “one hell of a trip” with their troops and equipment, they arrived in Marseilles, France on 11 August, and, as the newly formed 376th Engineering Battalion, began to build and pack crates for the equipment shipping home.

“In the Company area, there was a bar run by French civilians, with drinks, dances every Saturday night and free beer. Free cleaning and pressing done by German prisoners. At the box factory, I was the acting First Sergeant. Hope to be on my way home soon, as the papers tell us the old men will have a chance (smile).”

Finally, it was Wilson’s turn.

world war ii veteran Theodore Roosevelt Wilson with his wife
Theodore Roosevelt Wilson and his wife, Lorene (Henderson) Wilson, some years after World War II. Photo courtesy of the Wilson family.

“Transferred to the 54th Redeployment Company. Really on my way home!” he said. “Boarded the ship at 4:00 p.m. and assigned my sleeping quarters. Had beef, potatoes, carrots, peas, coffee, ice cream and cookies. Came on deck to take one last look at Marseilles. The sunset was beautiful, like a ball of fire sinking into the water.”

After 10 relaxing days at sea, with big breakfasts, lunches and dinners, and popular music playing over the sound system of the S.S. George Washington, he and 6400 troops and nurses finally returned home via the Port of New York. More than three years of training, traveling and supporting the war effort far away had passed, and he was back in the USA.

Wilson received his Honorable Discharge, civilian clothes and his final pay, and returned by bus to his little home in Mount Vernon, Indiana, where he married, had a son, bought a home, and worked as a local carpenter until his retirement and subsequent death in December of 1986.

He was one of the many millions of the Greatest Generation who served their Country ably and willingly. May you Rest in Peace, Staff Sergeant Wilson!