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Black History Month: WWII vets recall serving in segregated Army

Jennifer Sprouse • Feb 19, 2013 at 6:40 AM

Allen Harris and Hugh Collie can remember detail by detail their time in the service during World War II.

They remember basic training, they remember the equipment they used and they remember serving in a segregated Army.

Harris served as a mess sergeant in the South Pacific Theater and talked of the deep pits Japanese soldiers would dig with large stakes placed in the ground, as well as Navy gunners who would relay information to Army personnel on land.

He said later on when he was stationed in Charleston, S.C., he remembers then-Col. Benjamin O. Davis coming to the base to determine whether white servicemen and black servicemen should be integrated.

“He stood and made the statement that this was what he was to do, (that) he was to evaluate whether or not the blacks and the whites were ready to integrate. He said he regretfully was going to have to tell President (Truman) that ... we were not ready for integration,” Harris said.

He said he couldn’t understand why Davis came to that conclusion, but was happy he was overruled by the president, who ended up integrating the military.

“We didn’t notice any difference in a black or a white dying or getting hit by a bullet or a shell exploding among them,” Harris said “We hadn’t noticed that those shells would turn around and head toward somebody else, rather than head toward you because you were black or white.”

After leaving the Army in 1946, Harris said he got married, had six children — three girls and three boys — and even worked in the coal mines in Kentucky and Virginia.

In 1974, Harris finished high school at Science Hill High School and graduated with a degree in social work from East Tennessee State University in 1996.

Harris said he had to retire from social work because of a hearing problem.

Today, Harris is a minister in the Church of Christ, a role he has served since 1969.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., Collie moved to Johnson City with his parents in 1929.

“My father was in the dry-cleaning business and in 1929, when they had the Depression ... all of the factories and everything closed,” he said. “He had a brother here and he thought it would be good for him to come to Johnson City to start a business because the people here were working. Johnson City didn’t have a lot of factories, but they had people there who were working –– hotels and restaurants and cab businesses and people worked in people’s houses.”

Collie said he attended Dunbar School and then graduated from Langston High School in 1943, the same year he was inducted into the service.

“At that time ... they didn’t accept blacks in the Air Force, because that’s what I wanted to get in, but they wouldn’t accept (us) in the Air Force and the only thing you could do in the Navy was to be a part of the cook (staff),” he said. “I chose the Army.”

After basic training at Fort McClellan, Ala., he said his unit left for the European Theater from Boston.

In Europe, Collie said he traveled to many countries, including Scotland, England, Belgium, France and Germany as a truck driver in the 3415th Quartermaster Company.

“We hauled four different things. We hauled troops, gasoline, ammunition and rations,” he said.

Collie said his unit got to see a lot while they traveled across the European countries, dropping troops off at different camps.

“After the Army I was eligible to go to college. I wanted to be a doctor, so I went to Fisk University in Nashville,” he said. “I was a pre-med student majoring in chemistry and I went for three years, but my eyesight began to fail, so I had to come out of school. I returned back home to my father, who was in (the) dry-cleaning business.”

Collie also married and had four children — three girls and a boy.

His business, Collie Cleaners, was located in the John Sevier Hotel.

“People were nice, real good. They gave me their dry cleaning, they supported me,” Collie said. “I can say that’s one thing about Johnson City ... compared with a lot of other cities in the south, Johnson City didn’t have a lot of tension between whites and blacks.”

He said even when the schools were finally integrated in Johnson City in 1962, the transition was pretty smooth.

“The churches ... and the ministers of the white churches were one of the things that helped deter it and helped to make the integration smooth,” Collie said. “We didn’t have to march like they did in a lot of other southern states. The whites and the blacks integrated without any incident. When I took my kids to the white school, there were no problems.”

Since his retirement from dry cleaning, Collie continues to work in his church, Thankful Baptist, teaching Sunday school, ministering as deacon, trustee and as a member of the men’s chorus.

“It keeps me busy now,” he said.

Harris and Collie, as well as other veterans, will be honored for their service during a dinner at the Carver Recreation Center scheduled for Thursday at 6 p.m.

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