When 18-year-old Arthur Weaver received his draft notice in July 1944, he wasn’t a bit concerned.
“I didn’t think they’d take a skinny kid like me,” recalled Weaver, now 90, with a chuckle. “My mother was crying, and I told her, ‘Don’t worry about it! I’m not going anywhere.’ ”
He was quite wrong about that.
At 5-foot-11 and 135 pounds, Weaver — who grew up in the Hamilton Heights section of upper Manhattan — was indeed a beanpole. But as it turned out, beanpoles were fine with Uncle Sam. At that point in World War II, with massive American offensives turning the tide against the Axis in both Europe and the Pacific, almost anyone breathing was acceptable, so voracious was the war effort’s hunger for manpower.
Weaver, fresh out of Manhattan Aviation High School, reported to the draft board on Whitehall Street and was surprised to find himself not only inducted but soon shipped out to the wild, nether-reaches of a place he’d never been:
For five days, he and other inductees went through preliminary training at Camp Upton, the former World War I camp in Yaphank, and what was then rural Suffolk County.
“I didn’t know where the hell I was!” said Weaver, who now lives in Freeport. “It was the pine barrens, but I had no earthly idea that’s what it was called.”
It was an inauspicious start to what would become a lifelong career in the military. The experience of Weaver, who has lived in Freeport since 1986, is also a window into what was a shameful chapter of American history and a heroic chapter in black history. That Weaver not only survived but flourished in the segregated Army of World War II also reminds us that momentous periods of history often look very different from the eyes of those who lived through them.
After his brief sojourn at Camp Upton, Weaver was transferred to the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. In addition to basic combat training, he learned supply logistics and also went to mechanic school. Still, there was little chance that he would see any front-line fighting. The War Department — influenced by an Army dominated by Southern whites with segregationist views — had decided that the primary role for “inferior” blacks would be in support and supply.
After a year at Aberdeen, Weaver, by then a sergeant, was shipped overseas. He arrived in the Philippines in June 1945 as a member of an engineering aviation battalion. The island nation — then a U.S. territory — had been invaded by the Japanese early in the war. But after the Navy virtually destroyed the Japanese fleet in a series of major sea battles, the Sixth U.S. Army — under the overall command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur — landed in Leyte in October 1944 and began the long process of retaking the key island.
When he arrived eight months later, Weaver and his unit mates were sent to Quezon City, near Manila, to establish a supply depot as the long offensive continued.
“It was as big as Freeport,” Weaver said of the base. “We had material there — steel, plywood, corrugated tin — that they used to build bases, roads, airstrips.”
While he wasn’t personally fighting the Japanese, Weaver was playing an important role in the war. “African-American companies were labor outfits . . . support units . . . charged with maintaining one of the longest supply lines in military history,” said James Campbell, award-winning author of several histories of World War II, including 2012’s “The Color of War,” which looked at the role of blacks in the Pacific theater. “They were absolutely critical to the war effort.”
In Weaver’s case, ships would unload their cargo, which was then trucked to the new depot, and consigned to front-line engineering units. While Weaver recognizes the importance of his and his comrades’ work, his memories of his World War II experience aren’t about heroics. He is not a man prone to self-aggrandizement.
It even frustrates his wife, Eileen, 84, sitting in the living room of their spacious home. It is she who produces the photos of her husband in uniform; it is she who brings out the scrapbook documenting her husband’s military career; it is she who exhorts her husband to talk about some of his achievements. All of which are met with a wave of his hand, a self-deprecating “awwww” and instead, a recounting of another anecdote.
Such as the time he and his buddies were on their way to help deliver materials when they saw a strange-looking plane parked at a nearby air strip. It was angled downward.
“‘That damn plane must have crashed,’ we said,” recalled Weaver. As they got closer, they noticed something very odd. “It had no propeller!” Weaver said, his face lighting up as he retells the story. “That was the [Lockheed P-80] Shooting Star, one of the first jets.”
Memories of V-J Day
Weaver is also eager to reveal his nickname in the Philippines. “They called me the Salt Water Cowboy,” he said, because he claimed to have spent most of his days lying in the warm Philippine waters, sunning himself and reading paperback novels. Only when pressed does Weaver add the important fact that, as the depot operated 24/7, he worked the night shift. Even then, he dismisses his importance.
“I was basically a storekeeper,” he said, which is akin to being the manager of a gigantic Home Depot, operating 24/7 and servicing projects of national import in which the builders are being shot at.
When asked his memory of V-J Day — Aug. 14, 1945, the day the Japanese surrendered — Weaver laughs again. “The hospital filled up overnight,” he recalled.
On the night when the fighting ceased? “It was celebration time!” Weaver said, alluding to a night of raucous partying.
Just as it begins to sound like Weaver’s war was, in his retelling, a sort of extended spring break on a Pacific island, he mentions how a 17-year-old comrade was killed — by Filipino bandits who stole the teen’s boots — and that as revenge he and some fellow soldiers drove their trucks into a nearby Filipino village, smashing houses.
He also tells of how he broke his right arm, when a large storage pit he was helping to dig collapsed on him.
This, Campbell says, was not unusual. “The demands of the war effort left virtually no time for implementing safety standards, and many African-Americans, though they weren’t allowed to fight because of the military’s Jim Crow policies, worked under very dangerous conditions,” Campbell said.
Enlisting in the Reserves
A year after his discharge, in 1947, Weaver decided to enlist in the Reserves. “I liked the Army life,” he said. “I liked the camaraderie.”
He served in New York’s historic 369th Infantry Regiment — immortalized in World War I as the “Harlem Hellfighters” — which was by then an anti-aircraft unit. The 369th was mobilized during the Korean War but ended up not being deployed. While things had changed (President Truman ordered the integration of the military in 1948), the 369th remained a proud and largely black regiment.
“We were considered a crack unit,” said Weaver, who was a platoon sergeant in the 369th. “I liked being a part of it.”
Looking at a photo of his reserve unit from the early 1950s, he points to various men, smiling as he recalls their names — “that’s Mason, that’s Moore, that’s Sampson” — and to the unit’s commander at the time, who stands stiffly in the center of the photo. “That’s Captain Vernon Napoleon Potter,” Weaver said, drawing out the martial-sounding name. “And you had to call him ‘Captain Vernon Napoleon Potter!’ He used to demand our boots shined, quote, ‘to a high degree of luster.’ ”
Perhaps not surprisingly, given his affinity for the men and the unit, Weaver later became president of the 369th Veterans Association, the unit’s alumni organization. It was at their annual New Year’s Eve party in 1981 at the Regimental Armory on Fifth Avenue in Harlem that he met Eileen Lee, a Barnard College graduate and fair-housing activist. They were wed in 1986. It was the second marriage for both; between them they have six children and four grandchildren.
Weaver worked in various defense-related jobs for the federal government after the war. He retired from his job and the reserves the same year he was married.
“I turned 60, I retired from the reserves, I retired from my full-time government job, I got married, and we moved to Freeport,” he said. “That was a big year.”
Weaver turns 91 on March 29. When asked how he spends his time as a retired nonagenarian, he smiles. “I lay around,” he said, provoking some eye-rolling from his wife, who points out that until arthritis recently limited his mobility, her husband was a superb and active handyman.
“He did everything,” Eileen Weaver said. “Electrical working, plumbing . . . everybody brought their cars to him for repairs.”
Weaver describes himself as “an easygoing guy,” and that includes his attitude and outlook on history. “Nothing we can do about it,” he said of the military’s segregation during World War II. “That was our attitude.”
Historian Christopher Paul Moore said he can sympathize with such a collective shrug by black soldiers like Weaver.
“He had already experienced it,” Moore, author of “Fighting for America: Black Soldiers — The Unsung Heroes of World War II,” said. “It wasn’t like the South, but there were elements of segregation in New York.” In the larger scheme of America in the 1940s, Moore added, “you were constitutionally a second-class citizen, and these guys were reminded of that all the time.”
Still, there were outrages that brought even the affable, low-keyed Weaver to a boiling point. One such incident happened on his way home from the war in 1946. The fighting and cleanup in the Philippines over, Weaver was on a train from Oakland to Fort Dix, New Jersey, where he would be discharged. As was typical of railroad travel at that time, his car was for black soldiers only.
“The Red Cross came through the train at one of our stops,” Weaver recalled. “They were serving coffee, and I think doughnuts, too. Do you know they didn’t even offer us any? I haven’t given money to the Red Cross ever since.”
For the most part, though, Weaver maintains that he not only survived but flourished in the service — and in the rest of his life — by following an Army motto of the time that counseled soldiers to avoid trouble while moving forward with the task at hand.
“Keep low and keep coming,” Weaver said. “And that’s what I did.”
BLACK SUPPORT UNITS HELPED WIN WAR, TOO
In his 2005 book, “Fighting for America: Black Soldiers — The Unsung Heroes of World War II,” historian Christopher Paul Moore recounts the story of the 1.1 million African-American men and women who served in the military from 1941 to 1945.
While a few units saw combat — most notably the famous Tuskegee Airmen of the Army Air Corps and the all-black 761st Tank Battalion — most African-Americans, like Freeport’s Arthur Weaver, were restricted to support and maintenance.
“But it’s important maintenance,” said Moore, who is also historian and curator emeritus of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. “These guys were building roads, airstrips. They were very important to the war effort.”
In the European theater, Moore said, the supply effort of American forces as they made their way from the beaches of France to the heart of Germany in 1944 and 1945 was a major key to victory. The flow of material, fuel and ammunition was transported by a fleet of trucks famously known as “The Red Ball Express,” manned largely by African-Americans.
“The surprise to Hitler was not the D-Day invasion, but that they could sustain it,” Moore said. “The labor that followed was unbelievable, and that labor was predominantly black.”
The black support units’ contribution to the war’s Pacific Theater, where Weaver served, is often overlooked. “They did a tremendous amount of cleanup,” Moore said, pointing out that almost every airfield in the island-hopping campaign that gradually pushed back the Japanese advances made early in the war had to be rebuilt and maintained.
Back at home, many black leaders and organizations argued that African-Americans should have a larger role in the fight. And there was violence at some points, between black and white troops or residents, particularly at military camps in the South. Still, Moore understands why many veterans like Weaver returned to the military in some capacity after the war, attracted by the pay, the benefits, the camaraderie.
“It was not a bad option,” he said.
But while the fight against injustice at home continued after the war (and the pace of change would accelerate when President Harry Truman ordered the integration of armed forces in 1948), Moore, who interviewed 142 black veterans for his book, said that those who served in World War II ultimately fought for the same reason as white soldiers.
“They were proud,” he said. “Despite the horrors of their treatment, they were proud Americans.”
— John Hanc