By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
“Those were tough days that you really can’t imagine, but that’s life, I guess.”
Those are the words of 105-year-old U.S. Army veteran Ezra Hill Sr., who knows a thing or two about tough days. Having fought to liberate Europe in World War II, he faced injury, a physical enemy and a moral enemy, all while in uniform.
It’s not often, nowadays, to hear the stories of someone born in 1910. But Hill’s story is an important one, because unlike the racially equal military we’ve long known, the armed forces he joined in 1943 were not.
“Everything was segregated back then,” Hill remembered.
However extraordinary the days of World War II might have been, Hill and other black service members still had to deal with the prejudices of white commanders, soldiers and community members at home and abroad.
One vivid memory is of when he was stationed in England. Hill, who was a sergeant in the Army Corps of Engineers, was the head of a convoy trying to go into town to catch a movie. “Before we entered the town, they had a sign up that said, ‘No negro soldiers allowed.’ So I turned the convoy around and went back to the camp,” Hill said.
When his supervising sergeant found out about that, it didn’t go well. “He called all the sergeants together, and in about 10 minutes, everybody was rolling toward the town,” Hill remembered. “He talked to the colonel [there]. The last thing I heard him say was, ‘As long as I’m a commander in the American Army in any position, if one soldier’s allowed here, all of them are going to be allowed here.’ And they listened to him.”
War life was more integrated in France. Hill’s platoon landed at Normandy three days after D-Day and helped reclaim the nearby town of Cherbourg from the Germans. It is a place that created lots of memories for Hill – like when some German prisoners of war saved his life. Hill, a construction foreman at a nearby quarry, was in charge of some of the POWs tasked with breaking stones, putting them in huge carts and sending them down a track to the bottom of the quarry.
“One morning, about 7 o’clock, I was standing in the middle of the track. … I don’t know why, but I turned around. When I did, there were a dozen Germans trying to hold a big cart full of stone, and they were yelling at me. As the cart approached me, I … stepped out of the track, and about a five-ton dumpster went down,” Hill remembered.
“They saved my life, I’m sure,” he said, believing it was because of the kindness he showed – a kindness that wasn’t common among other soldiers. “If they hated me, they never would have stopped that cart.”
Cherbourg was also where Hill was run over by a member of his own platoon with a six-ton truck. Thankfully, the ground was extremely wet, which helped cushion the impact.
“I was half-conscious when they took me to the hospital,” Hill remembered. “I heard one of my sergeants say, ‘I know he’s dead because I ran over top of him.’ But luckily he ran across my back, and I didn’t have a broken bone.”
However, it did result in enough complications to have him sent home. Hill said blacks and whites had the same freedoms on that trip – until they hit U.S. soil.
“When we left France, we were on a hospital ship, and all of us were together,” Hill said. “But when I got to Camp Shanks [in New York], I looked to the side, and all the blacks were over there, and all the whites were over there.”
Hill said segregation had a huge effect on the black soldiers, but there was nothing they could do about it.
“We couldn’t fight it, so we accepted it, and we tried to excel at anything we did in order to prove that we could do it,” Hill said. “It was a hard pill to swallow.”
President Harry Truman officially ended segregation in the U.S. military in 1948, three years after Hill returned to his home in Baltimore, Maryland, to continue running his business, Avalon Shoe Store. It would become a community institution that he and his wife, Doris, ran for more than 50 years.
“I was the first black man to open a self-owned and operated family shoe store [in Maryland]. I helped thousands of people,” Hill said.
The couple also raised three children, Ezra Jr., Connie and Doris, who say they learned valuable lessons from their father’s war days.
“The kindness that he demonstrated to those German prisoners – it taught me that you don’t have to be hard and cold and cruel to people just because they’re under your control. If you can still have some kind of decency, it’ll return to you,” Ezra Hill Jr. said.
That’s a motto Hill Sr. said has been the reason for his longevity: “Don’t let anybody make you so angry that you lose your cool. Avoid anger, and you will find that it will help you, because hate will destroy you.”
For someone who’s lived through so much adversity, that sounds like good advice to me.
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