Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

Discrimination in the Military: 1942

Filed By Dr. Jillian T. Weiss | May 31, 2010 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Armed Services, Memorial Day, military, World War II

The year was 1942. My father, Bennie, as he was known then, was a skinny 18 year old Jewish kid from the Weequahic section of Newark, NJ. dad army.jpg

He was drafted at 18 and sent to San Antonio, Texas, to become a Norden bombsight mechanic.

He was a nice Jewish boy, though he could take care of himself, when it came to it.

San Antonio, Texas, in 1942, might as well have been an alien planet, as far as his experience went.

He used to tell me that his commanding officers would say things like "Theys only two thangs in Tayksis: steers and queers. I don't see no horns on you, boy."

The Army must have seemed strange to a young man from Newark, New Jersey in 1942. Everything regimented, new culture, different kinds of people all mixing together. One thing he noticed was that there appeared to be a lot of anti-semitism. Comments about Jews were everywhere. Racism was rampant. It often rankled him to be in such an environment.

He was standing on a small staircase outside a building. A man stood in front of him, facing away. He was going on about the dirty Jews, a real diatribe. Without hesitation, Bennie kicked him, hard, in the ass, and knocked him down the small flight of stairs. There was some kind of a brief scrap, which was quickly broken up. There was no trouble from the incident.

But my father remembered this incident and told it to me thirty years later, with a mixture of pride and disbelief. And here I am, remembering it seventy years later. He was a gentle, thoughtful man, who liked telling jokes, writing poetry and singing. Not someone you'd call a fighter. But he was quietly passionate about injustice, and spent much time trying to address social problems in his own small way. I'm guessing that this incident was born of an instinct and a impulse that arose from this quiet passion.

I always think of my young father on Memorial Day, down in San Antonio, Texas, on a hot, dry, dusty day, far from his home and family. He'd been fixing bombsights in a hot, dry, airless room all day. He emerges from the building, and his 18-year old blood boils to see a man, on the staircase, spouting off about the dirty Jews...

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Sounds like a good memory for you. Thanks for sharing it.

This article is a bid sad but has hope too. Sad because any discrimination in a country that is supposed to be based on Equality. Sad given what was discovered at the end of World War Two in regard to the treatment of those of Hebrew ancestry who did not get out of Germany or countries they conquered. But hopeful in that now nearly 60 years later those with Hebrew Ancestry are rarely discriminated against. Hopeful in that almost 50 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 we have a president who has African American Ancestry. Perhaps some day those of us who are Gay, Lesbian, Bi, or Transgender, may also be free of discrimination and realize the promise of Equality as well. I just hope it does not take the murder of 8 million or Hundreds of Thousands of us to be beaten, hung, shot, to realize the dream.

Thank you for sharing this, Jillian. My father was also a WWII veteran, as well as a Korean War and Vietnam War veteran. He started off in Navy during WWII, then went into the Army Air Corp, which turned into the Air Force. I proudly tell people he served in three wars and three branches of the service. He died in December of 2004. I miss him.

Regan DuCasse | May 31, 2010 12:30 PM

I LOVE your article, Jillian! I can imagine a gay soldier having to listen to much of the same. Hard pressed whether to react in any way.

My father is buried in the military graveyard at Sawtelle, here in Los Angeles.
My father, a black man, served in the Phillipines in the segregated army of WW2. And, as such, the black soldiers weren't issued decent guns, nor ammo for them. In so many ways, their tour on an island was similar to being in prison, with black soldiers deferring to white ones, even of the same rank.

My uncle, his older brother, however, had a different experience.
My uncle was outraged by the treatment of blacks, regardless of sharing the burdens and sacrifices of the war, but none of the rights. Let alone the dismantling of Jim Crow or any other de facto discrimination.

So, he didn't serve as a concientious objector and went to jail for three years during the war. Something that marred any other career opportunities after.
Blacks, like gays, in the hope of showing that they had the courage and talent to participate in whatever duties they chose or were conferred on them, would make the sacrifices necessary.
And to no avail.
The Civil Rights Act didn't go into affect until 20 years later.
And in the meantime, there were many stateside casualties of that war at home.

My uncle worked for the ACLU and helped found the Los Angeles chapter of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality).
His name is on a Constitutional law precedent regarding pamphlets and personal information.
Both my father and uncle were right in what they BOTH did for their country.

Being under appreciated at the time is not about them, but the inequality of a nation still wrestling with committing fully to it's own creed and mission statement.
To this day.

That's why, I can do no less for my gay and lesbian and transgender family and citizens by continuing my family legacy in civil rights advocacy.

I owe my father and uncle, I thank them.
Just as I owe and thank all the men and women serving in uniform now, but especially those who are gay and lesbian. Their moral ground is higher, steadier and stronger as it was for soldiers of color during WW2.
Someday, the dignity and service of gays in uniform will finally be acknowledged and discrimination thrown into the past.
But hopefully, never really forgotten.

My prayers,gratitude, best hopes and love are with all of them.

Hi Regan, thanks so much for sharing this story. My grandmother moved from Brooklyn to DC during WWII to work in the war department and at first her co-workers, who were migrants from the south and appalachia, couldn't believe she was jewish because she didn't have any horns. There's an argument (which I find fairly persuasive) that jews and italians "became white" through the process of the near-universal draft and intermixing of all "non-black" men in the army during WWII. Of course, "becoming white" has always been built on the total exclusion of Africa-Americans from that prospect....

You always get better results with a kind word and a big stick than with a kind word alone.

In junior high, until I stood up to the bullies attracted to my signs of femininity in a boy, and fighting maybe half the pool of available bullies, my life was a hell of torment and isolation -- the only interaction I had was with the tormentors, as the other kids stayed strictly away from the slow-motion train wreck I represented.

After about a year of standing my ground and returning what I received (and winning more than half the fights I was in,) the end of the challenges came suddenly and I started receiving offers of friendship from those who formerly shunned me - now that I'd proven I could take care of myself, they were ready to open up to me.

It goes against all the advice I received (turn the other cheek, avoid fighting at all costs, be nice, appease,) but it WORKED.

Appeasement is always about doing what they want you to do.

I defy appeasement.

In the early 1980's, I heard much the same thing (indeed, I heard the steers and queers thing used for pretty much anything that wasn't popular, such as falling out of perfectly good airplanes, which I did).

Including the anti-semitism. And sexism was rampant.

I'm proud to have served my country. Not so proud of the people I served with, though.

Once again, Jillian, I see a commonality in our family histories. In anticipation of my father entering the Army after Pearl Harbor, my grandfather changed the entire family's name for fear of the anti-Semitism my father would face with an obviously Jewish last name. He served in the Army Air Corp.

Ironically, some 30 years after the war, so many Jews had changed their name to our new last name, it became known as a Jewish name as well. My contemporaries don't understand why our family would change our name from one Jewish name to another. I explain that at the time it was changed, it wasn't considered a Jewish name.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | May 31, 2010 11:14 PM

Dr. Weiss,

I wish I could say that I had never heard such attitudes expressed. Strangely, my former Roman Catholic Church used to sell tickets to the local Jewish temple lecture series in my hometown. That did not mean there were still not plenty of ignorant people. They (1929-1945) did follow a false string of prejudice. Just as recently in the wake of the financial bailouts "folks back home" were telling their congressional representatives to come back home and do nothing..."No Bailouts!" I am sure you remember. There was a theory that Jews/bankers were responsible for the stock market crash.

Partly, this can be attributed to the fact that only about one in three persons in the United States of America had as much as a high school education at the time. They did not think, they did not read the way we think they once did. Their entire world was local and WWII changed America forever.

Your father sounds like a real winner, but even he was serving within a segregated American military at the time. A wise child made a proud and happy father I am sure.

Yesterday I took the 1% of my father's ashes I retained and interred them in a Chinese garden beneath quotations of Confucius on a just and well ordered society. My dad met my mother working in a munitions factory. He was a high school grad in 1936. It was my small Memorial Day tribute to him. We have yet to achieve the goals of Confucius.