David Petraeus: Take the Confederate names off our army bases
A major from Richmond, Virginia, raised the Confederate flag over a house after the U.S. Fifth Army captured the Italian town of Rifreddo. He told Stars and Stripes, the official military newspaper, that he’d brought a cache of flags with him and that he had already hung the Confederate flag in Naples, Rome, and Leghorn. “This is one war we’re gonna win,” he said.
In the Pacific, Marine Colonel William O. Brice of South Carolina dubbed himself the “commander of Confederate forces” in the Solomon Islands and flew the Confederate flag on the islands’ base. The Charlotte Observer praised Brice and other white marines, soldiers, and sailors for being “descendants of men who wore the gray [who] have not forgotten in the turmoil of battle, their reverence for those heroes of the [1860s].”
When the Allies secured military victory over Germany, a tank officer carried the Confederate flag into Berlin. As the USS Mississippi steamed into Tokyo Bay after Japan’s surrender, it was flying the Confederate flag.
After the war, a white sergeant from Kentucky wrote home to ask his mother to send a Confederate flag to display in a French school. “I believe we will influence the teaching of the War Between the States,” he wrote. Two former Army pilots returned from overseas and formed a “Confederate Air Force” for white southern pilots in New Bern, North Carolina.
The white troops who raised the Confederate flag during World War II argued that they were honoring the military service of their forefathers. “In its day, this flag stood for much and waved over the heads of the same type of men that made America great,” the Charlotte Observer argued. “Deep in the hearts of all Americans, the Confederacy now is merely a part of ‘One nation indivisible.’”
Not all Americans agreed. When Army Lieutenant General Simon Buckner Jr., himself the son of a Confederate general, saw a Marine unit flying the flag at the battle of Okinawa, he ordered it removed. “Americans from all over are involved in this battle,” he said.
For black Americans especially, the Confederate flag was a symbol of decades of racism, hate, and white supremacy. They fought against it being displayed before, during, and after the war. Before Pearl Harbor, for example, the Baltimore Afro-American successfully protested a plan to use the flag as the insignia of Army quartermasters stationed in Virginia at the base named for Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
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The embrace of the Confederate flag by white troops, politicians, and civilians made it clear to black Americans that many of their fellow citizens understood the goals of the Second World War in very different terms. As black Americans fought a Double Victory campaign over fascism abroad and racism at home, most white Americans understood the war only to be about defeating the Nazis and Japanese military, a “single V” abroad and the status quo at home. Edward Moe, a federal investigator who surveyed racial attitudes during the war, found that many white people believed that World War II was about preserving things “as they have been in America.” “White folks would rather lose the war than give up the luxury of race prejudice,” NAACP Secretary Roy Wilkins quipped.