The day always reminds me of my father and grandfather, who both enlisted in the military – they did not wait to get drafted – and how their choices changed and continue to inspire our family.
First my grandfather. When he enlisted at age 16, his name was Samuel Danuel Simms. But when military officials finished doing the paperwork, they’d listed him as Samuel Daniel Sims. So it was my grandfather’s induction into the army back then that changed our whole family name. I am not actually a one ‘m’ Sims. All of my cousins who still have the family name are Simms with two m’s. My grandfather’s descendants are the only one ‘m’ Sims and have been so since World War I.
Now my father was college educated, very literate and originally had no plans to go into the military. He was just out of Lincoln University, which was tied to Princeton. If you were not one of the quota of black students allowed admittance to Princeton, you were sent to Lincoln University on scholarship. My father was one of them.
He went to see his mother after graduation and she said, “James, you look so good in your uniform.” He was not wearing a uniform. In fact, there wasn’t even a war yet! But six months later my grandmother died and one year later, my father enlisted in the Army-Air Force and indeed was in uniform. He always thought that was so poignant that she visualized him in uniform before her death and he always wore it with pride.
He joined the military because any enemy of America was an enemy of my father’s. He had tremendous loyalty to the country, even though he wanted change, wanted the services to be integrated, to provide promotional opportunities and wanted the different divisions of the Army and Air Force to begin to allow African Americans to fly, to be tank commanders, and not just always be the dishwashers. He lived long enough to see that come to pass with men like the Tuskegee Airmen, who flew in World War II.
My father ended up being a military police officer. He told of going down to Texas to bring back a deserter. But, when he tried to board a train back to Spokane, they said he couldn’t ride with the whites and his prisoner, who was white, couldn’t ride with the blacks. My father told the train conductor, “Then I shall shoot him now, because he is a deserter and I am obligated to return him because he has deserted his country in a time of war.” So the prisoner had to ride with my father in the Black coaches back to Spokane. I always thought it was interesting that my father, who had enlisted to serve his country, fought this unique, racial battle in Texas over bringing back someone who had deserted his country in a time of war.
Still, he was very, very proud of his service, of his country. And it was important to him that America be fully equipped and ready to take on its enemies. He always felt it was important to have a strong national defense and that military served a noble role. He always talked about how soldiers rebuilt America through the GI Bill and America became great.
Even though he was socially liberal, had very strong religious values, and at times didn’t always agree with the military, he still felt it was important to respect and recognize the personnel who served, who joined, and who were drafted, because he believed our strong and effective military was part of what made this a great country.
My father has since passed away but he took great pride in his service in WWII and even after he left the military, most people who were African American in Spokane called him Sergeant, because he was always the person who took care of everybody else: finding people housing and finding employment for people and different kinds of jobs. He was respected for what he did, and more importantly, for who he was and how he lived.
So Memorial Day always reminds me of father, my grandfather, and others who served and died and how much we owe those who protect the freedoms we hold so dear. On Memorial Day, we honored service people who have died. I hope you will support those who continue to serve throughout the year too.