Seventy-five years ago, my grandfather James Doc Richards was one of 73,000 U.S. troops to land on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. I know this because he told me so.
About a year before my grandfather passed away, he came to visit with me. I took the day off and we spent it together. Over lunch, he shared stories of participating in the Normandy invasion. He said he would never forget the sound of bullets whizzing by his helmet, the sights of death, the utter chaos. He also reflected on the sting of serving in a segregated United States Army. For example, his commanding officer was white and functionally illiterate, and he was black and college educated, so one of his responsibilities each morning was to read him his mail.
My grandfather was an extrovert who could talk with anyone about anything. But for most of his life he never spoke about his World War II experiences. Reflecting on the D-Day 75th commemoration over the past weekend and thinking back on the day he revealed his involvement to me, I am filled with regret for what I didn’t ask him that day. What company did he serve in? On which beach did he land? What role did he play in the invasion?
These are questions I might never fully answer, but history provides some context for what his experience might have been. Historical narratives of D-Day largely cut out soldiers of color, but they were there in Normandy serving their country and my grandfather was one of them. The US military was segregated at that time and most black soldiers were not permitted to serve in front line combat units. Instead they served as service and supply troops, artillerymen, military police, and in other rear-echelon companies and battalions. These roles still exposed them to combat. Knowing the threat of death my grandfather experienced helps me to better understand the sense of mission and purpose in which he lived his life post-war.
James Edward Richards was born in 1920 in Suffolk, Virginia to James Lee Richards and Annie Biggs Richards. He descends from a line of James Richards tracing back to his great grandfather who was born enslaved around 1849 and who lived his life in Northampton County, North Carolina, just below the Virginia border. His Suffolk roots trace back to his third great grandmother Patsey White a free black woman born in the late 1700s. His Virginia roots traced back even further through his grandmother Florence Cumbo who descends from the first Africans to arrive in…