70 years later, mystery of WWII service of 'Jackson 5' persists
They were the "Jackson 5" long before Motown arrived.
In a span of 10 months in 1943, Genevieve and Samuel Jackson of Lackawanna, N.Y., sent five of their eight sons to the military.
Edward left first, in February. Samuel followed a week later, and then Robert a month after that. Glover, 18, the youngest of the five, and the only brother to enlist, departed in April.
Sharon, the oldest brother and the last of them to be drafted into duty, departed in November.
The five brothers were among more than a million black GIs to serve in World War II – at a time when the military was still segregated by race.
They fought simultaneously in separate theaters and never saw each other while at war.
All of them returned home alive. But like many veterans, they did not reveal much about their experiences.
“They never really talked about it,” said Samuel Jackson III, whose father served in Germany. “The war was taboo or something.”
Seven decades after they entered the Army, their families are left wondering exactly what roles they played in the most defining event of the 20th century.
Elaine Mootry, a niece of the Jackson 5, spent years trying to dig up more information on the soldiers.
The release of dozens of medals earned by the brothers, through the office of Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, has helped.
Higgins recently presented the medals to family members as “keepsakes of a family’s legacy and commitment to this great nation.”
But so many questions persist.
The five brothers have been deceased for years, and their sons, daughters, nieces and nephews want to make sure their contributions won’t be forgotten.
“We never quite understood the magnitude of what they did,” Mootry said. “I’m looking at these five men and I’m saying, ‘Holy cow!’?”
“This means so much for me to let my children and grandchildren know,” she added. “That commitment needs to be remembered by family members.”
About 16 million Americans served in World War II, and many communities across the country produced military families similar to the Jacksons – with four, five, even six, brothers going off to war at the same time.
“It’s surprisingly not as rare as you would think in that era,” said G. Kurt Piehler, professor of history at Florida State University and director of the university’s Institute on World War II and the Human Experience.
A sixth Jackson brother, Theodore, was too young for World War II, but he enlisted in the Navy in 1956 and served 25 years of active duty.
Large families were much more common in the 1930s and ’40s, making it likely for multiple siblings to serve simultaneously in a war that extended to nearly all able-bodied American men.
The most famous case was that of the five Sullivan brothers of Waterloo, Iowa, who were killed in 1942 in a Japanese attack on the USS Juneau, the cruiser on which they all served.
The Jackson 5 were featured in a brief article in The Buffalo Evening News on May 16, 1945, with the headline “Jackson Boys Overseas.”
The article, which was accompanied by a photograph of each of the men, mentioned where they were stationed but little else.
Early in the war, most black troops were assigned to noncombat units and relegated to service duties, but troop losses later brought more black soldiers into direct combat roles, where they served with distinction, despite the official segregation.
In 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order ending segregation in the military, and historians have pointed to the service of blacks in World War II as a spark for the civil rights movement.
Descendants of the brothers said they suspect that the racism the soldiers experienced may have played a role in why they did not discuss the war.
“Back in those days, when African-American men went into the service, it was not a very happy time for them,” said Sabrina Jackson-Towner, daughter of Edward Jackson. “But he never talked about it. It’s amazing. The only thing (about the war) I remember my father telling me was how fortunate I was.”
Especially for black GIs from the North, where Southern-style Jim Crow laws didn’t exist, walking into a segregated military system was horrendous, Piehler said.
“Particularly the disrespect that went with it was flabbergasting,” he said.
It did not occur to Willie Jackson, who was 13 when his older brothers went to war, that they might not return.
“We never even thought they were not coming back,” recalled Jackson, now 83 and one of four surviving siblings.
He remembers his mother raising a little fuss about Glover, the youngest, deciding to enlist.
But she did not try to stop him, nor did she or her husband, Samuel, fret that so many of their sons would be in harm’s way, Jackson said.
“They felt all right. They went to see them off,” he said.
Gilbert Jackson, who was 11 at the time, remembers the sadness that accompanied each of his brother’s departures.
His mother “cried and had her moments, but she let it go. She lived with it,” he said.
Both Gilbert and Willie said their brothers dutifully wrote home to reassure her they were OK.
“Just about every week, she got a letter from one of them,” Willie Jackson said.
The family placed a star in the window of their First Ward home each time another son went to war.
Willie and Gilbert Jackson’s sparse recollections are about all that family members know about the Jackson brothers’ wartime service.
“I’m sorry I don’t remember more,” Gilbert Jackson said. “It’s been so long.”
Several years ago, Mootry discovered a copy of the News article on the brothers from 1945 tucked inside her mother’s Bible. She became determined to learn more about where her uncles had been and what duties they performed.
Unfortunately, a devastating fire in 1973 at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroyed about 80 percent of all the records of Army soldiers who were discharged between 1912 and 1960.
The family was able to learn only the dates of service, ranks and list of awards received. The News article in 1945 noted that Glover served in France, Edward in Holland, Samuel in Germany, Sharon in the Pacific and Robert in England.
A separate news account in a publication called The Leader mentions Glover Jackson’s service in France and Germany as part of a battalion that endured shelling while constructing 200 miles of telephone line used by Allied forces.
The brothers returned to Western New York in 1945 and 1946. Three of them worked at Bethlehem Steel, where their father had worked. Most of them lived in Lackawanna or Buffalo. Glover Jackson, known as “Skeeter,” operated a fish market in Lackawanna’s First Ward, built a home on Summit Avenue in Orchard Park and raised two daughters.
Edward, a stern, no-nonsense guy who “believed in working for what you got,” according to his daughter, was married for 32 years to Mary, and together they raised nine children.
Sharon, who worked at Westinghouse Corp. until his retirement in 1978, raised two sons with his wife, Marion, and was a member of Humboldt Parkway Baptist Church.
Robert, who attained the rank of sergeant, worked at Pittston Stevedoring Co. for 26 years and served for six years as union president. He was married and had a daughter.
Samuel Jackson Jr. enjoyed fishing and hunting with fellow World War II veterans from the steel plant, but he did not want his sons to have anything to do with the military. He died in 1976 at age 54, the first of the brothers to be buried.
“He pushed education. That’s all he talked about,” said his son, Samuel Jackson III, who served in the National Guard, anyway.
Jackson remembered one Christmas when as a young boy he asked his dad for plastic toy soldiers.
“He bought me cowboys and Indians” instead, Jackson said.
While watching World War II films starring John Wayne on television, his father often remarked the movies were not anything like what happened during wartime.
“I wish I could tell you more, but I can’t, other than that I had a great dad,” Jackson said.
The Jackson 5 must have had conflicted feelings in their fight for freedom on behalf of a country that allowed people to be segregated based upon the color of their skin, family members said.
But it did not seem to dampen their patriotism.
“My father and his brothers,” Jackson-Towner said, “were very proud to serve their country.”