Memories of France still strong for black WWII veteran
When Ken Littlepage was shipped overseas in 1943, he packed his high school French book, thinking that it might come in handy. The following summer, that book was put to use when he and members of his quartermaster unit landed at Normandy.
After six months of basic training at Fort Custer, Mich., Littlepage, a black soldier attached to the 5th Engineer Brigade, would embark for Europe on Oct. 10, 1943.
At the end of World War II, more than 300,000 troops had undergone training at Fort Custer, including the 5th Infantry Division, or Red Diamond Division, which fought at Normandy.
Littlepage’s first station in Europe was in Antrim, Northern Ireland. In nearby Belfast, while white airborne troops prepared for combat, his unit operated a food depot. It was also there that he experienced one of his few instances of segregation while in the military.
“I found a dance hall outside of Belfast where I could zip off on Sunday afternoons and have a good time and not get in trouble,” Littlepage said, referring to friends who would often return to camp beaten and bruised from bar fights. “After a few Sundays, some white officers decided that they didn’t want any black soldiers … so that was the end of my trips there.”
Clubs operated by the American Red Cross were also closed to black troops at the time, he said.
In late May, the 5th Engineers were shipped to Winchester, England, a staging area for the D-Day invasion.
“We knew things were getting hot because we saw all the American planes going toward the continent,” Littlepage said. “We had to sleep ready to roll. So, when they hollered, you jump up and run.”
Support units such as Littlepage’s received very little combat training. That training, he said, would have been useful when his unit landed at Normandy on June 10, 1944, four days after the invasion began.
Shortly after emerging from their landing craft, Littlepage and his unit marched toward Ste. Mère Église, the first French town to be liberated during the invasion.
During the march, a white soldier approached the troops. Recalling the irony of the incident, Littlepage laughed.
The soldier said to Littlepage: “Hey, corporal, you guys are the first black combat troops to hit the beach.”
With some hesitation, Littlepage replied, “Now, look, what makes you think we’re black combat troops?”
The soldier answered, “Well, the front is just a couple miles down the road and you’re heading straight for it.”
Littlepage said the young captain in charge had read the map wrong, leading the troops off course and barely missing enemy lines.
When they finally arrived outside Ste. Mère Église, the soldiers set up camp.
“It wasn’t so bad because … there wasn’t anybody shooting at us and in our area of the beach, everything was relatively quiet. Further down, we could see ships that were still firing into the inland.”
During their time there, the troops manned ammunition depots in Audouville la Hubert and Cherbourg.
The latter exploded after German fighters strafed the base and the Audouville la Hubert depot blew up from unknown causes.
Littlepage said his best memories, however, were the time spent with a farm family living in the area. It was there that Littlepage and the farmer’s teenage son, Michele Birette, would pore over his French book, learning each other’s language and drinking homemade cider.
“From there, we moved up to Verdun and we ran an ammunition depot and shipped ammo to troops readying for the Battle of the Bulge,” Littlepage said of Adolf Hitler’s last stand in December 1944.
After the war, Littlepage befriended a young soldier who fought in that battle. Bill Hughes entered the Army just in time for the Battle of the Bulge.
The two met while working as Department of the Army civilians in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1946, and have been friends ever since. And just as they did 10 years ago for the 50th anniversary of D-Day, Littlepage and Hughes will return to Normandy this year. They plan to visit Birette who lives nearby.
During a ceremony on June 5, Littlepage will receive an honorary medal from Ste. Mère Église, Hughes said.
“… These badges are being presented to the soldiers that actually landed at Normandy,” said Hughes, 80. “[Littlepage] will be a guest of honor of the village. He will get his name inscribed on the badge and I think that’s a wonderful thing for him.”