Veteran faced an unwelcome homefront of discrimination during WWII

Townsell Thomas in 1941.

By TOM DAVIDSON | Beaver County Times, Pa. | Published: October 17, 2017

ALIQUIPPA, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — Most of the stories from World War II follow a similar line: A young man grows up during the Great Depression, war breaks out and he decides to enlist or is drafted into the service, he's sent overseas and witnesses the horrors of war, either in Europe or the South Pacific, and he comes home and makes a life for himself.

Townsell Thomas' story is different.

Thomas, now 97, of Aliquippa, was 21 on Dec. 7, 1941, the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

"I was in church," Thomas remembered, and it was the talk of the day.

"I heard Roosevelt's speech that we (were) in a state of war with Japan, got it over the radio here and then we heard about it all over town," he said. "I'll never forget it."

The next day, a Monday, he enlisted in the Army.

But Thomas wasn't sent overseas to fight in the war. Instead, he was sent south to Gadsden, Alabama, for basic training and west to California where he was a meteorologist for the 77th Chemical Co. in San Diego.

Thomas never saw battle against the Germans or Japanese.

He never left his homeland.

Instead, he witnessed and was subjected to battles because of his race — Thomas is black — that still linger in some parts of the country today.

"I have no ... I don't even think about it ... that's a portion of my life I washed out," Thomas said of his experiences with discrimination and segregation during his service.

The experiences he had were a shock to a kid from Aliquippa, which is well-documented as a place where people from all ethnicities lived because they worked at Jones and Laughlin's sprawling steel mill along the bank of the Ohio River.

Thomas grew up in Plan 11 in a multi-cultural neighborhood, and he lives in the same house now that his family moved to when they settled here to work in the mill.

"I've been in this house for 92 years," Thomas said of his home.

Matters of race in Aliquippa were different than they were in the Deep South, Thomas would find out during his Army service.

"I enlisted to get the hell out of J&L. I hated that place," Thomas said. "And to keep from going to church on Sundays."

Thomas worked at J&L — or "that sweatshop down there" as he saw it then — since graduating high school in 1939. At 21, he also wanted to do something more with his Sundays than spending it in church.

"You went to church. You went to Sunday school, morning service, BYPU (Baptist Young People's Union) and evening service," he said.

His parents wouldn't let him swim or do anything else.

"When I got in the Army, I was free from both of them," Thomas said.

But he was sent to a different kind of hell in a place called Fort McClelland in Gadsden.

"It was a different world for me, because I'd been raised in Aliquippa," Thomas said of being in the segregated South. "I didn't like Alabama ... That was hell."

The black troops were trained separately, slept separately and kept out of the civilian parts of town.

"We were all isolated, all of us black soldiers. We got along with each other because we didn't see (anyone) else," Thomas said.

After basic training, he was sent by train to California.

"We couldn't even get off the troop train to take calisthenics," Thomas said about a stop in Beaumont, Texas. "And we were supposed to be fighting for the country."

After that, "we didn't stop until we got into (California)," he said. "The army then wasn't what it was supposed to be (in terms of race)."

In San Diego, his experience improved.

"As (the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther) King said we were 'free at last,'" Thomas said. "I enjoyed San Diego."

The company's job was to camouflage San Diego and the military bases there. They used smoke pots to do the job and Thomas also worked as a meteorologist there — a job that was easy because southern California weather was predictably sunny.

"It was a breath of fresh air. The weather, you never worried about it. It never rained in California when I was there," Thomas said. "We all got along, because we were all in the U.S. services."

The only time he was concerned was during a small earthquake.

"I was down in our dugout and the earth started to move and we went to running. But it was (only) a small shake," he said. "When you don't know why the earth is moving, you go to running."

Other than that, "we had it nice in San Diego," Thomas said. "That was the best time of my service."

After a year, they were sent back to Alabama where Thomas fell ill and was discharged because of a stomach condition.

"When we got back to Alabama, I said, 'No, I'm going to get out of this,'" Thomas said.

He returned to Aliquippa, worked at the former Curtiss-Wright plant in Vanport Township during the rest of the war, went to art school and worked for a time in Connecticut. He then returned to his hometown where he worked several jobs, ultimately retiring from the maintenance department of Aliquippa High School in 1994.

An accomplished painter, the walls of Thomas' home are adorned with his work. He still wears a button-down shirt and tie most days, and he's back at Triedstone Baptist Church. He keeps up with the happenings in Aliquippa.

Thomas has no desire to return to the South, and he lamented that there are still places where blacks are mistreated.

"When you went South, you were 'put in your place,' as they put it," Thomas said. "You were just another black; you did what they told you."

©2017 Beaver County Times (Beaver, Pa.)
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