102-year-old vet pushes for recognition for 1.2 million Black soldiers who served with him in WWII
Howard County Times February 14, 2023
COLUMBIA, Md. (Tribune News Service) — When asked what he’s been up to during retirement, Gerald Greenfield gives a warm laugh and points to a well-worn armchair in the living room of his Columbia home.
“I got a chair where you found me,” said Greenfield, 102. “That’s where I spend most of my time.”
Greenfield has earned some relaxation, as his life has been anything but sedentary.
His 30-year U.S. Army career took him around the world, from the battlefields of Europe to remote outposts in Alaska, and he has lived through some of the most trying times in American history — the Jim Crow era, when a collection of state and local laws legalized racial segregation, the Great Depression, World War II and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic.
Greenfield’s family, which includes two children, four stepchildren and six grandchildren, says he has met each challenge head on, radiating kindness at every turn.
“He’s a good man,” said his wife, Blanche, 86, whom he married in 2010. “I love him to death.”
As one of fewer than 3,000 World War II veterans remaining in Maryland, Greenfield is pushing for visibility for the more than 1.2 million Black soldiers who served in history’s deadliest conflict. While fighting for democracy abroad, Black service members faced rampant discrimination within the U.S. military, where they were placed in segregated units and largely confined to support and maintenance roles.
“Even though they didn’t want Black soldiers as combat soldiers, we did what we were told and we were a part of the war,” Greenfield said. “We feel that we made our contribution as required or asked and we did it with honor.”
The road from Tennessee to Europe
The youngest of six children, Greenfield was born on April 25, 1920, in Williamsport, Tennessee.
Greenfield’s father and stepmother were both teachers and stressed the importance of education to their children, all of whom earned college degrees. Even with their support, he faced an uphill battle attending Tennessee’s vastly under-resourced segregated school system.
“In my chemistry lab I couldn’t make nothing [because] we had magnesium, that was the only chemical,” he said. “Needless to say, when I went to college I was very, very poorly prepared.”
Greenfield graduated from Bridgeforth High School in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1938 and subsequently enrolled in Tennessee State University, a historically Black university in Nashville. While there he studied history, social science and physical science and met and married his first wife, Dorothy Turner, who died in 1994.
To help pay for expenses, Greenfield worked as a housekeeper for a local family, earning $2 per week and walking 3 miles to class every day.
After graduating college in 1941 and holding a series of odd jobs, Greenfield was drafted into the Army in April 1943 in the midst of World War II and sent to Camp Pickett in Virginia for training.
“We were quartered in the worst area on the base,” said Greenfield, who said his barracks was made of flimsy tar paper. “The rest of the post was normal buildings.”
Following stints at several other camps on the East Coast, Greenfield’s unit finally arrived in England in late 1944 as the Battle of the Bulge was raging across the snowy Ardennes Forest. Once in Germany, he served as a platoon sergeant with a supply company in charge of field rations.
Greenfield remembers nightly flyovers by enemy fighters and the sight of shelled-out German villages, which he said resembled the images of Ukraine that flash across his TV screen today.
After finishing the war in Salzburg, Austria, Greenfield returned home and was discharged in 1945. In 1950, at the start of the Korean War, he was recalled to the Army, where he remained for the next two decades.
During that time in the military, Greenfield said Black college graduates faced additional discrimination from white higher-ups, who resented their education. Despite applying for Officer Candidate School numerous times starting in the 1940s, it wasn’t until he earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Denver in 1957 that supervisors felt he had enough expertise.
Once again, he refused to let racial barriers and physical distance stand in the way of his education — Greenfield commuted 130 miles round-trip from his Colorado base to attend graduate school classes.
“He never gave any quarter to say, ‘Okay, I’m not gonna be able to do that, I just give up,” said Dr. Gerald Greenfield Jr., 70, Greenfield’s oldest son.
The elder Greenfield finally received a direct commission from master sergeant to captain in 1963.
The younger Greenfield credits his father’s perseverance for inspiring his own Army medical career. He graduated from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, led a mobile surgical unit during the Iraq War and now practices orthopedic surgery in San Antonio, Texas.
“If that’s your role model, then you just can’t stop,” he said.
‘Nobody has ever invited me’
A highlight of Greenfield’s Army service came in the mid-1960s when he and his young family were stationed in Landstuhl, West Germany, for three years.
Unlike other soldiers who were content to serve out their time on the base, Greenfield saved up his leave and took his family on a grand tour of Europe, visiting dozens of cities and countries.
Greenfield’s youngest son, Damon, remembers the thrill of visiting the Colosseum days after watching Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus” and exploring London as he learned about King Arthur and Knights of the Round Table.
“It was my goal to expose my two children to all that they could see,” said Greenfield, who relished his role as his sons’ teacher outside of the classroom.
“I don’t know how many times he made me write my homework over because I had too many [erase marks] in it,” said Gerald Jr. “But the teacher then could read the homework and I got a better grade.”
Upon returning to the States, Greenfield was posted to Fort Meade and, inspired in part by real estate developer James Rouse’s vision of racial equity, settled in the brand-new planned city of Columbia. As an Army social worker, he was tasked with assisting families whose loved ones had just been slain in Vietnam.
Greenfield eventually achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel and received an honorable discharge in 1973. He subsequently continued his career as a social worker at the Department of Social Services and VA Regional Office in Baltimore and St. Elizabeths Hospital in D.C.
Service has remained a constant through his life, according to Greenfield’s family. Following through on his passion for education, he became a substitute teacher for Howard County public schools during his retirement.
“Whatever we needed, he was always there,” said Damon, 67, of Columbia. “He’d be a Little League coach and Scoutmaster.”
After a lifetime of being on the move, Greenfield isn’t as nimble as he used to be and is hoping to receive a higher service-related disability rating from the VA. He said VA benefits and additional tax relief would go a long way toward helping him and Blanche care for themselves and their house.
“We’re trying to stay out of nursing homes,” Greenfield said. “We’d rather be here as long as we can.”
Greenfield is seeking increased disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs for hearing loss and other medical issues stemming from his service.
“You would think with the number of World War II veterans that there are still alive, the government would say, ‘You know what, all of you World War II veterans over 100, you don’t need to pay any taxes anymore,” Gerald Jr. said.
Greenfield also believes recognition of Black veterans should extend beyond monetary compensation. He noted a lack of Black representation in the Honor Flight programs that transport veterans from across the country to visit the National World War II Memorial in D.C.
“Nobody has ever invited me to go see the memorial,” he said.
Although select Black combat units, such as the Tuskegee Airmen, have been well recognized in popular media, Greenfield said Black World War II veterans with less glamorous but equally essential roles have been passed over.
“I know they were a special unit, but we sort of feel left out,” Greenfield said. “We get no celebration.”
(c)2023 the Howard County Times (Columbia, Md.)
Visit the Howard County Times at www.baltimoresun.com/explore/howard/publications/howard-times
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.