In his new memoir The Wind In the Reeds, Wendell Pierce tells the story of his father Amos, and the old man’s struggle for justice. Amos — forgive me, but having met him, I can only call him “Mr. Amos” — fought in the Battle of Saipan in World War II. When he was discharged through Fort Hood, his papers had not yet caught up with him. When Mr. Amos told the white WAC officer processing him that he had been awarded medals for his bravery, she refused to believe that a black man was capable of such valor, and sent him on his way without his due.
When the Defense Department caught its error and wrote to the veteran to ask him if he wanted his medals, Mr. Amos refused. And yet, he did not raise his sons to hate the country that treated him this way. Wendell remembers this event from his childhood, when his dad took him to a boxing match in the late 1960s or early 1970s, in the Black Power era:
That night at the Municipal Auditorium, the national anthem began to sound over the PA system, signaling that the fights would soon begin. Everyone stood, except some brothers sitting in the next row down from us. They looked up at my father and said, “Aw, Pops, sit down.”
“Don’t touch me, man,” growled my dad.
“Sit down! Sit down!” they kept on.
“Don’t touch me,” he said. “I fought for that flag. You can sit down. I fought for you to have that right. But I fought for that flag too, and I’m going to stand.”
Then one of the brothers leveled his eyes at Daddy, and said, “No, you need to sit down.” He started pulling on my father’s pants leg.
That was it. “You touch me one more time,” my father roared, “and I’m going to kick you in your f—-ng teeth.”
The radical wiseass turned around and minded his own business. That was a demonstration of black power that the brother hadn’t expected.
Many years later, in 2009, Wendell learned of the medals his dad had been denied, and worked with a local TV reporter, and US Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office, to get his father his due. Army records showed that Amos Pierce had in fact been awarded six medals. He finally received his medals in a special ceremony in October, 2009, at the World War II Museum in New Orleans. You can read the story here, and see a photo of Mr. Amos, his (now deceased) wife Althea, and Wendell.
In The Wind in the Reeds, Wendell writes:
[Black veterans] loved the country that persecuted them, and treated them like the enemy. To me, that is a vision of supreme patriotism. It’s like my father always said to my brothers and me, every time we would see a triumph of American ideals: “See, that’s why I fought for that flag!”
Amos Pierce never stopped fighting for that flag, and never stopped loving it, either. On the day he finally received his medals, he said nothing at the formal ceremony, but in the gala afterward, he decided that he wanted to offer a few words to the crowd.
He hobbled over to the microphone, and despite his hearing loss, spoke with ringing clarity.
“I want you all to remember those who didn’t come back, I want to dedicate this night to them,” he said. “So many who fought didn’t even have a chance to live their lives. I was given that chance, as difficult as my life has been.”
Daddy thanked the audience for the honor, saying he was not bitter for having been denied the medals for so long. He was simply grateful to have them now.
“We’ve come so far as a country,” he continued. “I’ve realized now a lot of what we were fighting for.”
And then he paused. It took all of his strength to stand as erect as possible at the podium. He saluted crisply, and said, “God bless America.”
That’s when I lost it. For someone not to be debilitated by pain and anger and embarrassment after all he had been through; who fought for this country when this country didn’t love him and wouldn’t fight for him; to come back from war and still have to fight for the right to vote and the right to go into any establishment he wanted to – that made me think of the vow he made to me as a child: “No matter what, son, I will never abandon you.”
I have never known a greater man than that old soldier on the night he received his due.
I read that chapter aloud to my own father in the last weeks of his life. I couldn’t get through that passage without choking up, and then sobbing. When I looked up to apologize to my dad for not being able to continue, I saw that he too was crying.
It’s an amazing book, about a terrific family.
Not long ago, I was feeling very down and frustrated about our country, and doubting my own loyalty to it. Then I thought about what Amos Pierce had been through, and how he had suffered both in war, and then the humiliation of having his bravery denied, simply because of the color of his skin. Yet his faith in America did not waver.
And then I felt ashamed of myself.