Looking back on WWII and what black soldiers had to suffer on the home front before shoving off for combat duty in France and Germany, the searing “Liberators” spares little of the pain they endured thanks to U.S. racial policies, especially in the South. The war for blacks was on two fronts: restrictions at home and liberating Nazi victims; it’s a strong if not pretty pic.
Veterans of the black 761st tank battalion return as a civvy group to the sites they helped free half a century ago, but that’s only after a shocking reminder of what blacks endured while they were stationed in the United States.
It was segregation even to the point of separate post exchanges and USO units , quota systems in the military (finally lifted by FDR, who met with African-American leaders of the time about integrating the services and suggested maybe black bands on Navy ships).
Separate facilities were the rule, even for black units overseas. But docu demonstrates how the 761st moved into action in late l944 and early 1945 and, as one ex-tanker notes, pushed down the Dachau front gate.
The program looks at what they found behind the gates at Buchenwald, and the horrors are described by veterans touring the old battle grounds by bus with their families.
A retired school principal, Dr. Leon Bass, addressing a Jewish congegration in New Rochelle, animatedly recalls what he saw with his buddies and, as the narrative moves relentlessly forward, recites in anguish what they all had witnessed. Others meet in front of Buchenwald with one-time inmate Benjamin Bender, who recites a litany of agonies about his family.
There’s a charming reunion for the Black Panthers, as unit called itself, with a Belgian family they freed, and grim footage of what they as members of Patton’s Third Army found inside the camp.
In Bass’ words, “I knew on this day I had seen the face of evil. I’m talking about racism.” Soldiers eye the room where Germans hung their charges up on meathooks and the docu displays pix of corpses whose limbs were cut off, of a brain pressed against glass.
The writers hold up the faces of racism in both the United States and in Germany, and they spare little. One vet observes that some folks won’t believe what he has seen, but he’ll always believe it just because he did see it. For anyone who did see such things, the gentleman speaks the truth.
Speaking in obvious pain, another former soldier remembers coming home and visiting a Florida grocery store in 1946; nothing, not all the chilling revelations he had, with so many others, witnessed and helped stop, changed the black status in the South; that fight lay ahead.
Fine docu–the fifth-season opener for “American Experience”– is sure a respectful way to observe Veterans Day.