Percy Strothers spent his 19th birthday on the beach. But there wasn’t a beach party. This beach was at Normandy and the day was D-Day.
Percy Strothers is 91 years old now, he has hearing problems, but he can still remember being fifteen miles off the coast of Normandy with the big guns firing all around him. He also remembers the sound of the Allied tank engines as they maneuvered on the landscape.
When he graduated from high school in 1943, he was still too young to enlist; by two months. So he lied; he told the recruitment officers that he was 17 and they believed him. Soon after, he was in the Army, stationed at Camp Shelby, south of Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
After completing basic training, he was eventually assigned to the 775th MP Battalion in Sioux City, Nebraska. This assignment was guarding an ammunition depot; it was supposed to be Strothers’ final stop. But fate stepped in… a couple of Strothers’ companions in the battalion got into trouble – the entire battalion was sent to the heart of the battle lines in Europe. The commanding officers said that if they want to fight, then let them fight where it counts, on the front line. Strothers and his unit got packed and ready to go and in just a few weeks they were sailing for England on the Queen Elizabeth.
Strothers traveled with 40,000 other soldiers to New Jersey, where they boarded the Queen Elizabeth, which was one of many luxury liners that were converted to transport ships for soldiers. During their shuttle to England, there was a German U-boat stalking them, so the ship made a detour and the troops were dropped off in Scotland. A train was sent to them and soon they were off to England. While in England, Strothers was trained to guard POWs, which would probably include German SS troops.
Strothers’ memory is failing a little bit, but he does remember being on the front line. He remembers, after the Normandy landing, traveling north through France hearing German fighter planes with guns blaring and German soldiers shooting at his unit’s trucks. Occasionally they had to leap from the trucks to take cover in the ditches or the woods as they were being strafed by the Nazi pilots.
His battalion joined the Third Army commanded by General George Patton and fought at the Battle of the Bulge. Strother and his comrades saw action as the Allies moved through Northern France, the Rhineland, and finally in Germany itself. He stayed in Europe for a while after the war to play baseball as an amateur and returned to the US in January 1946.
He was a survivor of one of the most horrendous global wars in history, but if you listen to what Strothers has to say, coming home was at least as bad.
When he was leaving Camp Shelby with four other black men to go home, they boarded a bus and were immediately sent to the back of the bus. Two state police officers stopped the bus when they were 60 or 70 miles into their trip home and forced the five black men to leave the bus. The state troopers called them by the N-word, searched them, and ordered them off the bus.
Strothers said they hadn’t done anything wrong, but they were left there just sitting on their duffel bags on the side of the road. “We were told to get home the best way we knew how. Can you imagine how we felt? We did everything in our power, honorably serving our country, and they left us sitting on the side of the road.”
He had to pay for a ride home. It cost him $15.
“When I got home, I cried. I sacrificed my life and they treated me like that. I thought things were going to be better when I got home.” But he had to make it better himself. Strothers lived a full and happy life; hardship and discrimination didn’t stop him. And he is still going strong, “ninety-one years is a long time,” he says, “I’m still alive. Thank God.”
Strothers has been married for 50 years. He and his wife Carolyn have two children and two grandchildren. In his home, there’s a family picture everywhere you turn. Over there, is a picture of a youthful Strothers on his wedding day in 1966 with Carolyn. Here, over his rocker recliner, all dressed in red, his two children join him and his wife. Across the room is the old Vicksburg Post newspaper story of his war exploits in a picture frame. He was quite a familiar face around Vicksburg as he delivered mail for 27 years before retiring from the US Postal Service. By now, though, you can probably guess that his favorite pictures are the ones with all of the family in them, The Vicksburg Post reported.
Even today, Strothers proudly wears his World War II veterans’ hat. Despite the bullets and the bombs, in spite of the back of the bus, regardless of his battle with age, this country is still his home and he loves it.