Authored by Catherine Torres
During World War II, US and British bombers participating in the Allied Aerial campaign operated out of airfields in Southeast England. Building the airfields was difficult; there were long hours and equipment shortages (Hartzer 2013). Like many servicemen and women, aviation engineers, those who built the airfields, did their part for the war effort, but unlike their peers, aviation engineers are not often memorialized. The reason? At the time, of the 157 American aviation engineer units, 48 of them were designated as “colored” (Hartzer 2013).
When America joined the war effort, Jim Crow laws were still in effect. As such, the stigma of dark skin followed our black American servicemen around the world, even though places where the troops were stationed, like England, were not segregated. This meant, besides the treatment they received (usually from their white American peers), colored units’ military efforts were not documented and preserved as well as white units’ efforts (Charles 2021). From an archival point of view, deciding the memories of an entire group of people don’t need to be preserved essentially negates that group’s existence (Angel, n.d., 5-6). In efforts to rectify past wrongs, numerous museums have created collections that honor all American servicemen and women regardless of skin color.
In its American Air Museum, the Imperial War Museum in Cambridgeshire, England has a small collection of items commemorating the 847th Engineer Aviation Battalion, one of WWII’s 48 black engineer aviation units. Among them is a cartoon by the famous cartoonist, Ronald “Carl” Giles, depicting two men from the 847th that he often played jazz with. The men were called Ike and Butch, but we are unsure of their real names. The fact that this cartoon endured the test of time is not due to its subject matter, it is more likely because Giles drew it.
Giles was a cartoonist for the Daily Express for 50 years. He gained notoriety after depicting Mussolini as Hitler’s pet dog and then followed the D-Day landings as an official war cartoonist, earning his spot in the Express and among followers (Salisbury 2007). Giles lived in Suffolk in Southeastern England and befriended many of the black servicemen stationed in the area, like Ike and Butch, “His affection for American servicemen is apparent in several cartoons” (Salisbury 2007). Perhaps artists like Giles have a role in representing the underserved; renowned artists can ensure overlooked minorities are seen. They can shine light on situations that are otherwise ignored. Artists can use their pedestals to help lift others up. They can memorialize groups of people.
James Waddell (2021), a WWII veteran from the 847th, revealed how he would like to be remembered, “Don’t call me white. Don’t call me Black. Call me James, American citizen.” Giles captured the jazz-loving spirits of Ike and Butch, doing what they enjoyed in a place where they were accepted regardless of their skin color. Because Giles saw them back then, we can see them today.
American Air Museum. 2021. “James Waddell.” http://www.americanairmuseum.com/person/244000
American Air Museum. 2021. “Carl Giles.” http:// www.americanairmuseum.com/person/243999
American Air Museum. 2021. “Spotlight on the Unsung Heroes.” Membership Blog. https://aamb.us/spotlight-on-the-unsung-heroes/
Angel, Christine M. n.d. “Information Representation Through the Vincentian Lens of Transparency: Providing the Under and Misrepresented with a Voice within Our Cultural Heritage Records.” Evolution of Teaching Philosophy: 1-7. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1qcJMPP6N6Mxq07J4ifsaWe4VQQ14JvgU/view
Charles, Emily. 2021. “ ‘They Treated Us Royally?’ Black Americans in Britain During WW2.” Imperial War Museums. https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/they-treated-us-royally-the- experiences-of-black-americans-in-britain-during-the-second-world-war
Giles, Ronald Carl. Drawings of 847th Personnel, 1943. Cartoon. American Air Museum, Imperial War Museum, Cambridgeshire, England.
Hartzer, Ronald. 2013. “A Look Back at Black Aviation Engineer Units of World War II.” Official United States Air Force Website. https://www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/ Article/109658/a-look-back-at-black-aviation-engineer-units-of-world-war-ii/
Salisbury, Peter. 2007. “Gile’s Cold War: How Fleet Street’s Favorite Cartoonist Saw the Conflict.” Media History 12, no. 2: 157-175. https://doi-org.jerome.stjohns.edu/ 10.1080/13688800600807981