World War II Oral History Interview
Date: September 23, 2002
Veteran: First Sergeant John Knox
559th Quartermaster Battalion/3210 Quartermaster Service Company
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Walter Borkowski
John Knox was born in Dothan, Alabama in June, 1918, but was living in Orange, New Jersey when he was drafted into the army on March 9, 1943. Knox was sent to Fort Dix, New Jersey by bus and remained there for three weeks of army orientation and classification before being transferred to Fort Blanding, Florida. Fort Blanding was thirty nine miles from Jacksonville and, Knox, an African American, recalled that it was segregated, with “blacks on one side, whites on the other.” Within three months, the unit he was assigned to, the 559th Quartermaster Battalion, was reorganized, and Knox was selected to be First Sergeant of the 3210 Quartermaster Service Company.
Knox’s battalion received sixteen weeks of basic infantry training and instruction in military discipline and how to move supplies, particularly ammunition, safely and efficiently. He recalled that during the training period the unit endured long twenty mile marches and bivouacked in the Everglades swamp. He believed the unit was “training for the Pacific.” Knox’s company, however, was then sent to the Mojave Desert in California for eight weeks of desert training and then on to New York City, where it boarded a troopship sailing for Liverpool, England. Once in England, Knox’s unit was based at Shepton Mallet, an ancient village in Somerset County and a major staging area for the D-Day invasion.
Knox landed on Utah Beach following D-Day, and his company quickly began forwarding supplies to the advancing American army. He recalled that his men spent some time at the French town of St. Mere Eglise, transferring supplies from railroad cars to the “Red Ball Express” truck convoys that carried them to the troops at the front. He remembered that General George S. Patton’s Third Army arrived in France following D-Day, and that Patton didn’t want his men’s supplies stacked up and waiting – “he wanted them mobile” since his army moved fast. Knox said that at one time Patton’s army moved so fast that “they ran out of maps.” During this period First Sergeant Knox recalled that his men were also assigned the duty of guarding German prisoners of war.
At one point Knox’s company was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division and was surrounded with the division at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944. He remembered that “everyone had to man a rifle or weapon” in the emergency. His men were not well prepared for the cold of that winter and consequently suffered from the weather. He recalled that the siege was broken when Patton’s Third Army pushed into the Bulge from Metz, France and the sky cleared, allowing American air power to bomb the German tanks.
Following the Battle of the Bulge, Knox remembered, the end of the war was in sight, and the Germans collapsed fairly rapidly the following spring, with the war ending in Europe in May, 1945. He recalled that he was at Camp Chesterfield, near Marseilles, France, preparing his men to go to the Pacific, when the US dropped “the bomb” on Japan, ending the war completely. Knox spent Christmas, 1945 and New Year’s Eve 1946 on a troopship before docking in New York City on New Year’s Day. He was separated from the service on January 6, 1946 at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.
Although he remembered that he did not see many black men object to being inducted into the army, Knox recalled incidents of racial prejudice he encountered during his service that caused an anger that stayed with him for a long time following the war. He remembered that black soldiers had to sit in the rear of train cars while the German prisoners of war they were guarding were allowed to sit in the front with white American soldiers. “That made it very difficult, and many of us held in a lot of animosity,” he said.
“When the war was over, segregation was still prevalent,” Knox recalled. “I did my duty fighting for my country, but in 1946 we went right back into [an] American life that was still segregated. We were loyal, we fought for our country, but we still had to withstand the same abuses that we had before we went overseas. In some towns in Mississippi we couldn’t get anything to eat. We had to eat on the train. We had to endure, endure that -- even in uniform.”Knox noted that President Harry Truman desegregated the military by executive order in 1948, but that it was not until nineteen years after World War II, in 1964, that the Federal Civil Rights Bill banning racial discrimination was passed by congress. He believes that desegregation proceeded smoothly in the armed services because soldiers were trained to obey orders. He recalled, however, that continued segregation in civilian life “made me angry” and that as a result he did not join any veterans’ organizations. It wasn’t until many years after the war that
he joined the American Legion and discovered that many people had come to appreciate what he and other black soldiers did for their country, and he “got that loyal feeling again.” He later became a vice commander in the American Legion, but remembered sadly that many veterans “died from their wounds and never saw the day that we have now.”
In retrospect, Knox recalled that he enjoyed being a first sergeant and advised that “you learned a lot by being in the army. The army made you tough, and trained you how to handle life. You learned to handle a whole lot of things that would help you in civilian life. It made me strong; that is what it did to me.”
Following his discharge, John Knox returned to Essex County, New Jersey, where he lived and worked for the Essex County Department of Corrections until his retirement. He received several military awards since the end of the war and is especially proud of a “Flow of Victory Medal” he received from the French Consulate in New York City.