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From Alabama to segregated WWII Army unit, soldier discovered bigger world

American Flag (Unsplash/Lucas Sankey)

Paul Woods had it tough as a boy growing up in Alabama.

He was 7 when his father died in July 1930. A month later, his mother died.

“My uncle came to my mother’s gravesite and took me to his farm,” Woods said of how he came to work on his uncle’s 500-acre spread in Sulligent, Ala.

As the years passed, Woods said he dreamed of “seeing the other side of the world.” The Army, he said, provided him with a ticket out of the Deep South and its lack of opportunity for African-Americans.

With World War II raging in Europe, America had started the military draft and was taking young men left and right, according to Woods. He did not require a draft notice.

“I told my Uncle Henry I’m going in the Army. I was 17 and we went down to the enlistment station. The man there said, ‘He’s not old enough but if he wants to join, I’ll raise his age.’ He did God bless him,” the 95-year-old Woods recalled.

His exit from Alabama landed him in a “segregated unit” headed by white officers at Fort Sill, Okla. But the chance to travel, albeit to a war zone, soon presented itself after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, marking America’s entry into the Second World War.

“We were sent to San Francisco as part of the 29th Quartermaster Regiment and we boarded the Queen Elizabeth, which had been converted into a troop ship. We landed in Sydney, Australia, and were there a couple months before we were sent to Townsville, a place where the railroad tracks ended. We were there about a year and then went to Port Moresby, New Guinea.”

Woods and his fellow black soldiers provided ammunition to infantry members, “who were cleaning up the Japanese that were still on the island.”

The quartermaster unit also moved building supplies from ships to land for the construction of an airfield.

But Woods said a different type of construction impressed him.

“The native people lived in grass huts and believe me, when it rained, no rain got in. I don’t know how they did it,” he said.

* * *

Paul Woods, 95

Hometown: Bazemore, Ala.

Residence: Angola

Branch: Army

Rank: T5, 1st class

War zone: World War II, Pacific Theater

Years of service: Enlisted, 1940 – 1945

Most prominent honors: Pacific Theater Medal, Philippines Liberation Medal and Good Conduct Medal

Specialty: Quartermaster

* * *

During the 29th’s time in New Guinea, Woods said he and other soldiers had the chance to return to Australia on leaves.

“I liked the Australian women. They were friendly to us. Back in Alabama, you would have been skinned alive if you were with a white woman. You couldn’t ride on a bus in the front with a white woman,” he said of the racism back home.

While black soldiers were treated with hospitality Down Under during the war, Woods said Australia’s aboriginal people were subject to racist treatment.

But by early January 1945, the war in the Pacific was making steady progress and Woods’ regiment shifted to the Philippines. Making land, however, was not so easy.

“We stayed on our landing ships under a smoke screen for three days while battleships shelled the island.

“When we finally landed, the ground was too soft for Jeeps and trucks. So we used mules to carry the equipment forward. I was used to mules. My uncle had mules on his farm,” Woods recalled.

Months passed and in August 1945, the war abruptly ended.

“I thank President Truman for dropping the atomic bombs. It saved American lives,” Woods said.

After being honorably discharged, a fact that he is proud of, Woods returned home and resumed working at Uncle Henry’s farm. A couple years later, he married the former Matilda Lucas.

“Alabama was nasty with the racism, so we moved to Louisville, Kentucky, which was just as bad, but I had a job there in a metal factory,” he said.

During a 1953 family visit to Buffalo, Woods was hired to work at Bethlehem Steel. He and his wife had three children at the time.

“We went on to have a total of 15 children that included four sets of twins,” said Woods, who settled his family in Angola. “I supported my family working a lot of overtime.”

All of his children completed high school and several earned college degrees, he said, stressing the importance of education to get ahead in life: “There is no better place than to put your child in school.”

As for Woods, part of his education came through his desire to see “the other side of the world,” compliments of World War II.

“I just wonder now why people can’t get along,” he said of the ongoing global turmoil.

But for him, life continues to offer blessings.

Two of his daughters recently took him on a trip to Australia to fulfill his dream of returning to Sydney and visiting Royal Randwick Racecourse, where as a young soldier he had watched thoroughbred horses compete.

“It was remodeled and they showed us where the queen sat when she visited,” Woods said of the track.

But horseracing was only part of his nostalgic journey.

“When I was in Sydney in the war, there were street cars and now it’s all cars,” he said.

Woods was also interested in sampling a local dish he had enjoyed as a soldier.

“I had told my daughters when they were growing up how I’d eaten kangaroo meat. So we found a restaurant that served it and had some,” he said.

How was it?

“Believe me when I tell you, it was delicious, just like steak,” he said.


© 2018 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.