On National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, Robert Madison, a 97-year-old World War II veteran, recalls his time in battle. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, Madison, who is Black, was attending Howard University in Washington, D.C. He left college to fight as an intelligence officer.
Black soldiers were segregated and marginalized, and Madison remembers a profound moment when a white general acknowledged his all-Black battalion.
It was, he says, "the first time anybody had recognized that we were there to fight."
Click on the audio button to hear the interview with Madison.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right, today marks 79 years since Pearl Harbor was attacked. Ninety-seven-year-old Robert Madison remembers exactly where he was.
ROBERT MADISON: I was a student in Howard University. And immediately it became obvious that we would be going to war. The question was - what are they going to do with colored men?
GREENE: At the time, he was an architecture student. He left college to fight in World War II as an intelligence officer.
NOEL KING, HOST:
In the Army, he faced segregation and marginalization. But Madison has a profound memory of a white general, Mark Clark, who acknowledged his all-Black battalion.
MADISON: He noticed that the commanders of these companies were just first lieutenants. And he said, why are these commanders not captains? And they sort of shrugged their shoulders. So he said to his aide-de-camp, give me the bars. And sure enough, right there on the parade ground, Mark Clark put the captain's bars on these commanding officers. That was the first time anybody had recognized that we were there to fight and do battle like anybody else.
GREENE: His battalion was not the only one that had long been overlooked.
MADISON: On my left flank was the for 4-42nd. They were the Nisei, the Japanese troops. But these boys are out there doing what we were trying to do. They were trying to prove something like we were.
GREENE: Madison says he and other Black troops carried that feeling after the war in the fight for civil rights.
MADISON: When we came back, we were determined to demand the rights that we were entitled to. They said we fought for this country, and a lot of us died for this country - we're entitled.
KING: He says he modeled much of his life on President Theodore Roosevelt's famous speech, "The Strenuous Life." He wanted to work hard to do right by his family.
MADISON: I've had some victories. I got some defeats, too. But my thrust for success, inspired by my wife and my mother and my father, was overwhelming.
GREENE: Robert Madison was injured in combat, and he was awarded a Purple Heart. And he did go on to become a celebrated architect. Among his firm's biggest projects, the Cleveland Browns Stadium and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.