By A. T. Steele - The Chicago Daily News Foreign Service 1944
At an Advance Base in Northern Burma, Feb. 17 - American Negro troops have their heroes, too - men like Roy Lee Smith, operator of one of those flat-bottomed boats that ply the forest-lined rivers of Northern Burma with cargoes of men, supplies and Chinese wounded.
Five Men Drown
Smith has been in Burma less than three months, but he has already cheated death twice and is credited with saving the lives of two Chinese soldiers. He is a member of a Negro pontoon outfit with which this writer lived and traveled for three days early this week. His comrades, Negroes from every section of the United States, think Smith deserves some kind of special recognition, though Smith himself says it is all a "lotta fuss about nothing."
Traveling along the Tanai River in one of these light craft last Saturday, we had just passed through a mean stretch of the swift current when somebody remarked: "That's where five men died."
Then the story came out. Several weeks before a boat had foundered and gone down at that point with its nine occupants. Three American Negro boys and two Chinese never came up. Smith, dragging the weight of his uniform and heavy shoes, managed to keep afloat. He grabbed two Chinese as they floated helplessly by and got them ashore. Meanwhile Sgt. Madison Carey, a North Chicago boy, traveling on a second boat, had leaped into the rapids to rescue a third Chinese.
Cheats Death Again
Last week Smith, who is from Lexington, Ky., was doing duty on the same kind of boat in another part of the river when he had a second brush with eternity. At a bend in the stream the boatload of Americans suddenly was greeted with a hail of machine-gun fire from the bank, 200 yards away. They replied with everything they had. Then when their ammunition ran out, they waded ashore and plunged into the jungle with a loss of one Negro soldier killed and a white officer wounded.
For 24 hours the survivors foundered through the forest in their stocking feet (they had discarded their shoes in the river), making their way through the dense undergrowth with jack-knives. They reached their base safely.
Likes All but Japs
Smith, back on the job, still wears a bandage on his thorn-pricked feet. He talks of his experiences with casual modesty. Asked if he would like to be back on his truck-driving job in Kentucky, he drawled: "Oh, it's all the same, one way or the other, I guess. I don't mind this work excepting when them damned Japs is around."
You can't help marveling at the unfailing good humor of these Negro troops, whether they are driving boats through jungle streams or piloting bulldozers on the Ledo Road. There is nothing glamorous about their jobs but they always manage to see the funny side of the war.
Around the campfire after a day's trip, Bernie Durant of Sumter, S.C., regaled us with his experiences. A giant of a man, 6 feet 3 in height, Bernie admits that the jungle scares him.
A Small Man's Game
"This is a small man's game," said Bernie. "What chance have I got? Every time I take a step with my No. 11½'s, everybody for 10 miles around knows I'm acoming."
The best tonic for these Negro troops was their first sight of a Jap prisoner - a little fellow over whom they towered like man-mountains. "Gosh, is that all we are fighting?" roared one of them, "Why he is only a midget!"
Negro troops get along well with Chinese soldiers. They admire them for their guts and the uncanny way they "can smell Jap snipers a mile off."
Chicagoans in Outfit
There are a great many Chicago boys working with this outfit here in the jungles. At one boat landing I found the following: Sgt. Early Barney, 349 Prairie av.; Sgt. Edward Singleton, 5037 Forestville av.; Sgt. Eddie Rush, 4310 Vincennes av.; Corp. Ollie Lowry, 5040 St. Lawrence av.; Thomas Robinson, 3630 Michigan av.; Eddie Judon, 3038 S. State st.; Freddie Kilgore, 710 E. 43d st.; Sam Hill, 5026 South Park way; William Daniel, 4524 Cottage Grove av.; John Stewart, 719 E. 43d st.
Others from Chicago include Sgt. William Clark, Corp. Fred Barrow, Corp. Sam Pippon and Leon Jefferson.
Their white officer, Lt. Vincent Sczupak of Fulton, N.Y., is proud of his outfit's record.