Corporal James W. Baldwin
James Willie Baldwin was born and raised in Wagram, North Carolina. James, born on July 11, 1924, lost two siblings to the Spanish Flu before he was born. In 1942, he graduated valedictorian from Laurinburg Institute, the historic African American preparatory school founded in 1904 by Emmanuel Monty and Tinny McDuffie at the request of Book T. Washington. Although he was awarded a scholarship for the North Carolina A & T College, he went to Fayetteville State College instead to be with his high school sweetheart Anne McLaughlin.
It is there in Fayetteville that James’ army career started. In October 1942, he joined the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), a program instituted to meet wartime demands for both junior officers and soldiers with technical skills. However, only two months later, President Roosevelt ordered an end to all voluntary enlistment programs. In March 1943, James was on his way to Fort Benning, Georgia to report for active duty. For the next three years, he would spend his life in service of his country.
Training brought James to various parts of the country. In April 1943, he is transferred to the Armored Force Replacement Training Center, Fort Knox, Kentucky. After three months of training, James graduated and was assigned to the 784th Tank Battalion at Camp Claiborne. The 784th was only activated a few months before as the last of three all-Black tank battalions.
Before the men left Fort Knox, they had already been warned about the race riot of 1942 near Camp Claiborne, in Alexandria, Louisiana. The massacre left numerous Black soldiers dead. James noted about his time at Claiborne: “I was used to discrimination because I was from the South, but it was pretty rough here.” Black soldiers had inferior facilities in the camp, were allowed to only sit in the back of the bus, and could only get into Black sections of the town
I felt that in the Army, you are prepared to fight war for your country, things would have been different. The army should not have been segregated, but it was. Just different like night and day how we were treated.
In Europe, Baldwin recalled, he and other men of his outfit would be painfully reminded of how fellow countrymen looked upon Black soldiers. “White soldiers said we had tails.” Tensions were, therefore, omnipresent. “If a Black soldier was seen with a white girl, it meant trouble. Locals also invited us at their places and to join them in cafes, angering white soldiers. When one of them called us ‘nigger’ in a café in a Belgian town, we got into a massive fight.”
The men spent most of their time training in Texas, however. The 784th was transferred to Camp Hood in September 1943 to prepare for combat. Intermittently, the battalion engaged in field exercises in Camp Swift. Corporal Baldwin served as gunner in the second squad of the Mortar platoon of the Headquarters Company.
At the end of October of 1944, it was the 784th’s time to ship out. “The Moreton Bay was an old ship and it was a rough ride. The ship was very uncomfortable: overcrowded, bad food, and seasickness.” James remembered. The unit arrived mid-November in England and stayed in France before they were attached to the 104th Infantry Division in Germany on Christmas Day in 1944.
The unit primarily saw combat in Germany during its time in the European Theater of Operations. In February 1945, the battalion was released from the 104th Infantry Division and attached to the 35th Infantry Division; it remained with division until the end of the war. Baldwin recalled that he saw about 30 days of actual combat while overseas.
White soldiers said we had tails.
When the war was over, James did not have enough points to go home yet. He was assigned various duties, leading him to different parts of Europe, including Czech-Slovakia. In March 1946, he was finally discharged at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In recognition of his three-year-long service, Baldwin was awarded the American Theater Campaign Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with two bronze stars, the World War II Victory Medal, and the Good Conduct Medal.
James would continue his life in public service after the war. He used the G.I. Bill to get a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master’s Degree in Social Work from Howard University, one of the country’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. In the meantime he got married with his high school classmate, the late Anne Mclaughlin. They have three children together.
Upon graduating, he began working for the District government of Washington D.C. in various agencies, until he was asked by the first Black mayor of the city, Walter Washington, to head the DC Office of Human Rights. After ten years, he retired in 1979. In this period, he also received his PhD in Public Administration from the Nova University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
After his retirement from the government, Dr. James Baldwin founded Baldwin & Associations, specializing in complaints about discrimination, wanting to ensure that people got justice. He retired in 2006, but would continue to be active in community work, including in his church.
As a matter of fact, he helps other combat veterans cope with their experience in a bible study class to this day. It was by talking to them, he came to understand his own experiences and trauma. “My main trauma was to see one of my friends get killed. When I saw tank number 54 go up in flames, and that you knew, at least I knew, he was the driver.” In 2015, James was diagnosed with PTSD. “I could not even talk about Albert Marshall without crying. We were so close and we had so much in common. But now I finally can.”
Dr. Baldwin’s civil and military service is still widely recognized today. The city council of Washington D.C. honored Dr. James Baldwin in 2019 for his military and civil service in 2019. The government of the Netherlands honored him in 2020 for his part in the liberation of the country.
Dr. James W. Baldwin died on August 1, 2022 at the age of 98.
The embassy of The Netherlands in the United States hosted a ceremony on February 6, 2019 to emphasize the importance of learning more about the 172 African American soldiers memorialized in the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten. During this ceremony Dr. James W. Baldwin, veteran of the 784th All Black Tank Battalion, was honored.
Corporal James Baldwin also appeared on the SNAFU Podcast which is a podcast for military history and WWII buffs. You can view and listen to the podcast here.