Q&A with author of 'We Were There: The voices of African American Veterans'

Elizabeth Howe
February 25, 2019 - 12:50 pm

Photo courtesy of Amistad Publishing

Award-winning journalist Yvonne Latty never understood her father's military service — until she wrote a book about not only her father's service but the service of African American veterans who served all the way from World War II to Iraq. We Were There: Voices of African American Veterans from World War II to the War in Iraq tells the stories of more than two dozen veterans. Connecting Vets talked to Latty about finding, learning, and sharing these stories. 

Connecting Vets: What inspired you to write We Were There?

Yvonne Latty: I was working for the Philadelphia Daily News and this Vietnam veteran called and asked me to write an obit on a friend of his who had just died — George Ingram. He served in WWII on a submarine. Back in those days, if you were in the Navy, the most you could do was be a waiter or steward on the ships and submarines. But on submarines — since they were so small — when they were attacked even the African Americans on the boat had to man a station. George saved people's lives. He had a lot of combat experience. It was a really beautiful story, and it really moved me and made me realize why I'm American — why this country belongs to me. 

CV: Why is that?

YL:  It belongs to me because so many people did so much so that I could have the opportunities that I have now. Once I came to that realization I decided I wanted to share the story of black veterans not only from WWII but all the way up to present day conflicts. That's We Were There.

CV: What was it like tracking down all these veterans and their stories? 

YL: It was hard and it wasn't at the same time. I traveled the country and talked to black veterans who served in WWII, Vietnam, Korea, Iraq. It was a really moving experience. But it was hard to find them sometimes because usually, it's the white veterans who are highlighted or saluted as heroes. I did a lot of work, talked to a lot of people, and everyone I found I interviewed. I didn't say no to anyone.

CV: Can you talk about the title you chose for the book. 

YL: With We Were There  I wanted to show in the title that African Americans served in the military and were really prominent every war. We were there even though a lot of times our service is invisible. I wrote the book in their voice, in first person, so I'm letting them tell their stories. I wanted to let people who read the book have the same experience I had which was just sitting and listening. Some of these people had never even talked about these stories before.

CV: Your father served in the Navy. Did he talk about the racial struggles he faced in the military? 

YL: That's pretty much all he talked about when he talked about his military service. For the longest time, I couldn't understand why he wanted to serve at all. He volunteered to go into WWII. He went in at 17. I thought he was crazy. I didn't get why he wanted to serve a country that treated him so badly. Especially back then. They're lynching black men and then you're going to go and fight for this country? But after writing We Were There, it makes sense to me now. They were fighting for us. They were fighting for respect and honor and to be accepted as Americans. 

CV: Over the time period that you studied, how did military culture change for African Americans? 

YL: I felt like as I went through the years things definitely got better. There were a lot more opportunities, and in some ways, it felt like the military was ahead of regular civilian life. But I do feel with a lot of the rhetoric coming from the White House that we're going backward. You definitely feel, as a black person, that you are headed quickly toward the back of a bus again. 

CV: What do you want readers to take away from your book? 

YL: I love We Were There. It changed my life in so many ways. My goal for the book always was to show people that African Americans served in the military in so many different wars and have done so many great things when it comes to their military service. I hope when people read We Were There they can connect no matter what color they are — realize we have so much more in common as Americans than things that separate us. I don't think I'll live to see this, but I dream for my daughters that we'll learn in America that race doesn't matter and color doesn't matter. We're just trying our best and we love our country. 

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