Lt. Williams on the Color Front
by Chris Bell
Authors Press

"He thought; how do I go about finding out who I am? Do I listen to how and what people say about me?"

As the United States winds down from the Second World War and begins to gear up for conflict in Korea, the political landscape leads to a potentially massive change within the armed forces. It has been decided that white troops and colored troops will no longer remain wholly segregated, and that leads to a situation on a German military base where Second Lieutenant Neal Williams finds himself as a black man in charge of a unit made up entirely of white soldiers. Williams, already feeling like a fish out of water in a foreign country and away from his family and girlfriend, must deal with this conflict as his superiors look for ways to undermine him to the point of requesting a transfer and having him become “somebody else’s problem.”

Williams stands firm, though, determining to prove he’s the man for the job, not for any altruistic reasons, but instead to prove that he is capable of leadership under any circumstances and to follow his military creed of not foolishly volunteering for anything. As he experiences both direct and subtle resistance to his presence, Williams also deals with isolation both from his comfort zone and in a country dealing with its own racial politics and concerns. Discovering an old friend in a medic stationed at the same base and making a new one in a self-confident and driven prostitute, the small support group Neal finds is his only source of strength as he navigates history accidentally and the inner workings of his character deliberately. The only way he has a chance at succeeding is by demonstrating the kind of man he is, even as he continues to grow in his own understanding of that identity.

Framed as a story told from the perspective of a chaplain who encountered Williams as they were both shipping out to Germany, the tone of this tale is one that is grounded and honest. The respect the narrator shows for what Lt. Williams accomplished is evident, but it isn’t presented as some heroic calling or personal quest—just the circumstances a man found himself in that made him the first to do something that would prove very important for the military culture and an American society still nearly decades out from a similar change. That ground-level storytelling allows for a great deal of honest emotion in the narrative, as moments of doubt or weakness find their way into Neal’s behavior as he struggles with his new environment.

While a work of fiction, the situation, and the reactions to it, ring true for their era and location. The author’s experiences both in the army as well as at the rank of lieutenant during the time period that this story takes place provide a lot of colorful inside knowledge. His familiarity with the attitudes of the time gives this story a lot of punching power in its details, as well. Particularly poignant is the sense of loneliness that informs the protagonist’s decision. Surely this is a common experience for any soldier stationed abroad, but it is magnified in a situation where one is viewed as a second-class citizen regardless of past accomplishments and actual rank. The drama and tension of this story hold taut and ready to snap at a moment’s notice, making for a read with a constant ability to excite. Its quiet strength is found in a profound and fascinating introspection of a man at the crossroads of history, whose every move is scrutinized and potentially informs public opinion for years if not generations.

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