On July 1, 1944, Vincent “Roi” Ottley boarded S.S. Scythia in New York and began his unprecedented journey as the first African American war correspondent in World War II. Arriving in a Europe scarred by conflict, Ottley reported for three different publications, providing detailed accounts of the unfolding events. In his personal diary he candidly documented his day-to-day observations, frequently remarking on the racial tensions among soldiers and noting the mistreatment of African-American troops. The following entry was written three weeks after setting sail, as he set foot in Normandy.
The Diary Entry
July 24, 1944
Today we arrived on the beachheads of Normandy. Against a background—resembling the Palisades of the Hudson River—could be seen the wreckage of some 200 ships. The French coast was torn up, with big red splotches of earth—torn holes in the silent green mass of hills. As our barge brought us in the first sight of human being was a group of U.S. sailors playing football on the beach. A handfull of French children were watching curiously.
Once on shore we climbed the hills to the top where we ran into a barrage balloon outfit of Negroes. They were very cordial and happy to see new faces. They fed us—a regular G.I. meal, but given a special hand—rice, coffee, and a sort of sausage meat of pork.
From there we took off for the front, going by jeep supplied to us by the beach headquarters of the Army. Driving to the front, we met devastation on every hand. Our naval guns from the Channel played havoc with the German fortifications but also with the homes of the French people.
These are some of my initial observations of Normandy:
- Nearly two out of every three American soldiers is a Negro. They seem to be everywhere.
- In the small town of Isigny I saw a funeral parlor displaying a coffin with a baby. The showcase was windowless.
- Making a swift turn around one of Isigny’s narrow streets, I caught a glimpse of a 12-year old boy in a barber shop (coiffeur) in white uniform shaving a man who looked to be five times his age.
- Castles of old Norman lords.
Roi Ottley’s war diary was discovered decades after the war at St. Bonaventure University in New York, who now have a collection of his papers. In 2011, it was published by University Press of Kansas with the title Roi Ottley’s World War II: The Lost Diary of an African American Journalist, edited by Mark A. Huddle. It’s an important, compelling record of the war from a unique perspective.