Love, War, and the 96th Engineers (Colored)
Gwendolyn Midlo Hall’s edition of her uncle Hyman Samuelson’s wartime diaries and letters makes for compelling reading. An ROTC product and an officer in the Army Reserve, Samuelson was drafted in 1941. Because of his degree in civil engineering, he was posted to the 96th Engineers. The 96th was a product of the strictly segregated Army of the day. All the enlisted men were African American; all the officers were white. Despite the fact that service with a “colored” unit was regarded as an unpleasant duty, and something professionally to be avoided, Samuelson stayed on with the 96th. Although he was a southerner, he came to respect and love his men.
Early in the war, the 96th Engineers were sent to the South Pacific. In April, 1942, the regiment landed in Port Moresby, New Guinea, at the time the last bulwark keeping the Japanese from Australia. The 96th played a key role in transforming Port Moresby from a colonial backwater into a base capable of supporting a successful Allied counteroffensive. During this operation, the 96th became the first unit of African Americans to come under enemy fire in World War II. For more than two years, Samuelson served with the 96th in New Guinea, earning a reputation as a highly capable officer with his superiors, while sharing the hardships of his men.
Yet this book is about love as well as war. Threaded through its pages is the record of Samuelson’s passionate, and ultimately heartbreaking, love affair with his wife Dora, whom he married just weeks before being sent overseas. These diaries and letters brilliantly evoke the terrifying loneliness of lovers separated by the cruelty of history. Thus, Hall’s work not only illuminates a neglected chapter of World War II, but it also sheds light on the eternal workings of the human heart.