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ALBERT G. “BING” BERRY
(As related by his wife, Annette Berry)
We mortals are all prisoners of the time into which we are born and the time in which we live, but there are a few who can step out of that captivity, and, in so doing, move us all forward as a people. Perhaps this was the legacy of Albert G. Berry.
Bing was born in August 1917 only eight months before the entry of the United States into the war being fought in Europe. Bing grew up with men who had fought in what was called The Great War. He survived the Roaring Twenties and the curse of the Great Depression. Bing was a fine person, gifted with a good voice and an abiding respect for his fellow man. He gravitated toward the field of education, his calling for the rest of his life.
During the depression, the young Al Berry found part time work with the Dick Jergens Band, singing in a style that made girls swoon and earned him the nickname “Bing” after the great crooner, Bing Crosby. Bandleader Dick Jergens was an ex-Marine who later toured with his band in the South Pacific.
Al Berry’s military service began in college at Illinois Normal College where he entered ROTC to help pay for his education. Due to his ROTC training, he entered the army as a Captain. He was assigned to the Quartermaster Corps and was shipped to an army depot staging area on New Guinea. Al was assigned as a company commander. He was a white officer in charge of an all black company of 215 men. Al was in the middle of a terrible war, the likes of which the world had never known, and he found himself assigned to lead black men in what was a Jim Crow Army.
Jim Crow segregation existed in the United States military and led to a critical manpower problem:
Exacerbating the Army manpower woes [in World War II] was the policy of segregation. . . . The effect was that over fifteen percent of the nation’s military manpower was underutilized. Most African-Americans were restricted to serving with Service and Supply units, many of which were simply pools of brute-force, unskilled labor. (www.militaryhistoryonline.com, The United States Army in World War II by Rich Anderson).
At the end of WW II, there were nearly 700,000 black Americans (nearly 10 per cent of the total Armed Forces) serving in the United States military. Al Berry faced the challenges he met and became the teacher he was trained to be.
The men assigned to Bing were the children of rural Southern poverty. None of them could read or write. Since Al was sensitive to their plight, he began teaching the men to read. At first he simply showed them how to write their own names. This first effort at learning signatures was a matter of survival for Bing. On payday, when a man received his allotment, he was required to sign his name indicating that he had received his pay. If the soldier could not write his name, the paymaster (who was Bing) had to write a lengthy testimonial to prove that the man had, in fact, received his pay.
That first payday in New Guinea found Captain Berry writing statements for every man he had, and he was determined the problem would not occur again. To that end, he assembled all the men in the chow hall and began the process of teaching them how to sign on the dotted line. That process turned out to be such a success that he began teaching the troops how to read.
His company was detailed to assemble military vehicles that were landed on New Guinea in crates. Bing was a problem-solver, and so he established an assembly line. His troops worked hard to complete the tasks assigned. In an Army where uneducated black soldiers were basically used for brute labor, Bing gave his men an education and constructive, purposeful assignments.
The war for Bing was not a shooting war, but a war of supplying the forward troops with the machines of war. It is a fact that the Quartermaster Corps, the supply arm of the Army, when faced with unusual circumstances and finding they often lacked even basic items of equipment, routinely became masters of innovation. General Campbell, in charge of the Quartermaster Corps in the South Pacific, noted: “…experts a few years ago would have said that the execution of the supply operations you have accomplished in the last four years [was] considered impossible.” Bing’s time in the Army was spent doing the impossible, and being a teacher, too.
The war ended for Bing in August, 1945. He was actually flying home the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima--August 6, 1945.
Civilian life led Bing to teaching in the Midwest and then into the corporate world. He worked for a well-known accounting firm for 30 years. He was a busy family man having children with both of his wives and being involved with all of his children. He told his second wife Annette “if you can carry them for 9 months, I can take over from there.” Annette said Bing was a man who could be considered an artist. He was a Renaissance man. He never had an unkind word to say about anyone, and he had a deep respect and love for everyone. He did not have to “talk the talk” because he truly “walked the walk.”
Finding retirement a bit dull, Bing returned to his passion of teaching and became a full time substitute high school teacher. He was considered a celebrity by his students just as he had been when singing in the band years before and when teaching his soldiers.
Retirement finally came for Bing when he and Annette moved to Ocean Pines, MD in 1990. They remained active in the community until Bing died in June 1992 while attending a dinner dance. His death ended what Annette called a 28-year honeymoon. He was 75.
Though Bing was gone, he left us all a little richer in spirit and heart by his presence on this earth. Some time prior to his death, he and Annette had been discussing post-mortem arrangements they might want. Bing, in his typical light-hearted way informed Annette that as for him: “Surprise me!”
Bing Berry was just one of millions of men and women who served in the United States military during World War II. His story is unique as all individual stories are. It is his singular efforts to make this earth a better place, in war and in peace, which preserves the precious memory of Bing Berry. ~ J. LEE HARLOWE