Aerospace engineer and Black WWII veteran falsely labeled a mutineer dies at 101

A man wears a World War II veteran cap.

Bernard Benedict James was court-martialed whereas serving with the segregated U.S. Military throughout World Struggle II. The retired aerospace engineer labored on the Apollo and Mercury area missions and celebrated his a hundred and first birthday in February.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Instances)

Bernard Benedict James sat his younger youngsters down within the household lounge many years in the past of their La Mirada residence, the place he’d written a set of math equations on a blackboard.

The Harvard-educated aerospace engineer was working for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the time and needed to offer his 10 youngsters an impromptu lecture on arithmetic.

You are reading: Aerospace engineer and Black WWII veteran falsely labeled a mutineer dies at 101

“I used to be simply studying about fractions in major faculty, and my dad began to place up math about black holes,” his son David, now a 59-year-old visible results artist, mentioned this week.

However earlier than the mathematics classes, and earlier than James labored on two missions that despatched astronauts into area, the World Struggle II veteran spent two years in jail after rapidly being convicted of mutiny and insubordination, a Black soldier who dared query a white superior officer.

James and his household labored tirelessly over the following many years to clear his identify, however he didn’t stay lengthy sufficient to see a full correction to his service file. James died in his sleep July 18 on the La Mirada residence the place he as soon as tutored his youngsters. He was 101.

James ought to have been a part of the U.S. forces that invaded the seashores of Normandy, France, for D-day in June 1944. As an alternative he sat in an English jail after a hasty Military court-martial.

He had spoken up on behalf of one other soldier who had fallen within the verbal crosshairs of a white commanding officer, one who typically shouted racist remarks on the males within the segregated 641st Ordnance Firm and labeled its Black troopers with the N-word. For his loyalty, James was instructed to “take away his stripes,” in accordance with courtroom transcripts. A number of different males turned theirs in as effectively in protest.

Two months later, army law enforcement officials with submachine weapons swarmed the camp and arrested James and 17 different troopers, all of them Black.

James was sentenced to 18 years in jail however was unceremoniously launched two years later with out a formal apology after his household started a letter-writing marketing campaign to carry consideration to his case.

“I didn’t know that folks have been pondering of me,” James mentioned earlier this 12 months. “My sister and household and even my future spouse, Florence, have been all engaged on my behalf, our behalf. It was a lesson for positive. I might take into consideration all of that for years and years later.”

After he was launched from jail, James returned to his Military service and was honorably discharged in 1947, however his file maintained he was AWOL for 704 days — despite the fact that that point was spent in jail.

The U.S. Military supplied James a partial correction to his army file after The Instances wrote about him on his final birthday. David mentioned his father needed to attraction the Military’s determination; he needed a full correction to his file explaining he was falsely imprisoned. California Meeting member Cristina Garcia launched a joint decision in March looking for a full presidential exoneration of James’ file.

Whereas the Military acknowledged that James didn’t desert his submit whereas serving within the army, no person ever referred to as to apologize, he instructed The Instances in April.

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“I’m not holding my breath,” James mentioned on the time.

Bernard Benedict James was born Feb. 7, 1921, in St. Louis and spent his early life in Chicago. His mom’s Creole household got here to the US from Haiti; his father was half-Black and 1 / 4 Cherokee.

James attended the Illinois Institute of Know-how and Wilson Junior School in Chicago and labored as a junior engineer draftsman. However in 1943, within the thick of World Struggle II, the Military drafted James, who served as a technician within the European Theater.

Josefa James, 67, doesn’t suppose her father suffered from PTSD however mentioned there have been bouts of anger that flared up throughout her childhood that she couldn’t comprehend on the time.

“I feel it needed to do along with his his time in jail. As soon as they’d imprisoned him through the Military, I feel he was at all times leery that the federal government may impose their will on you and also you’d don’t have anything to do about it,” mentioned Josefa, who labored as a prosecutor for 30 years in Alameda County.

After leaving the Military, James went again to high school, first on the College of Michigan and later at Harvard College. He married Florence, a white journalist he met by way of the Friendship Home, a faith-based group that advocated for civil rights in Chicago.

“The neatest factor my father did was marry my mom,” mentioned son Will James, a U.S. historical past trainer, including that his mom went again to high school after elevating 10 youngsters and received her grasp’s diploma in library science.

James would go on to an illustrious profession within the aerospace trade — together with designing the capsules that carried astronauts on the Apollo and Mercury area missions.

After his work landed the household in Southern California, they typically took their two station wagons on fishing journeys to Mexico when the youngsters have been little. Throughout these street journeys, Josefa mentioned, her father often let her drive, and the 2 would launch into significant dialog. In such a big household, she relished that one-on-one time.

James was a talented fencer and chess participant, Josefa mentioned, and taught her how you can acknowledge the constellations and shoot a bow and arrow when she was a baby.

She mentioned a buddy as soon as described the James household dynamic like so: “Your mom’s in a rowboat, again straight. All 10 of you might be within the boat, and he or she’s rowing, whereas your father is swimming within the ocean round her,” Josefa mentioned. “And that was my father.”

He as soon as vowed to fish from the ocean for all of his household’s meals. And when he wasn’t fishing, James loved cooking duck gumbo and different haute delicacies whereas celebrating his household’s Creole tradition. He typically peppered his tales with French and Spanish.

“Each time my associates would come over throughout highschool, they might take pleasure in all of the conversations that have been happening as a result of my father at all times had some kind of reply to our questions,” recalled son Will, 64.

Whereas race was not overtly talked about within the household residence, the James youngsters weren’t shielded from bigotry.

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Daughter Maria-Elena James, 68, remembered how in 1962, her father invited Walter Schirra, a private buddy of his and the primary astronaut to enter area 3 times, to his youngsters’s faculty.

“On the time, La Mirada was nearly all white,” Maria-Elena, 68, recalled. “I used to be sitting there proudly beaming as my father was in entrance of the auditorium with a mannequin of the rocket ship and a well-known astronaut.”

Then a boy in entrance of her circled and referred to as her father the N-word. She punched him within the mouth.

“I received despatched residence for preventing. I received into 5 fights that day,” mentioned Maria-Elena, who spent her profession as a federal Justice of the Peace decide. “They didn’t admire the astronaut, however they did admire that my father was Black.”

David recalled being on a household journey outdoors California within the Sixties and his father not being served at a restaurant.

“I used to be very younger on the time,” he mentioned. “It was a wierd factor to return to the conclusion of how others noticed him simply as a Black individual versus this very well-educated polylingual scientist.”

David mentioned his father tried to brush off racism every time it confronted him and sought as a substitute to have a good time the massive coincidences in life.

James believed, as a substitute, within the idea of fors, the Latin phrase for luck or likelihood. He believed nothing was ever actually a coincidence.

Cherice Fraine met James when she was in her early 20s and dealing within the Macy’s shoe part whereas attending group faculty in Fullerton.

“I should have had a bitter look on my face as a result of he requested me what was mistaken,” Fraine recalled in February.

She instructed James she was finding out for a statistics class and it was vital for her to cross so she may switch to a four-year college.

“He defined that he was a little bit of a mathematician. I didn’t know he was an engineer. He provided to tutor me, and I didn’t know what to suppose,” mentioned Fraine, 41. She accepted, and his tutoring helped her cross the category.

She now works as an analyst for the U.S. authorities, a profession she says wouldn’t have been attainable with out James.

James was preceded in loss of life by his spouse of 64 years, Florence Fitzgerald James, and a son, Christopher James. He’s survived by a brother, Andrew James; 9 youngsters — Frank James, Anthony James, Maria-Elena James, Josefa James, William James, Beatrice James, Philip James, David P.I. James, Isabel James — and 4 grandchildren: Ryan Quitzow-James, Ivan James, James Brandon and Ellen James.

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