Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History & Culture Enduring Connections: Exploring Delmarva's Black History


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Interview with Bernard Purnell, 12 July 2004

Audio Recording

About This Recording

Bernard Purnell is an African American World War II Veteran. In the interview, he speaks of his getting drafted and his introduction to the army, as well the experience of his community in the war. He describes his experience in training and deployment overseas, followed by his return from the war and transition to civilian work in Electricity. He also describes segregation in 1940s Salisbury, MD.
This interview is part of the Teaching American History Program. For more information, see the Edward H. Nabb Center Finding Aid.


Interviewers: Jayne Malach, Monica Jett
Narrator: Bernard Purnell

Jayne Malach (JM): It is Monday, July 12th, and this is the start of an interview with Mr. Bernie Purnell, Post Commander here at the American Legion Post #145 Spirit of Democracy, located at 912 West Road, Salisbury, Maryland. My name is Jayne Malach, and along with Monica Jett, we will be the interviewers. This interview is being done in connection with the Teaching American History Project of the Wicomico County Board of Education. Okay. Mr. Purnell, The first question that I have is what year were you drafted or enlisted for service in the U.S. military?

Bernard Purnell (BP): 1943.

JM: 1943, how old were you then?

BP: I was eighteen years old.

JM: You were 18 years old, wow. Now, were you drafted or did you choose to enlist?

BP: I was drafted.

JM: How did you feel about that at the time?

BP: Well, I knew I had to go, so I was, it was all right.

JM: It was all right with you. Did you have a feeling about what you were going to do? Did you think that you were you were fighting for a just cause?

BP: Well, yes, I did.

JM: You did, so you believed in what you were doing at the time or so you were willing to go. Okay. What branch of the military did you serve in?

BP: In the army.

JM: You were in the army, United States army. What service did you provide? What was your job when you were in the service?

BP: Well, we were a support group for the third army. It was Patton's third army. All the supplies and everything were made we made when Faller(?), me, and others, Red Ball Express, that's a trucking outfit that carried material, and then we had other support units also.

JM: So, you were a support unit in Patton's Army. Was that your—was that your choice of job? Were you given a choice of job?

BP: Well, at that time we weren't given a choice.

JM: You were told what to do? They didn't say, "Do you want to do this? Do you want to do that?" Any other things?

BP: No.

JM: You were told "this is going to be your job"?

BP: Right.

JM: Okay, if you had your choice of jobs, what do you think you would have chosen? Of all the jobs in the Army. I mean, was there something that you would have preferred to have done instead of what you were doing?

BP: No, I didn't want anything special.

JM: So, you were at 18. You were like, "okay, okay, I'll do what you want me to do." Can you talk a little bit about what your life was like here in Salisbury before you were drafted? What were you doing, what was your family like, were you still living with your folks, that kind of information.

BP: Yes, I was still living at home because I had recently gotten out of high school. And back in those days, you know what living conditions were so far as the [grace?] And all this. But we managed and we were able to make it.

JM: Did you have brothers or sisters?

BP: Yes, I had 8 of them, I had four sisters and four more brothers. It was 9 of us altogether.

JM: Were—where you when the position of your family. Were you right in the middle? Were you—where were you?

BP: I was about middle. I was the fourth oldest.

JM: Oh, okay. You were kind of right there in the middle of your whole family structure. What did your—were your folks employed? Did you live—your mom and dad were with you?

BP: Right, yes.

And what did they do?

BP: Well they were domestic workers, my family. My father, he was a cook and my mother, she was a domestic worker.

JM: They were both domestic workers here. Okay. When you were drafted, were there people in the community that, who said that it was really terrific that you were going to do what you were going to do, go off to war, or was there no recognition for that?

BP: No, it wasn't any recognition. I went up then went to Baltimore and they examined me and I was presumed to pass and they gave me a few days off and then I was in the service.

JM: Kind of just get things together before you went off. Did you have any brothers that also served?

BP: Yes, I had a brother that was in the South Pacific at that time.

JM: So, he went before you did?

BP: Right

JM: He was older than you and went to the South Pacific. Did he return home safely?

BP: Yes.

JM: That was a wonderful thing.

BP: He contracted malaria while he was there.

JM: Was that a problem for him for the rest of his life?

BP: Well yes, because it sort of flared up every once and a while, you know.

JM: I think that's kind of the nature of that disease, that it kind of comes and goes. So, it was, out of the four brothers in your family, four boys in your family, two of you served?

BP: Well later on after the war, I had two more that were in the service, in the army.

JM: In the army as well? Wow. So, you have a great history of service to our country in your family. After you were in the service, where did they send you?

BP: For my basic training and things like that?

JM: Mm-hmm, and then where did you serve in the theaters?

BP: Well, I went to Fort Lee and stayed there for a short time. From there, they sent me down to New Orleans, Louisiana, a camp called Plauche. That's where I took my basic training and after that, they gave me a furlough and I went back to Louisiana and then they sent me to Boston, Massachusetts and I served there, for a few months at a place called Camp McCain. That was a camp where we operated from. A little while after that, they put us on ships, and left to Camp Shanks, New York. From there, we were deployed overseas.

JM: And where did you get sent when you were overseas? What countries were you in?

BP: Well, I was in England, Scotland, France, I must have been to quite a number of places in France but they were basically, that's as far as I got is France.

JM: So, you were England, Scotland, and France. Did you have much contact with the people of those countries? In England, Scotland and France.

BP: Well, not, not really. They would speak and what-not, but as far as being real close, no.

JM: Because at least some of the people that I've talked to, during World War II sometimes met their future wives or whatever when they were abroad.

BP: There wasn't anything like that.

JM: You were too busy! Too busy working. Now, the group that the support group that you were associated with in the Army, was that an integrated unit?

BP: No, it was all segregated, it was all black units during that time.

JM: There was no mixing it up?

BP: No mixing. We had white officers. This is back in '43.

JM: I didn't, I needed to ask that question because I don't know a whole lot about World War II history and we're trying to find out more about this.

BP: It was quite segregated, I'll tell you.

JM: Now if you took your meals, was that segregated as well, I mean, did you have a separate eating facility or just everybody eat?

BP: No, but we were all black units. We didn't have any other race around, and it was just one of those things.

JM: Everything was still separate, even in war.

BP: Right.

JM: Okay. While you were on—how long were you away? How long were you overseas?

BP: I spent 18 months overseas.

JM: Did you see any front-line action at all? Or, because you were because you were support you were always in the back.

BP: Well I'm [inaudible] always in the night but during the victory in December, they had Germans who paratrooping way on in the back years, we were on strong alert at that time. I really didn't, what'd you say, come in contact with combat. But we were always—we were trained to fight, we had our weapons and all that. Being a support group, I didn't have combat engagement.

JM: Now, you talked about the German paratrooping in, was that in France or was that in England? Where did that occur? Do you remember?

BP: This was in France.

JM: That was in France.

BP: Right, during the work in '44 and the latter part of '45.

JM: While you were away, did you write home, did you communicate? How was that accomplished, your communication with home?

BP: Well, our mail was censored but it would go through and I didn't write too often but I just let them know that I was doing all right.

JM: Did you hear from your family? Did you get mail back?

BP: Yes, yes.

JM: I'm sure that was a joy for you. You looked forward it.

BP: Oh yes, always good to hear from home.

JM: Now, let me go back to something that you just said, because I think some of our students would not understand what you said. You said your letters were censored. What do you mean by that? What did they do to your letters at home before they actually got home?

BP: Well, during that time they were censored so far as letting out different kinds of information.

JM: Where exactly you were, something like that, was taken out of the letter?

BP: Certain things that were going on in certain areas and things like that. But no, I mean, it wasn't too much of a problem.

JM: But that—I think that's something that we don't think about too much today, having our mail censored, and I hope we don't get to that point again. Was there any particular memory that you have from serving overseas that was just, like the most—the biggest memory that you brought back. Some—good or bad?

BP: Well, the living conditions of the French, especially the children. They would eat out of garbage cans and come around looking for food. I mean, it sort of touched you, to see those conditions.

JM: And that was because of the War?

BP: Right.

JM: Because they didn't have access—their whole life had been so disrupted that they were pushed to that point where they had to try and take care of themselves.

BP: You see, I was in Cherbourg at that time and that—it was an occupied fort of France and they didn't, they really didn't have anything. We'd give the kids food.

JM: I think that's something that has continued in almost every war and conflict we've been involved with, in a lot of soldiers feel that—they get very upset by the plight of the children that are left behind. When you came home, back to Salisbury, back to this community, how were you received? Did you get a hero's welcome when you came home?

BP: I'll tell you what kind of welcome I got. I went to English [Grill] to get something to eat. Had to go to the side door and order your food and take it out.

JM: How about within the black community? What was the reaction from them?

BP: I'm very glad that I served and was able to get back home and I mean, it was a joyful time, I mean. But, so far as conditions at home here I mean it was still the same.

JM: Still the same.

BP: Everything.

JM: After you came back, how did you get back into society? Did you, because of the skills or things you had learned in the Army, did that help you get a new job here in Salisbury when you came back?

BP: Well, my old job was still waiting for me when I came back. I didn't work there too long, I got an electrical job and I worked in that for 43 years until I retired.

JM: In the electrical business.

BP: It was in the selling process of electrical.

JM: So, you weren't—you were not an electrician that went and wired, you were in the supply side of the electric business. You said you did that for how many years?

BP: 43 years.

JM: 43 years. Wow, That's a long time. You were a loyal employee, I guess. And what was the name of the company that you worked for?

BP: Well, it was some sort of electric supply company, and then they sold out and I retired from Grant Electric

JM: And is that a business that's still here in Salisbury, Grant Electric?

BP: Well, they didn't used to, but they sold out a couple of years ago and [continues speaking, inaudible]

JM: That kind of seeing how things go, people and businesses keep getting bought by other businesses.

BP: Right.

JM: Do you feel that your—you might've kind've answered this question already—that your participation in World War II helped advance the respect that you received in the community because you had served, and your feeling was that it hadn’t?

BP: Well, not—it never even happened, because things were practically the same, so far as segregation.

JM: When you came back in—you returned to this community in what year?

BP: 1946, I was discharged February 4th, 1946.

JM: At what point did you feel that the segregation issue here in Salisbury started changing for you personally? That you started feeling part of the total community? Was it in the sixties during the Civil Rights Movement?

BP: Well, yes. Mainly that's, that's what I remember after joining the American Legion that the other veterans, we all mingled and [inaudible], getting much better. But, in the beginning, when I first returned home, it was terrible.

JM: It was still terrible. But you found through the fellowship and the camaraderie amongst the veterans helped start bridging that gap for you personally. So, you've seen a lot happen in your lifetime as far as race relations go. How do you feel those relationships are now? Can you speak about that now?

BP: Well I would say they're better, but there's still a long way to go.

JM: Still issues going on, yeah, amongst young and old, I think there are those of us that wish it weren't that way. Is there anything else that you would like to share with us at this time? I mean, how do you feel your life is now?

BP: Well since I retired and everything I'm enjoying life. And in memory of the American Legion, 56 years and I get to mingle with other veterans.

JM: And then that's enjoyable for you. You've had a long and rich and full life, and do you have a family yourself?

BP: Well, my wife passed about two years ago. I have a son that lives up in Landham, named Purnell Junior. He works for the Postal Service in Washington, D.C.

JM: So, he lives in Washington?

BP: Well, he's up in that area.

JM: He's up in that area. Did you say he lived in Landstown?

BP: Landham.

JM: Landham? Is that in Virginia or Maryland?

BP: It's in Maryland. This is not too, not too far Washington.

JM: And you have grandchildren?

BP: Yes, he has a daughter.

JM: So, you've had pretty much all those life experiences. Well, Mr. Purnell, I really thank you for your time, and I thank you for your service to our country. My dad was a veteran too, and he never wanted to talk about this and about his experience in World War II, and I thank you for your willingness to share your experience with us today.

[Interview ends at 00:21:20]