See World War II through the lens of an African American soldier

By Intern Rebecca Murphy
Man with camera in military uniform

Using a camera taken from a German officer who had died in battle, Paul Bland documented his experiences across Normandy, Northern France, and Rhineland. Intern Rebecca Murphy shares his photos and story.

In March 1943, Paul Bland was drafted into the military at the age of 19. He had experience in trucking and so was trained as an ambulance driver for the Army. He was then deployed to Europe in February of the following year to fight in World War II. Private First Class Paul Bland served in the 590th Ambulance Company in various locations overseas, removing the injured from the line of battle to evacuation points in the rear. During his year and a half abroad, Bland captured his experiences, both good and bad, through the lens of his camera. His photo album, which was recently donated to the museum, displays these photographs of his military travels through Europe and are accompanied by handwritten captions by Bland.

Paul Bland poses with his camera in front of a military tent

Paul Bland poses with his camera here in one of only ten pictures we have depicting him. Because Bland was often behind the camera taking the pictures, we have many images of his comrades, but very few of the photographer himself.

Bland’s home away from home while in the field

This tent served as Bland's home away from home while in the field. His caption: "The Smoother Pad, (My House) Bamburg, Germany."

lineup of ambulances during a rare quiet period

This image shows a lineup of ambulances during a rare quiet period with the caption "Just Cooling Off, (My Gang) Forshien, Germany."

Ambulance companies were responsible for rescuing fallen soldiers, removing them from the battle field to a safer location outside the line of battle, and giving them medical treatment en route.

They were also called upon to go into areas after the battles were over in order to search for survivors and gather the bodies of the fallen soldiers. It was on one such assignment that Bland’s company was called upon to retrieve and identify the remains of the fallen at Omaha Beach after D-Day. This duty and those like it would later cause Bland to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly referred to as PTSD, which would plague him for the rest of his life.

At the beginning of World War II, military units were segregated, restricting black men to serve their country only as part of an all-black division. At basic training, the black servicemen were often degraded and treated as lower class citizens. During his training, Paul Bland and his comrades were referred to as “boy,” and were forced to do menial duties, such as cleaning the latrine. They were also called “spooks,” “gorillas,” and “monkeys” by their fellow cadets and Bland himself had to wait to receive a rifle because he, being African American, wasn’t trusted with the weapon. These photos of Paul Bland’s military comrades illustrate this separation of the races and documents soldier life during the war.

Two men in military uniform

"The Easy Goer (W. Bogg and E. Lewis) Marienbad, Czech."

Chow Time Near Muchen, Austria. Then on the Lamb. Austria

"Chow Time Near Muchen, Austria. Then on the Lamb. Austria"

The Chow House, Getting Some Air. What a Mess. Forshiem

Caption, "The Chow House, Getting Some Air. What a Mess. Forshiem"

Three men in military uniform standing together casually

"B. Boling, H. Coles, Pop Payne, Lipzig, Germany." For years after the war, Paul Bland stayed in contact with the comrades he had met while serving overseas. They had yearly reunions and exchanged numerous letters with each other in order to stay connected.

Destroyed town in Germany after World War II

During the war, entire cities became victims of the conflict, as bombs destroyed many of the buildings and identifiable landmarks of the area. Pictured here is one such city, with the caption, "The Way to Leave it, (A City Destroyed) Homeless People Enachna Germany."

Medics often dealt with serious injuries and death during their attempts to remove soldiers from the line of battle. These photos show the creation of a cemetery for the fallen.

People digging graves after World War II

Caption, "Preparing a Resting Place For The UnLucky. (Cemetary) Olf, Germany"

Row of graves with white crosses on them

"Yes its Over now. (Finished Cemetary) Olf, Germany."

By the end of the war, it became more acceptable to have integrated units of both black and white soldiers fighting side by side on the front line in order to maintain the strength of the military. This photograph provides evidence of this transition, picturing both black and white soldiers at a swimming pool with the caption, "The job is finished (after the war we went swimming) Forshiem, Germany."

Paul Bland served in Europe for a year and a half, returning to the United States to be honorably discharged in September 1945. During his time overseas, he was stationed in France, Czechoslovakia, and Germany, and participated in many battles and campaigns, including Normandy, Northern France, and Rhineland. He received both the European African Middle Eastern Service Medal and the Good Conduct Medal for his service.

Although they had bravely served their country, African Americans like Paul Bland came home to a country that was still fraught with racism and segregation. Because of this, Bland felt as though he was betrayed by his own country. His photo album offers us a look into the war through his eyes and documents the struggles, death, and segregation, as well as the good times, new friends, and a move towards integration. Through the images he captured and the descriptions he wrote, Paul Bland provides us with a rare glimpse into a soldier’s experiences during World War II.

Rebecca Murphy was an intern in the Armed Forces History Department. She is a second year graduate student in the Museum Studies program at The George Washington University. Special thanks to Karen Bland Collins, who provided a wealth of information about her father’s experiences in the military.