“You must be the puniest nigger I’ve ever seen, boy. What’s your name again?”
“Johnson, Samuel G., Private, Sir.”
Sam Johnson was the most unlikely soldier in his unit, but then again, he would have been an unlikely soldier in any army in the world. He’d suffered from a number of ailments in childhood including rheumatic fever. His family was poor. Papa died when he was only a baby and Mama had to work three jobs just to keep him fed. They had no money for doctors and his old Aunt Bessie said it was only Mama’s love that kept him alive.
He grew up but not very much. He was tall, but thin, his clothes fitting him like loose blankets. Because of his ill-health, he wasn’t fit for much hard work, but what he lacked in muscle, he made up for in heart and determination.
Like most colored folk, he expected the white folk to call him “nigger,” “coon,” and the like, and he took more than his fair share of beatings, not just because he was a colored man, but because he fought back. To say he fought back meant that he had the will, but he could no more throw a solid punch than Josephine Baker could win the Miss America Pagent.
So Sam Johnson took one beating after another and still came back for more. The other colored folk in his neighborhood called him the bravest stupid nigger they’d ever met. They’d say, “Sam, you gots ta keep your head down or dem white men, dey gonna knock it off for ya.”
It made Sam sick to his stomach to back down. He didn’t go looking for trouble, but what colored man had to? Trouble always came looking for them, and it managed to find Sam Johnson with appalling frequency.
Private Johnson snapped off a salute to the white Lieutenant and stared directly over the officer’s left shoulder. Never look at a white man, especially an officer, straight in the eye. Sam hated that, he hated that the white soldiers thought the colored units were only good enough to be cooks or stevedores. They especially hated Johnson because he wasn’t even as big and strong as the other volunteers in the colored units.
“How’d you get to be in a man’s Army, Private? You look like the shortest, skinniest 4F goldbricking colored in the whole Goddamn country.”
Johnson would have laughed, but that would probably have gotten him thrown in the stockade. How did he get to be in the Army? Lieutenant Dunn was right. He was 4F. He’d been classified 4F on five separate occasions at five different recruitment centers in greater New York and New Jersey. One of the white doctors had pulled him aside once and told him, “Johnson, I’m doing you a favor by rejecting your application. With your bad health, basic training would probably kill you, and even if it didn’t and by some miracle you made it into a combat unit, you wouldn’t have strength or endurance to defend yourself not to mention the others with you.”
“Sir, I respectfully request that you reconsider your decision. I believe I can be an asset to the United States Army. I want to do my part to defend this country against tyranny and Fascism.”
Like so many other young American men, after Pearl Harbor, he felt a burning desire to fight back against the evil that Japan had done, to battle Hitler in Europe and to stand for his nation’s ideals of freedom and equality.
Like so many other colored American young men, words like ideals, freedom, and equality were not without their ironic overtones given that the Jim Crow laws permeated every aspect of their lives. The colored had separate but equal bathrooms, drinking fountains, movie theater seats, seats on public buses, seats in restaurants, even separate but equal Army units.
Every morning when he stood at attention on the Fort Dix parade grounds during inspection, he looked at the American flag fluttering in the wind high above and had to choke down his tears of pride. It never had been about what America was but about what it could be, about the ideals of true brotherhood and freedom the flag stood for in his heart.
Samuel Johnson would rather die than fail to salute his flag. He would breathe his last defending the freedom for which it represented. He wanted to be an example to his children and their children, that if you do what’s right, if you take whatever pain and hardship life hands out to you, even if men spit on you and then spit on your grave, you’ve earned the right to stand tall because you lived, and if necessary, you died as a man.
How did he get to be in a man’s Army?
Sam Johnson had been rejected as 4F for the fifth time. He objected for the fifth time. The doctor tried to talk some sense into him for the fifth time. But then someone handed the doctor a note. He read it, folded it up, put it in his coat pocket, and then said, “Come with me, Johnson.”
“Where we going, Sir?”
The doctor, his name was Dr. Fields, motioned for Sam to follow him out of the hall and down a corridor. An M.P. joined them and Sam figured they found out he’d used a fake name, that he’d been trying to volunteer after being rejected four times before. Another beating? Jail? All he wanted to do was to serve his country, to do the right thing.
Dr. Fields opened the door to a small examining room. “Step inside please, and wait here.”
Sam did what he was told and then turned back to the doctor who was still standing in the doorway. “What’s going to happen to me, Sir?” Sam noticed that the M.P. took a position next to the door. He was under guard which meant he was in trouble.
“Just wait here, Johnson. Someone wants to talk with you.”
Sam opened his mouth but Fields closed the door before he could say anything.
So Sam waited. He sat on the examination table, he sat in the little chair the doctor was supposed to sit in when he asked questions or gave you bad news. He paced the floor. He peeked in the cabinets and drawers because he was more bored than scared. And then he jumped and slammed shut the drawer he was looking in (cotton balls and swabs) when the door suddenly opened.
The man who walked in looked like just another white doctor but he was older. Silky white mustache and goatee, bald but the same colored hair on each side and around the back of his head. Wore glasses with metal frames. Kind of reminded Sam of the “mad scientists” in some of those dumb horror matinees he used to see at the Apollo theater on Saturday afternoons.
A white man walked in while looking through some papers in a folder. Sam saw his name on the folder’s label. The M.P. closed the door again, as if the man had completely forgotten about it. Then he shut the folder and looked up.
“Mr. Johnson, my name is Abraham Erskine. Pleased to meet you.”
The doctor put out his hand to shake. Sam paused a moment since white men didn’t shake a colored man’s hand, but since it was out there, Sam took it and shook back.
“Sam Johnson. Same here.”
Erskine tapped the folder in his hand. “It says here that you are a very sick man, Mr. Johnson. Why do you want to enlist in the Army?”
Sam stood as tall as he could, as if he were being inspected for the right to be an American. “Same as every other man in this country, Sir. I want to fight Fascism. I want to protect freedom.”
The older man smiled faintly. “You sound very idealistic, young man. What has this country ever done for you?”
It was the first time he’d ever been asked that question. At the same time, Sam noticed that Erskine spoke with a slight accent, maybe a German accent. What kind of name was ‘Erskine’ anyway?
“If you mean because I’m colored I shouldn’t fight for my country, Sir you couldn’t be more wrong. I love America. I love what it stands for. I will fight just as hard as any other man to protect her.” Sam realized that he was being pretty bold talking like this. Sometimes white folks didn’t like colored men calling themselves “man,” but if they were going to throw him in jail, he might as well go for broke.
“Well, that’s not exactly what I meant Mr. Johnson, but it’s as good an answer as any. The fact is, I’m a doctor, but not like those who you’ve met before. Yes, I know you’ve volunteered using different names at different recruitment centers.”
Sam felt his heart beating faster. Was Dr. Erskine going to call in the M.P.? That didn’t make sense. If they were going to lock him up or throw him out, they’d have done it by now.
“Please be seated, Mr. Johnson. I have a rather unique proposal to make and I think you are the man I’ve been looking for.”
That was three months ago. For three months, Private Samuel G. Johnson had done whatever the Army had asked him to do to the best of his abilities. He was the slowest, the weakest, the most physically incapable and inept soldier in the United States Armed Forces and Sgt. Emmanuel Washington reminded him of it every single day from reveille to lights out. He was standing behind Lieutenant Dunn and just to his right scowling at Sam, the “sorriest excuse for a soldier, colored and white, in the history of the U.S. Army,” which is exactly what the Sergeant screamed in Sam’s face at every opportunity.
“I asked you a question, nigger! Answer me!”
Sam took a deep breath and he didn’t have to look to see that every other colored man, including the Sarge, was clenching their teeth and tightening their jaws right along with him.
“I volunteered, Sir.”
Lt. Dunn opened his mouth but he stopped when he heard the brakes of a jeep squeal as it came to a stop some three yards behind him. The officer turned and then saw the occupants. The driver was a colored corporal and there was a woman in the passenger seat. Sam had seen her around the base. Her uniform was different, British. What they called a “leftenant.” Her name was Peggy Carter but no one Sam had asked knew what the hell she was doing on this side of the Atlantic and especially at Fort Dix.
In the back seat, Sam saw Dr. Erskine. He wanted to smile but he was still at attention and Lt. Dunn would probably kick his ass if he did, and if he didn’t the Sarge sure as hell would. Erskine visited him occasionally, though Sam wasn’t sure why. He did ask him once when they met. The other men were deployed around camp, some peeling potatoes in the mess, others mopping the floor of the officer’s club. Somehow, Erskine managed to have enough pull to get Sam out of those details.
“You’re wondering why I arranged all this.”
“Yes, Dr. Erskine. You could say that.” Sam allowed himself to relax and smile. Erskine didn’t seem to take it personally.
“Sam, I’m a German Jew. Do you know what that means?”
“I’m not sure, Doctor.”
“Please, Sam. I’ve told you, call me Abe.”
“I’d rather not, Doctor. You know.”
Erskine sighed. “Yes, I know all too well, Sam. Well, to answer my own question, Jews in my country, Jews in the countries in Europe occupied by the Germans are being rounded up, put in ghettos, put in camps, some are used for labor and others are shot. All because we’re Jews.”
“I’ve heard some scuttlebutt about that, Doctor and I’ve read the Bible. Jews get put upon a lot in the Bible, Doctor.”
“And ever since, Sam.”
“Is that why you picked me for whatever you want to do to me?”
“Did you hear ‘scuttlebutt’ about that too, Sam?”
“Mum’s the word on you, Doctor. I figured out that part for myself.”
Erskine sighed again and rendered his tiny smile, both with his mouth and his eyes.
“I do have something special in mind for you, but maybe not because of what you think. You are a very special person, Sam.”
“How you figure, Doctor?”
“You are a very brave man, but there are a lot of brave men. However, you are also a good man, a man of strong character, compassionate, which are qualities that are all too rare in the world today.”
“So what’s that mean to you and to me?”
“More than you might imagine, my friend. More than you might imagine.”
That was the last time Sam had spoken to Dr. Erskine before now.
Sitting beside the Doctor in the jeep was a General, not the C.O. of Fort Dix.
Lt. Carter, Dr. Erskine, and the General got out the jeep and started to walk toward the formation. Lt. Dunn looked scared shitless, stood at attention and saluted, holding his hand up waiting for the General to respond. Behind him, Sam could hear the Sarge, “Ten-hut!” He could hear the unit snap to as a single man. When was the last time a General came to inspect a bunch of colored recruits?
The General walked up to Lt. Dunn, returned the salute and then barked, “At ease.” Dunn, Sam, and the men behind him shifted to parade rest. The General leaned toward Dr. Erskine, “Which one is he again?”
“Private Johnson is right in front of you, General Phillips.”
General Chester Phillips walked toward Sam crowding Lt. Dunn out of the way. Phillips looked Sam up and down and an expression, first of dismay and then of disgust crossed his features. He turned to Erskine again. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, General. He’s the perfect choice.”
The General turned back to Sam. “Private, this is against my better judgment but men smarter and more capable than I am have ordered me to confer a particular honor upon you. You are being ordered to risk your life for your country.”
“Yes sir.” It was the only thing Sam could think to say. He wanted to say that’s the very reason he became a soldier, but the General must know that.
Phillips turned to Lt. Dunn. “Lieutenant, dismiss your men. Get them the hell out of here and while you’re at it, you get lost, too.”
Dunn saluted again. “Yes sir. Right away, Sir.” Dunn turned to the Sarge, “You heard the General, Sergeant.”
“Yessir, Lieutenant.” The Sarge turned to the unit and yelled, “Company, face right.” They all turned. “Double time, slackers. Back to barracks. March.” Sam could hear his unit running double time away from the parade grounds and knew from personal experience that the Sarge, who must have been pushing forty, could run every single one of them into the ground.
Lt. Dunn passed from Sam’s field of vision walking fast but not running. He had no way of knowing this is the last he would see of any of them for the rest of the war.
General Phillips was talking to Lt. Carter by the jeep. Presently, a second jeep pulled up and the General got in and then left. Carter and Erskine walked up to Sam. “Pleased to meet you, Private. I’m Leftenant Peggy Carter. You’ve been transferred to my unit for special assignment and are to come with Dr. Erskine and myself immediately.”
“Yes, Ma’am. Uh, where to?”
“Private, I remind you that I am an officer and you will address me as such.”
Sam had forgotten himself for a moment. With Erskine standing beside the Lieutenant, he’d relaxed too much.
“Yes ma’am, Lieutenant.” He snapped to attention.
“Follow me, Private.” Without waiting, Carter turned and walked back to the jeep.
Erskine leaned close to Sam, “She’s not as bad as she seems, Sam.”
“What’s going on, Doctor?”
“Gentlemen, I’m waiting!” Carter was standing by the jeep tapping her foot.
“We’d better go,” Erskine whispered, allowing himself his signature smile.
Private Samuel Johnson was cold. He was dressed only in a pair of shorts, like what boxers wear in the ring, and was being led by two men in white coats down the middle aisle of a small auditorium. Some of the people there were Army Colonels and Generals. Others were in expensive civilian suits. He could hear them whispering.
“Couldn’t risk a white man on the first trial.”
“If it kills him…”
“Perfect it for white soldiers…”
Then they passed through another set of doors and down some steps. Sam looked up. His “audience” was looking at him through thick glass. He looked down again to see a bunch of machinery surrounding what looked like a big, metal coffin standing on end, a window right about where the face would go.
When Sam first met Abe Erskine, he thought the old doctor looked like a mad scientist. In the months since their first encounter, he’d forgotten that impression, that is until just now. In the midst of all this electrical and laboratory apparatus, maybe he really was some crazy professor about to perform an experiment on Sam.
Erskine said that Sam was special, gave him lots of complements and praise. Was that all a smoke screen? Maybe what he heard from those white men behind the glass was right. Maybe all Erskine wanted him for was a colored guinea pig to practice on so that if whatever he had in mind didn’t work, only a black man would die rather than a white man.
The two men led Sam up to Erskine. Carter was standing a few feet away.
“Doctor, don’t you think you can tell me now what’s going on?”
“Yes I will Sam. Just stand here a minute.”
Erskine walked up to a microphone on a stand, like some sort of crooner about to belt out “Blue Champagne” or “Chattanooga Choo Choo” to the radio audience.
“Ladies and Gentlemen.”
Sam looked up and saw maybe three women among the crowd of men.
“As you have all read in the confidential briefing with which you were presented thirty minutes ago, we are at war with powers so evil, so terrifying, that an Army of ordinary soldiers may not be enough to stop them. So I have devised a method, known only to myself, that will, if successful, enhance even the most frail human being so substantially, that his abilities will far exceed even the finest American serviceman today.”
There were loud murmurs coming from the auditorium above, but the glass was too thick for Sam to make any sense out of it. Of course, he didn’t really have to. He knew what they were saying. They couldn’t imagine a colored, even the strongest, could become the “best” at anything.
“Our volunteer, Private Samuel Johnson will be the first test subject, and I have every confidence that at the conclusion of the process, he will be transformed into the perfect human physical specimen. Private Johnson will become the forerunner of a breed of super soldiers, American military men who can outrun, out fight, and perhaps even out think the enemy. With an Army of men such as Private Johnson, we might very well win the war against the axis powers in twenty-four, eighteen, perhaps even as little as twelve months rather than the five to eight years currently being projected.”
More murmuring from behind the glass and this time Sam didn’t blame them. Dr. Erskine really was a mad scientist if he thought he could turn him into a “perfect human physical specimen” and a “super soldier.”
Erskine moved away from the microphone and returned to Sam’s side. “Any last questions, Sam?”
“Last questions, Doctor? I haven’t even asked my first questions, yet.”
Erskine smiled again. “I know.” He patted Sam on the shoulder. Coming from any other man, it would have seemed condescending, but Erskine really was Sam’s friend.
“In you go, Sam. Too late to back out now.”
Sam turned and saw the two lab men had opened the “tin coffin.” There were all kinds of knobs, wires, and straps inside.
“How long is this going to take, Doctor?” Sam had gone from nervous to scared now. He was prepared to go into battle and if necessary, die for his country, but he hadn’t planned on doing so in a steel box wired up like an electric power plant.
“Not as long as you’d imagine. You are the bravest man I have ever known and together, we are going to make a real difference in the world, a difference for good.”
Erskine had done a lot for Sam and if what he said in his little speech panned out, this was just the beginning. Now was the time to see if he were as brave, if he loved his country as much as he said he did.
“I’m ready, Doctor.”
“Very well.” Erskine turned to Carter and nodded. He smiled at Sam once more, then moved over to one of the complex consoles being attended to by other men in white coats.
“It won’t be so bad, Sam.” Carter was speaking low and he couldn’t help but notice she was calling him by his first name. Was that because she felt sorry for him?
“If you say so, Ma’am…uh, Lieutenant.”
The men helped Sam into the chamber and started strapping him in. It took almost ten minutes to hook up all the devices. Carter was in Sam’s direct field of vision the whole time. Her face radiated a confusing combination of deep concern and hope. In those last few moments before they closed the lid on the capsule, Sam found her to be one of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen.
He was startled by how loud it sounded when they shut him in, metal on metal latches locking into place. There was a hum and a bunch of tiny lights turned on all around him. If this was a coffin, it was the fanciest one he’d ever heard of.
Erskine was at the microphone again and even inside his capsule, he could hear him speaking.
“Through a combination of chemical injections, exposure to low-levels of radiation, and electronic stimulation, my process will, in a matter of minutes, transform the rather sickly Private Johnson into a physical powerhouse, the ultimate realization of human evolution.”
Dr. Erskine moved away from the microphone and out of Sam’s scope of vision. He could see bright lights shining in his eyes and vaguely the shadows of the observers in the auditorium. If only he could have seen one man behind the glass seated near the locked doors leading to the laboratory, the one who had managed to smuggle in a Luger. But by the time he was finished pulling the trigger, it would be too late.
There were muffled words spoken by Erskine and by the other men he didn’t know. Carter came into sight. He couldn’t hear her but she was holding up five fingers, then four, then three…a countdown. Two fingers, one. She made an “okay” sign and then the blinding agony shooting through every nerve in Sam Johnson’s body nearly made him pass out.
He’d been beaten, kicked, dragged, put in hospitals more times than he could count for bruises, cracked ribs, fevers, coughs, consumption, so many times the doctors said he was going to die, so many times he didn’t or couldn’t go to a doctor, he thought the was going to die.
But he didn’t die. He prayed to God for one more day at life, not for his sake, but for the sake of doing good. Mama was with Jesus now. The poor woman’s heart gave out last year. She was the best Mama a guy could ever have. She taught him he was loved. She taught him how to love, how not to hate, even when it seemed like everyone in the world hated him.
The experiment. Sam realized he was delirious. Pain was going away. The hum was fading and the lights were winking out inside the capsule. It was over. The experiment was over and he was still alive.
He heard the metal latches unlocking. Men were coming to open the chamber. Why did it feel so cramped now? The straps were cutting into his wrists, his ankles, his chest.
Through the capsule, he heard the unmistakable sound of a gunshot, saw debris flying away from the lock on the door from the auditorium, saw the door suddenly swing open and a man with a gun rush in.
“Heil Hitler! You will never defeat the Third Reich!”
Another gunshot. Sam could barely see Dr. Erskine, his body jerking as the bullet hit. Peggy was rushing forward. Two M.Ps were just entering from the auditorium. Everyone else was frozen in position. The Nazi spy was about to pull the trigger a second time.
Sam moved his arms in front of him, hardly noticing the strong leather straps binding him snapping like rotted string, and pushed against the capsule door. It flew open and what could only be described as an Adonis bolted out and leaped at the man with the gun who was over fifteen feet away.
The Nazi pulled the trigger a second time as Sam was hurtling toward him. Peggy was approaching from behind as the two M.Ps were just now leveling their sidearms at the assailant. To Sam, it was as if everyone were moving like they were underwater.
His right fist smashed against the killer’s jaw, breaking it. Blood and teeth spewed across the room. Both men flew past Peggy and as the spy landed on his back, Sam had him by the collar with his left hand about to deliver another punch with his right. At that instant, Sam saw his arm but it wasn’t the one he’d had a few minutes ago. This arm belonged to the man Dr. Erskine described, the perfect human specimen, the super soldier. Now it was the arm, the body of the new Samuel Johnson.
The M.Ps were on top of the enemy agent. “We’ve got him.” Sam turned. Other men were around Erskine. “Let me through.”
Sam knelt by his friend. Abe’s shirt was soaked with his own blood. His eyes were fluttering.
“Somebody get a doctor!” Sam was roaring with anguish and desperation.
Abraham’s voice sounded so weak. Sam was aware of Peggy kneeling by his side. He thought he could hear her crying.
“It’s going to be alright, Sam. It’s too late for me, but not for you. I’m sorry. I meant for you to be the first one, the first super soldier. Now you’ll be the only one ever. No one knows the process but me. No notes. Couldn’t…*cough*…couldn’t take the risk…enemy might find. Good luck, Sam. I’m proud of you.”
“No.” Now Peggy wasn’t the only one crying. Doctors or medics rushed in. Sam was vaguely aware of them pushing him aside, trying to save Abe’s life.
He was right. It was too late. It was too late to save Abraham Erskine’s life but not for his dream. Sam Johnson was the embodiment of that dream and for as long as he was alive, he intended to live up to the promise the Jewish scientist saw in him.
Sam was given a promotion from Private to Captain by General Phillips, although only about a dozen people in the military knew about it. He was also given an unusual uniform, one designed to look like the flag Sam so revered.
“I’m sorry, Sam, but we have to make it a full face mask, even though it’ll seem harder to breathe at first.”
“I understand, Peggy.” He outranked her now and in any event, she had grown to be just as good a friend as Abraham had been.
“We’re dropping you off behind enemy lines along with Sgt. Nick Fury’s crack commando unit. You’re to soften up the Nazis in occupied France before D-Day. How do you feel?”
“Ready to serve my country, Lieutenant. How do you feel?”
“As nervous as a mother about to send her son off to war.” She adjusted the mask a bit and then stepped back.
“Son? I’ve got to be a couple of years younger than you, Peggy.”
She smiled but she was starting to cry. “Oh shut up Captain, grab your shield and report to the hangar. Your flight’s waiting.”
“I’ll be back, Peggy. I promise.”
“Just take care, Sam. You wouldn’t want my life to get boring.”
“No, I wouldn’t.” She couldn’t see his grin behind the mask but she could hear it in his voice.
The man who would one day be called “the Living Legend of World War Two” picked up his disk-shaped red, white, and blue shield, turned and walked out the ante-chamber and into the hanger where the transport aircraft was waiting, engines already running.
He wore the brightly colored uniform to honor his nation and his flag, and he wore the mask because he knew white soldiers and officers would never follow a colored man into combat and obey his orders. He’d fight this war using a name that wasn’t his own and he knew they’d win. But someday, he would show his children and his grandchildren, he would show America and the world what freedom and equality was supposed to mean. Someday he would take off the mask and reveal to all men and women who valued liberty above all else the real face of Captain America.
I was reading one of those internet time wasters I saw on Facebook, this one called 35 Super Facts about Captain America and I noticed that one of the actors considered for the role of Steve Rogers early in the development of Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) was Will Smith (pictured above).
Politically correct and progressive people in the 21st century like to rewrite history a lot and I suppose to them, an African-American superhero leading men into combat during World War Two would seem perfectly normal, even though in the context of the 1940s, it would have been incredibly radical and unrealistic. Thanks to the Jim Crow laws and general sentiment regarding race in that era, United States military units didn’t become integrated until 1948.
But what if, just what if, an African-American man was the perfect candidate for the first experiment in the super soldier program? I looked up Wikipedia articles such as Racial segregation in the United States Armed Forces and Military history of African Americans to lay the basis for my story in an attempt to find an answer.
The history of African-Americans serving in the U.S. military including in World War Two is highly distinguished, and those men and women did not “take the knee” when facing our flag, but rather stepped up and took tremendous abuse and bigotry to serve our nation and fight for the freedom they didn’t themselves enjoy. I can only imagine the motivation wasn’t because of what these men and women lived back in the WW2 era, but what they hoped their children and grandchildren would have someday.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King (1963)
If my modest fictional tale were real and Sam Johnson were the living, breathing Captain America, then I think it would have been his dream, too.