October 4, 2007
"My God did not make this world to be like this! He made it for peace and love, but man just wants to fight."
Leonard Fraser leaned back in his chair in the room he shares with his wife Dorothy at the Fulton Special Care nursing home here in the South Bronx. I’d come over to talk with him about World War II.
He and Dorothy have been watching Ken Burns’s documentary, The War. "They got it basically right," he told me. "What you saw on TV is pretty much what it was like."
Leonard grew up in Harlem and was working in a midtown warehouse when he was drafted into the Army in 1942. After basic training at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, the camp reserved for African-Americans, he was sent to New Guinea. "First Battalion, Negro Division, 93rd Cavalry Reconnaissance: That was us. I was trained as an armorer. I could fix any gun you can name, big or small."
He served in the South Pacific for the duration of the war. The battles are mostly a blur to him now, or so he says. "Finschhaven . . . Molotai . . . all the big ones. The enemy was tough. We had to get them out of caves where they dug themselves in. They would die rather than surrender. They would throw themselves off of cliffs to commit suicide. I took a beautiful silver sword off the body of one of the officers. I have it in storage."
He paused, and his face grew blank. "I don’t remember a lot of what happened, but I remember how I felt. I was scared all the time — we all were — but there was nothing we could do about that. We just kept on."
"Malaria," his wife prompted. "You got malaria."
"Yes, I got malaria, we all did. It was jungle warfare. We just kept on."
"He doesn’t remember details anymore," Dorothy said. "He told me so many things, but now I can’t remember them either."
"It’s not a good thing to think about," Leonard said. "You have to forget."
Leonard Fraser got through over two years of combat uninjured. When he heard the news of the Japanese surrender, he sums up his feelings in one word: "Overjoyed."
They sent the troops back to the States packed in the ship like cattle. "He had to sleep on the floor all the way back," Dorothy said. "There were no cots for them."
Did he experience racial prejudice in the service?
"No, except that we were segregated. We fought hard and well, and the white soldiers came to respect us. The only prejudice I remember was stepping off the train in New Orleans for a break on the way out to Arizona. We had to use ‘colored’ bathrooms and eat in the ‘colored’ section of the restaurant. I didn’t like that. But that was just the South, not the Army."
When he returned home, his old job at the warehouse was waiting for him. Soon he met Dorothy, a native of Jamaica who had just come to New York to study fashion design and dress-making. It was mutual love at first sight.
"He was such a handsome guy," she recalled, "and a great dancer. But I wanted to make sure about him. The first thing I asked him was, ‘Do you have a job?’ The second thing was, ‘Do you have a bank account?’ When he took me to meet his mother, I knew we would all get along. I even looked a little like her. We all fit in together. We got married in 1947."
"That’s a war in itself," Leonard laughed.
Their life together was not easy, Dorothy told me. When the warehouse closed down in the mid-1950’s, Leonard did handyman work while Dorothy supplemented the family income designing and making dresses. They had two children, Lenny and June; Lenny died suddenly in 1993. They have three grandchildren.
Tormented by memories of battle, he was in and out of V.A. hospitals all his life. "He has ‘war syndrome,’" Dorothy said. "It’s like he’s there sometimes."
In the mid-1960’s, the family moved into a spacious apartment in the new Webster Houses, a city project in the South Bronx, where they remained for 40 years while the neighborhood disintegrated around them. Leonard became what’s known today as an "outsider artist." He would bring home items he found in the street and make colorful arrays of them in little shrines around the apartment. In the foyer, he had a collection of unmatched baby shoes, meticulously arranged by size and surrounded by American flags. On my visits to their home over the years, Dorothy would complain about the clutter but was resigned to it: "It’s Lenny’s way."
Last year, when Dorothy’s diabetes made her unable to walk, their daughter found a place for both of them in Fulton Special Care, a spotless facility with a pleasant and helpful staff, and good food — too good, according to Dorothy.
"Look at him!" she complained. "He used to be so skinny, and here he’s put on 20 pounds!"
That doesn’t bother Leonard. Untroubled by physical ailments, still youthful in appearance, and preserving the impish smile of a fresh recruit, he celebrated his 86th birthday last week.
But he keeps pondering the war he was in, and all the wars that have happened since.
"When you’re out there under fire, you ask yourself many times: What are you here for? What are you doing? You’ve got to fight for your life."
He turned silent a moment, then said, "If I had to do it again, it would be questionable. Was it worth it? Sixty years later, you turn around and people are still fighting."
"You can write this down: Don’t ever call up Sergeant Fraser again."