In this abridged excerpt from “The Last Thing You Surrender” by columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr., elements of the all-black 761st Tank Battalion make a grisly discovery and Pvt. Luther Hayes, whose parents were murdered before his eyes by a white mob when he was a boy of nine, learns a lesson about humanity’s true capacity for cruelty.
It was a camp of some sort, barracks arranged in neat rows. And hobbling, shuffling, tottering toward them from every direction, came an assemblage of stick men in filthy black and white striped prison suits. Maybe some of them were women, too. It was hard to tell. The creatures seemed sexless.
Dazedly, Luther dismounted the tank. His mouth was still open.
The creatures swarmed the colored tankers. It was difficult to believe they were even human. Their eyes were like small, frightened animals, peering out from the caverns their sockets had become. Their mouths were drawn tight against their bony jaws. You could look at them and see where tibia met patella, count their ribs by sight. They were little more than skeletons wearing rags of flesh.
And their eyes gleamed with a madness of joy, an insanity of deliverance, at the sight of the colored tankers. They shook clasped hands toward heaven, they smiled terrible, toothless smiles, they looked up at the Negro soldiers like penitents gazing upon the very throne of God. A woman — at least he thought it was a woman — took Luther’s hand and lifted it to her cheek. Her grip was like air. She held his skin to hers, which was papery and thin, almost translucent. Her face contorted into an expression of raw, utter sorrow and she made groaning sounds that did not seem quite human. It took Luther a moment to realize that she was crying, because her eyes remained dry, no water glistened on her cheek. She had no tears left in her.
And Luther, who had never touched a white woman before, who had never so much as brushed against one in a crowd, who had avoided even that incidental contact with a kind of bone-deep terror accessible only to a Negro man in the Deep South who grew up knowing all too well what messing with a white woman could get you, could only stand there, stricken and dumbfounded, as this woman pressed his hand to her cheek. He was a man who had seen his parents tortured and burned to death before his very eyes at his own front door by white people. It had never occurred to him that their capacity for bestial cruelty did not stop with the woes they inflicted upon Negroes.
But here was the proof, this poor thing whose gender he had to guess, this creature whose age might have been 16, might have been 60, holding his hand in her airy grip, crying without tears.
Luther looked around. The place reeked of death and s---, a stink of putrefaction that surely profaned the very nostrils of God. Naked and emaciated bodies lay stacked in piles exactly like cordwood, only their gaping mouths and sightless eyes attesting to the fact that once they had been human and alive. Flies droned above it all in great black clouds, a few of them occasionally descending to walk in the mouths and eyes of the dead.
At length, the crying woman got hold of herself. Luther gently took back his hand. She gave him a shy, weak smile, touched her feathery hand to his shoulder — some sort of thank you, he supposed — and wandered slowly away. Luther watched her go, still dazed, still failed by language. And he still struggled to understand. It had never occurred to him, not even in his angriest, most bitter imaginings, that something like this was possible.
How could white people do this to white people?
How could anybody do this to anybody?
The sergeant on top of the tank had his head down, listening to the voice in his ear. Then his gaze came up. "Okay, that's it," he called. "Mount up. We're movin' out."
"Movin' out?" Luther couldn't believe it. "How we gon' move out, Sarge? What about these people?"
"What are you going to do? Cram 'em all in your turret? Command knows where they are now. They're sending help, doctors, some rations they can eat."
Luther accepted this only grudgingly. "I guess so," he said. "Still don't seem right."
"Look at it this way," called the sergeant. "Would you rather stay here and play nursemaid to people you can't help, or would you rather go kill some more krauts?"
Luther glanced back at the prisoners, these wasted remnants of vital human beings. "Ain't no contest," he grumbled and walked back toward his tank.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. firstname.lastname@example.org