Published in MetroWest Daily News on February 24, 2004
Used with Jeff Adair’s Permission
By Jeff Adair / News Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 24, 2004
FRAMINGHAM — The seldom told story of African-American scientists and technicians who designed radar systems that helped the country win World War II is the subject of a powerful new documentary produced and directed by a Framingham State College professor.
Ten years ago, Robert Johnson Jr., a professor of communications, received a grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission to compile oral histories of black scientists who worked at Camp Evans, part of Fort Monmouth, N.J.
“This started out as an academic project. I was looking to publish it for an academic journal….I ended up with 20-some people and whittled it down to about a dozen interviews.”
Later, “I realized that it was probably something that needed to have a broader audience,” he said.
A “rough cut” of Johnson’s documentary, “No Short Climb: Race Workers and WWII Defense Technology,” will be screened at the school tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. in the forum of the D. Justin McCarthy College Center. Admission is $5.
The film chronicles the trials and tribulations of black scientists who were members of the U.S. Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories at Camp Evans, one of several that developed radar systems from 1940 to 1959.
The men lived in a town called Sea Bright on the Atlantic with an active Klu Klux Klan, according to the interviews, at a time when whites openly discriminated against blacks. They could not live on base because housing was not provided for blacks.
No matter how hard they worked, they did not receive credit. For example, one scientist, Dr. Walter McAfee, a mathematician and physicist, did work that was instrumental in man walking on the moon, according to the documentary. As part of a U.S. Army program, Project Diana in 1946, he made the calculation to determine whether a high frequency radio signal could penetrate Earth’s outer atmosphere, allowing Earth-to-space communications.
News reports of the scientific breakthrough did not mention McAfee’s name. In fact, on the day a New York Times reporter and Army film crew went to the camp to document the triumph, McAfee was sent elsewhere on assignment.
“The people who received the publicity got good jobs after the war and he and others didn’t,” said Johnson, who interviewed McAfee in 1994.
McAfee died in 1995 before Johnson could get an on-camera interview.
In making the film, Johnson said, he was most impressed by how the men supported each other. They helped each other find housing and cope with racism.
Many of the scientists faced hardship after the war, he said, when the soldiers came back home and took over the Civil Service jobs, pushing many blacks and women out the door.
The McCarthy scare, when many people were accused of being communists, also ruined the careers of many of the scientists.
William J. Jones, who worked with a group of nine engineers in the Tool and Test Equipment for Radar, talked about McCarthy’s investigation into the camp in his interview with Johnson in 1993.
“I’m suspended as a security risk and escorted out in the street,” he told Johnson. “It was never said I was a communist. I had a hearing, not a trial, and a lawyer whose fee cost me $5,000. I was found guilty and then fired.
“I was escorted out of the building again and off the base. I couldn’t get a job while I was suspended, nor would anybody hire me because of the McCarthy scare. My wife went to work to support the two children and me soon after I was fired.” Johnson said Jones was later reinstated and quit immediately.
The finished film, which Johnson hopes to complete by August, will be 57 minutes long. Last weekend, Johnson showed the rough cut to a group of physicists in Washington, D.C. It has also been seen by groups of academics, historians and military personnel.
“I’ve received tremendous feedback,” he said, “all of which will work its way into the final piece.”
Thank you to Mr. Jeff Adair for writing this story and for permission to post the article here.
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