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Color didn't matter in war zone

After quitting Lackawanna's Lincoln Annex High School in his senior year, 17-year-old Cleveland E. Fleming enlisted in the Army.

"I was a good student, but about four of us didn't want to go and work at Bethlehem Steel when we graduated high school, so we all left school and joined the military," he said.

He never imagined that, after persuading his mother to give permission for him to join before his 18th birthday, he would be jumping into wartime service.

"World War II had just ended four years [earlier]. I thought I was going into the peacetime Army," he said.

Assigned to an all-black group of soldiers, he headed to Okinawa. A short time after his arrival at the South Pacific island, President Harry Truman signed an order that the armed forces had to be integrated.

"But no white commander wanted to be the first to accept blacks because they feared there would be racial problems," Fleming said.

Eventually, Fleming was taken into a white unit, but was made to sleep in a tent, while the white soldiers slept in Quonset huts.

"One day I saw all the white soldiers marching by and asked where they were going. They said to Korea, and I said, 'What about Korea?' They said, 'There is a war in Korea, and we have to go.' I asked, 'How come I can't go and fight for my country?' I didn't get an answer."

When the war turned bloody, race was no longer a factor, he said, and by September 1950 Fleming and other black soldiers were in the thick of it.

A member of a heavy mortar company, Fleming fought side by side with whites firing mortar shells some 400 yards into the front lines.

"From where we were, you couldn't see the effects of the rounds that you shot," he said. "We got our directions from the forward observers, who called us on walkie-talkies."

As for race relations, it didn't matter what color you were -- at least in the war zone.

"We were all American soldiers. I remember when we'd go into different towns like Inchon and Daegu and the women there would call us ice cream soldiers and the chocolate soldiers," said Fleming, amused by the recollection.

For 13 months, he fought in different battles on the Korean peninsula.

"Before I left, I was on an island where dead American soldiers were being temporarily buried," he said. "They had to cover them up. It made me realize that war was really hell."

Back in the United States, Fleming was assigned to Fort Knox, Ky., and he was granted a two-week leave to visit Lackawanna.

"I go to this bus depot and there are two places to get water. One was for the whites and one was for the blacks," he said. "The one for the whites was a drinking fountain with a button you push to get the water inside the depot.

"The one for the blacks was in a shed outside. It was a bucket of water with a dipper. I went to get the water out of the fountain and they told me I couldn't get it there. I didn't argue. I just walked away."

But he was deeply offended.

"I was in my Army uniform, and I had just fought in Korea," he said.

That wasn't his only negative experience.

"Blacks could go in the bars in Kentucky and get a drink, but after you left, they broke the glass," he said. "I know they did that because I looked through the window and saw them doing it after I left."

With that type of stateside homecoming, Fleming decided to finish his hitch in the Army serving in Japan.

"That was pretty decent. I did 13 months on the island of Sendai, where they just had the tsunami and nuclear meltdown," he said.

Overall, Fleming said, his military service provided him with an education he might not have gotten elsewhere.

"I'll always appreciate what the military did for me by showing me the eastern part of the world."

Back home in Western New York, he owned and operated a deli on Hertel Avenue for several years. With his brother, the late Ronald H. Fleming, he established a small weekly newspaper called the "Fine Print News" in 1970. It now comes out monthly on the East Side.

Currently, the 79-year-old Fleming works as a school bus monitor and volunteers with the Erie County AMVETS, serving as an adjutant. He also teaches bridge at the Salvation Army on Main Street every Tuesday morning.

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Cleveland E. Fleming, age 79

Hometown: Lackawanna

Residence: Buffalo

Branch: Army

Rank: Private 1st class

War zone: Korean War

Years of service: Dec. 22, 1949 -- Feb. 3, 1953

Most prominent honors: 4 Bronze Stars

Specialty: infantry