Mel Pender – An Expression of Hope Part 2: Why Japan Holds a Special Place in His Heart

 

Mel Pender_Medal of Honor
Mel Pender receiving his Medal of Honor_from the collection of Mel Pender.

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong had to overcome the challenge of being Black in America, and discovered in their trips to Europe that their talent was far more significant than their color. Over 100,000 African Americans were sent to Europe to fight during World War I. After the war, a large number stayed, feeding the fascination for jazz music that began to fill the most popular clubs in Paris. In Europe, blacks were viewed not as inferiors, but as individuals. And jazz artists were revered.

Two-time Olympian, Mel Pender, is African American, has been subject to subtle and overt discrimination throughout his life in Georgia and in the US military. His autobiography, Expression of Hope – The Mel Pender Story, is peppered with such anecdotes. He joined the US military which had just begun de-segregation, in advance of the Supreme Court ruling for schools to end de-segregation between whites and blacks. So Pender had expected an even higher respect for meritocracy and equality in the Army. And yet, he remembers his first trip on the bus en route to basic training. The bus stopped for lunch. The whites went in the restaurant through the front door, and the blacks through a side door. Pender silently fumed.

I would not get off the bus to use the bathroom, I guess in protest, so needless to say I suffered the remainder of my ride to Fort Jackson. Naively perhaps, I thought that when I joined the army, despite the color of my skin, I would be treated the same as any other soldier. Again, I would ask the question why? I thought I could do the same as whites and be given respect as a soldier, ready and willing to fight and die for this country.

colored entrance only

Pender recalled another time in America , just before shipping out to Okinawa, when he was a part of an integrated, racially mixed troop of soldiers who were taking leave for different parts of the country. He and his colleagues, all of whom were white, decided it would be faster to hitchhike to Atlanta than wait for a bus. When they got to the highway, they suddenly waved good bye to Pender saying “we’ll see you later!”

The soldiers walked off down the road, leaving me behind. I guess they felt that they would not get picked up being with a black person. Well, I wasn’t sure what to do next. It was pitch dark out, raining, and frankly I was scared.

When Pender arrived in Okinawa, Japan, in 1960, he had no reason to expect any different treatment from the Japanese. But as it turned out, Pender had, quite unexpectedly, a “Black American in Paris” experience. He couldn’t believe how wonderful the people were.

It was a completely different world to any previous experience I had gone through. The people were hard-working, intelligent, and very polite. This was the first time a group of people had shown me so much respect. It was new to me, and I loved it. For the first time I felt free as I interacted with them. The shackles of stereotypes and expectations of prejudice melted away, and I felt really good about myself. I quickly realized that the absence of racial barriers with these people was the reason for my feeling of well-being, acceptance, and almost happy self-abandonment.

As mentioned in Part 1, Pender discovered that he had a talent for sprinting. When he emerged victorious in a track meet between US military athletes and Japanese athletes training for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, he was asked to compete in the inner-service competitions, where he was crowned champion in 100- and 200-yards. His commanding officer rewarded Pender with seven days of “R and R” (rest and relaxation) in Yokohama – the so-called mainland!

Mel Pender_famous start
From the collection of Mel Pender

That’s where Pender found his muse. He was enjoying his time in Yokohama immensely where “the people on the mainland were even nicer.” And on his last day, he and his friends went to the NCO Club where he met a Japanese lady named Monako Yamamoto. Pender was bewitched, telling me “I was in love. She was beautiful.” He said that Yamamoto said the Olympics would be in Tokyo in 1964, so Pender promised that he would then make the team and be back to see her for the Olympics. In fact, as he wrote in his book, Pender knew very little of the Olympics at that time.

She smiled and said, we will see. Well I did not know much about the Olympics or the track team, and I had no idea how to even go out about getting onto the team. I just knew that I wanted to come back to Japan, one way or the other. Overseas was great because we were not black or white, just Americans.

Japan gave Pender a vision of what a life of equality and mutual respect would feel like. But Pender also knew that the potential was always there in America. Back to Pender’s story, about being abandoned by his fellow white soldiers at the highway, in the dark, in the rain. Eventually, a black driver picked Pender up and drove him to a nearby gas station where he hoped to catch a bus. Still alone, he sat there wondering how he was going to get home, when a car pulled up.

Mel Pender card

Well, I sat down to wait, and to my surprise, a car pulled up full of white guys: “You need a ride?” the driver yelled out?

“I’m going to Atlanta,” I told him.

“Hop in!” he said, and they took me all the way to Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta. Now these guys also were in the military, and they did not know me, yet they were kind enough to look out for me. But the same guys I had spent every day with, that I would have to fight side by side with, face life-and-death situations with, deserted me as soon as civilian streets beckoned.

What happened was ironic, but at the same time, the end result of the incident was inspiring. There is always reason to hope, to believe that change for the better is possible. You see, I believe that as long as there are some good people in this world, then good decent principles will win out over the bad ones, even if it takes time. Patience is a virtue, and hope for progress in human relations is a necessary first ingredient for anyone who dreams of a better future in a better society.