“When I think about war, your life can be so easily shortened,” Bryant said by telephone from his apartment at Knollwood in Northwest Washington, where he is recovering from a broken hip. “But I find this virus equally if not more alarming, because when you think of Pearl Harbor or Iwo Jima, there was a possibility of defense. Not with Mother Nature, though. You can’t outrun Mother Nature. I have this feeling of helplessness.”
Bryant’s life has always been about service. After WWII, he joined the Army Reserve and became a one-star brigadier general. Later, he worked for the Veterans Affairs Department, rising to chief of drugs and pharmaceuticals, with an office overlooking the White House.
Three of Bryant’s children and two of his grandchildren have served, too, from Bosnia to Iraq to Afghanistan. Among them: a brigadier general, a combat medic, a Bronze Star winner and a 2016 U.S. Military Academy graduate.
“It just blows me up,” Bryant said. “I’ve been blessed. It causes me to think where I came from, my childhood, my parents, how hard they worked. … I became a general, but I never forgot my background.”
An identity never in doubt
Albert Bryant. No middle name. He was born Nov. 10, 1925, and grew up in Greenville, Miss., near the Louisiana and Arkansas borders.
The boy who’d fight at Iwo Jima and become a general was the son of an African American homemaker and a white chauffeur. On government documents, Bryant’s race was listed as “Negro” or “White,” his complexion described as “ruddy” or “light brown.”
But his identity was never in doubt.
“We knew we were ‘Negroes,’ and we lived here, and whites folks lived over there. And white folks went to Greenville High School, and Negroes did not,” Bryant said one day in early March inside the library of Knollwood. “We never had any shared affairs.”
He caught sight of Mable Lun, a young girl of Chinese descent, during his senior year of high school as he walked to church. He approached her and told her he’d swish a half-court shot that night in his basketball game in her honor.
“I made it,” he said, smiling. “True story.”
“I don’t remember,” said Mable, 92, seated next to him after 71 years of marriage. “I was ready to ignore him.”
“I really did do it,” Bryant said. “I dribbled to the center line and stopped. Nothing but net.
“Two months later, I got my draft notice.”
‘Something to prove’
When Bryant reported to his local draft board in 1943, he wanted to fly fighter planes, like the all-black Tuskegee airmen. He revered the squad of 900 pilots who trained at a segregated airfield in Alabama.
Instead, the 5-foot-9, 157-pound Bryant became a Marine. He boarded a bus to Camp Montford Point in Jacksonville, N.C., home to the country’s first group of black Marines.
The white officers did not embrace their new African American comrades.
“When I got to Montford Point, a white sergeant looked around at all of us recruits and said, ‘When I saw you people in uniforms, I knew we were at war,’ ” Bryant recalled. “That son of a bitch. I called him a ‘son of a bitch’ under my breath. I mean, I am here possibly to die for our country, and here’s a leader who would think that. You people.”
While their white counterparts lived in brick barracks, the black Marines slept in pasteboard huts in a freshly torn pine tree forest, according to the book “African American Voices from Iwo Jima.” The woods teemed with mosquitoes, snakes and bears, which “padded about through the camp, much to the consternation of recruits who saw their tracks when they fell out for morning roll call,” according to an account published by the Marine Corps’ history and museums division.
White Marines and black Marines didn’t mix socially, Bryant said. They went to church at different times. They ate at different mess halls.
“In church, we’d learn we were all God’s children, but then why was it that whites and blacks would go to church at different times?” Bryant asked. “There must be two Gods?”
Bryant hated the way white drill instructors spoke to him, but he dug in.
“I accepted that this was the way of life,” he said. “But I was determined to be the best I could, to the point where I felt like I had something to prove.”
After three or four months, he became the “honor man” of his training class and earned a promotion to private first class.
‘We were all Americans’
In 1944, Bryant was sent to Hawaii and assigned to the 8th Ammunition Company, a new unit created by the Marines for its black members. His job: load, unload, organize and guard ammunition. During combat, he’d move the ammunition forward from the shore to the frontline troops and firing batteries.
When his unit left Hawaii, he said, “I didn’t know where in the hell we were going, to be honest with you. Maybe Japan.”
The precise destination: the island of Iwo Jima, about 700 miles from Japan. The Americans, who’d been bombing Iwo Jima from the air and sea since December, needed to capture the island so the military could use it for refueling and emergency landings.
The task would not be easy. Tens of thousands of Japanese troops were hiding out in fortresses and underground caves. They would defend one of Iwo Jima’s most strategic spots — the summit of the 546-foot dormant volcano of Mount Suribachi on the island’s southern tip. The expansive sight lines gave the Japanese multiple opportunities to fire directly on American troops.
When Bryant reached the shores Feb. 21, 1945 — two days after D-Day, or “D plus 2,” as he says — he said he started to pray.
“You never knew where the shells were going to hit,” he said. “They were coming in from all over. Things were blowing up. Marines were coming onto the shores, and some Marines who were already there were wounded and being taken to Navy hospital ships. And the volcanic ash. You’d try digging a foxhole, and the more you dug, the more it would cave in on you.”
Two days into the fight, in the late morning of Feb. 23, Bryant was at the base of Mount Suribachi, helping supply combat troops with ammunition. Marines suddenly started cheering, and Bryant looked up. Marines were hoisting a small U.S. flag at the summit.
Later that afternoon, a larger flag was brought, and Bryant saw several Marines grasping the pole and positioning it into the ground atop Mount Suribachi. It was this second flag-raising that was captured by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning picture later inspired the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington.
“When I saw them raise the flag, it gave me this feeling the island was secure, it meant that we won,” Bryant said. “I felt like: ‘Well, I made it. I am safe.’ Maybe I’d go back on the ship and go home. But the battle went on and lasted much longer than that. That night, we had a night attack.”
He nearly lost his own life in the fighting afterward.
“Two guys in the foxhole next to me got hit by a shell, and the foxhole caved in on them,” Bryant said, closing his eyes for two seconds. “The earth shook. We ran over to them to try and dig them out, but the more we dug, the more the volcanic ash fell back in. They suffocated before we could get them out. It just made me realize how serious it was and how lucky we were. The foxhole was no more than 60 or 70 yards from me.”
During the weeks that followed, Bryant said, whites and blacks fought side by side, without any of the prejudice that had divided them earlier in training.
“We were all Americans once the chips were down,” Bryant said.
A new enemy
Seventy-five years later, Bryant is living through a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people around the world, including more than 20,000 Americans — nearly three times the number of Marines killed during the battle of Iwo Jima. He knows that elderly people, especially residents of nursing homes, have been dying from the virus.
Still, Bryant feels safe at Knollwood, which, like many facilities for the elderly, has largely barred visitors and has asked residents not to leave the campus’s grounds. Residents are also no longer allowed to visit each other’s apartments and must eat their meals inside their own units, as opposed to the cafeteria. Knollwood is also conducting daily health checks of all staff members as they report to work.
He and his wife miss visits from their children and grandchildren.
Their oldest child, Albert Bryant Jr., a West Point graduate, also became a brigadier general and helped oversee the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia in the 1990s and the mission to capture of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Their second oldest, Kermit Bryant, a former Army staff sergeant, was a combat medic and worked in the VA for 26 years making and fitting artificial limbs. Their youngest son, Gregory Bryant, a U.S. Merchant Marine Academy graduate, was a Navy reservist for eight years.
Among the grandchildren, Albert-Francis “Paco” Bryant deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times and earned a Bronze Star. Veronica Bryant, a 2016 West Point graduate, attends an Army captain’s career course at Fort Jackson, S.C. And Benjamin Bryant, a television and film producer, served as the managing editor for the Pentagon’s independent review of the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood and later as a lead editor on the Defense Department’s report endorsing the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
Bryant Sr. is proud of their service, especially as the country confronts a very different war. Though the coronavirus has been on the offensive for months, he believes, as he did all those years ago in the Pacific, that the enemy will be defeated.