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Asa Davison: Battlefield blessings, for the Black veteran of World War II

Dominion Post - 12/7/2022

Dec. 7—MONONGAH — One of the first things you see when you walk into Asa and Dolores Davison's room is a poster with a heartfelt message.

"Choose faith over anxiety, hope over worry, love over fear, " reads the message, with the key words, "faith, " "hope " and "love, " prominently centered.

The couple, who celebrated their 72nd anniversary in October, now reside at St. Barbara's Memorial Nursing Home in Monongah, a former coal town in outlying Marion County.

Asa's going to be 99 his next birthday. Dolores is younger, but with aging comes inevitable declines.

Room 14, down the hall and to your left, is home now.

St. Barbara's sits on a rise in a place that still thrums with the frequencies and persistence of memory.

Monongah in many ways has never gotten over the horrific mine disaster of 1907: Depending on accounts, the explosion killed as many as 500 — with sizable numbers of the victims believed to be children, working underage and off the books.

Depending on whose kitchen you're in, or what game you're watching, you might even today get into a discussion regarding Nick Saban, the storied football coach of Alabama.

Saban lit up the gridiron way before then as the starting quarterback of Monongah High's state championship football team in 1968.

Asa Davison, meanwhile, has his own memories — all swirling with conflicts, resolutions, unresolved feelings and, ultimately, acceptance.

That's what happens when you're a young man, and you're sent off to fight for the rights of your country, when you don't necessarily have full rights of your own.

Dec. 7, 1941: Hate Thy Enemy Today is another anniversary.

It's Pearl Harbor Day, marking the 81st observance of the Japanese attack on the U.S. Navy fleet in Hawaii that propelled America into World War II.

Two rounds of attacks, each lasting 45 minutes or so, and it was done. Mission accomplished.

Davison was drafted two years after that Sunday morning assault on Dec. 7, 1941. Not long after his basic training in Alabama, he shipped out to the South Pacific.

While columns of American soldiers and columns of German soldiers were squaring off in the shattered cities of Europe, Davison and his platoon mates where engaged in fierce fighting of a different kind, as they hopped islands and hacked through jungles.

Their enemy was stealth and tenacious.

Davison harbors no hatred in his heart for anyone these days, he said, but he most surely hated the Japanese soldiers who were trying to kill him the early dusk that day in New Guinea.

True to form, the shelling on this island, on this day, was relentless.

"Man, they were throwing everything at us, " said Davison, who had been hunkered down in a 4-by-4 foxhole he had dug himself.

As the sun was dipping behind the palm trees, his anger was rising.

Paradoxically, he suddenly got fighting mad — even if he was in a war zone.

So, he decided to become his own one-man Army.

"I'm gonna get a Jap, " he remembers thinking, using the prevailing racial slur of the time. He was 19 years old.

Davison knew all about racial slurs. He got that education as a Black kid growing up in Fairmont, the county seat right down the road from Monongah.

'Get those shades'

Before the Depression clamped down, and then after the home front effort kicked up for the war, there were jobs to be had in the town for its factories and vibrant shopping district.

After Pearl Harbor, shifts were working overtime in outlying coal mines.

The factories bumping up against one another in the city's "Belt Line " district behind 12th Street were thrumming like Louis Jordan's rhythm section on the bandstand.

Yes, there were good-paying jobs to be had — just not for everyone.

Davison's father, Asa Sr., who grew up southwestern Pennsylvania and tried to follow jobs to Fairmont, was among them.

It didn't matter that he had the pioneering distinction of being the first Black person to graduate from both Waynesburg High School and Waynesburg College — pigment prevailed for the worst.

"That's just how it was for Black people back then, " his son said.

Still, America's military needed soldiers, no matter their skin color.

Davison got his draft notice in 1943 when he was still a student at Fairmont's all-Black Dunbar High School, an institution that was respected.

Dunbar's grads included aviator George S. "Spanky " Roberts, who soared with the Tuskegee Airmen — and Johnnie Johnson, the boogie-woogie piano player and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member who gave Chuck Berry his first gig.

Davison ended up at an induction center in Maryland, and then boarded a passenger train bound for Alabama and basic training.

He and the new soldiers got a telling order when they hit the Deep South.

"We had to pull the shades down, so people couldn't see the Black people in the train."

Homecoming, family (and other American dreams)

Davison came back home to West Virginia in 1947, and immediately re-enrolled at Dunbar High to get that diploma.

He bristled at the institutional racism that still prevailed.

He fought on the front lines for his country, but back home, he still had to enter through the back door, most places.

First, he pushed a broom — and ignored the put-downs.

He dug in like a fox hole, however, and eventually got on at the Post Office. Later, he founded his own demolition company.

Back at Dunbar he encountered a pretty girl with long hair named Dolores.

Her mother said he was "too old " to date her daughter.

"No, I'm not, " he said.

"No, he's not, " Delores said.

They now have three sons, Jerry, Brian and Gregory, who are all engineers.

Jerry still lives in Fairmont and his brothers always manage get back for birthdays and other special occasions.

The family also includes their foster daughter, Mary Tate, who is a teacher. Everyone grew up in a comfortable house in Fairmont, on leafy Maple Avenue.

"They're my heart, " Mary said. "My whole life. I was 11 when my dad died and they took me in."

"You couldn't ask for better parents, " Jerry said. "The only word I can think of, is 'blessed.'"

'I love these guys'

Mary nudged Jerry and pointed.

Asa was propped up in his bed and Dolores was in her chair. They were looking at each other and grinning, in that good-humored telepathy that couples who have been together forever always seem to share.

Meanwhile, two visitors showed up to share in the moment.

One had a notebook. The other had a camera.

"Dolores, " Asa said. "Get next to me, girl. Ronnie Rittenhouse is gonna take your picture."

"Oh, now you want me, " she said with a smile that made the years melt.

Davison these days, in accordance with that poster on his wall, chooses faith, hope and love over all, he said.

And what happened after he crawled out of that fox hole ?

Well, at the height of the war 79 years ago, a kid in uniform who was not yet 20 was intent on destroying the enemy.

He shouldered his rifle — and didn't get far.

An airy, but firm fist to his chest knocked him flat.

His breathing was hurried and raspy, but that was from the excitement — it wasn't labored.

There was no blood, either.

He had a small Bible in his shirt pocket, he said, with his name engraved on a metal plate. Was a bullet or shrapnel deflected ?

"My chest and neck really hurt, " he said. "I never did figure it out."

He stayed put for a few minutes, then went back to his fox hole.

"I just know I'm still here, " he said. Then, he drew up the word his son just used.

"God has been good to me. I just know I'm blessed."

A St. Barbara's staffer, on her rounds, ducked in the doorway.

"You doin' OK, Mr. Asa ? Miss Dolores ?

I love these guys."

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