by Jonathan Scott | Photography by Diana Matthews
One afternoon in early spring 1945, Motor Sergeant Reese Maxey was driving the lead truck in a convoy of American soldiers who were part of what was then called the Colored Army. Even though they were fighting the same enemy in the same war, Maxey had very little contact with his white counterparts since joining the armed forces in November 1941. President Truman would eventually order the American military integrated, but the president’s Executive Order wouldn’t be issued until three years later.
The end of war was coming. Maxey and his fellow soldiers knew it, but that didn’t mean their lives weren’t still at risk virtually every day. Since wading ashore at Normandy Beach in June 1944, there were days when Maxey wasn’t sure he’d live to see the sun go down. And that day, when he was leading the convoy through western Germany, might have been one of those days.
As a motor sergeant, Maxey didn’t always have to carry a weapon. But that afternoon, he had a pistol tucked between his legs as he sat in the driver’s seat, constantly on the lookout. Part of his reward for being so good at his job was to be in the lead truck as he and his men drove food and supplies to the troops. The irony was, Maxey’s eyesight wasn’t the best. He might have blamed himself for it since, in a way, it had been partly his own fault. Still, his safety and that of the others depended on his sight.
As they came around a bend, Maxey could see a group of people near the side of the road in the distance. He strained his eyes to make out who they were—and how much danger the convoy was in.
Since leaving the hospital in England, his eyesight had been better, but it was still not perfect. Maxey had studied French for three years in high school back in Dobbins Heights, North Carolina. As a teenager he didn’t know that he would someday soon be in France putting his fluency to use. It helped him communicate with the locals while the 529th Unit was sleeping in pup tents in the French countryside.
Thanks to his French, Maxey and some of his buddies were able to get hold of what the French called contrabande, moonshine. It was powerful stuff. Much too powerful. Drinking it nearly blinded him and landed him the hospital in England for 12 days. He was the only African-American soldier recuperating in a medical wing of 60 men. When he was discharged, someone told him, “Don’t ever come back.”
That memory was fresh in his mind as the convoy progressed. Maxey could see that the Germans gathered by the side of the road were young, but in the later days of the war, the Germans had taken to drafting teenagers. He slowed down and tightened his grip on the pistol in his lap. He had plenty of training in using firearms, but he hadn’t had much cause to use it.
The half-dozen trucks behind him stopped. Had he led the convoy into a trap? Maxey opened his door and, steadying his hand, pointed the pistol at the children. Now he was close enough to see that there were girls as well as boys, maybe six or eight of them all together.
He raised his arm to make sure his bad eyesight wouldn’t cause him to do something he’d regret. He fired above the children’s heads. Then another, even higher. As he emptied the pistol, the children scattered away. Maxey smiled and waved at the driver in the truck behind him. All of them, including the children, were going to live to see the sun go down that day.
After the war, Maxey lived for a while in Brooklyn, but he eventually returned to Dobbins Heights. Maxey’s eyesight continued to deteriorate throughout his life. In 2003, an operation at Duke Hospital allowed him to see and even read again. At 98, Maxey has lived to see a great many suns go down and will no doubt live to see many more.