Aerospace engineer and black WWII veteran dies at 101
Bernard Benedict James sat his young children in the family living room decades ago in their La Mirada home, where he wrote a series of mathematical equations on a blackboard.
The Harvard-educated aerospace engineer was working for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the time and wanted to give his 10 children an impromptu math lecture.
“I had just learned fractions in elementary school, and my dad started doing black hole math,” his son David, now a 59-year-old visual effects artist, said this week.
But before math class, and before James worked on two missions that sent astronauts into space, the World War II veteran spent two years in prison after being hastily convicted of mutiny and insubordination, a black soldier who dared to interrogate a senior white officer.
James and his family worked tirelessly over the next few decades to clear his name, but he did not live long enough to see a full correction to his service record. James died in his sleep on July 18 at the La Mirada home where he had once taught his children. He was 101 years old.
James should have been part of the American forces that invaded the beaches of Normandy, France, for D-Day in June 1944. Instead, he sat in an English prison after a hasty army court-martial .
He had spoken on behalf of another soldier who had fallen into the verbal crosshairs of a white commander, one who often shouted racist remarks at the men of the 641st Ordnance Company and tagged his black soldiers with the N-word. For his loyalty , James was told to “remove his stripes,” according to court transcripts. Several other men also returned theirs in protest.
Two months later, military police armed with machine guns invaded the camp and arrested James and 17 other soldiers, all black.
James was sentenced to 18 years in prison but was unceremoniously released two years later without an official apology after his family launched a letter-writing campaign to bring attention to his case.
“I didn’t know people were thinking of me,” James said earlier this year. “My sister and my family and even my future wife, Florence, were all working on my behalf, on our behalf. It was a lesson for sure. I would think about all of this for years and years later.
After his release from prison, James returned to his military service and was honorably discharged in 1947, but his record maintained that he was AWOL for 704 days – even though that time was spent in prison.
The US military provided James with a partial correction to his military record after The Times wrote about him on his last birthday. David said his father wanted to appeal the army’s decision; he wanted a complete correction of his file explaining that he had been falsely imprisoned. Cristina Garcia, California Assembly Member presented a joint resolution in March seeking a full presidential exoneration from James’ case.
Although the military has acknowledged that James did not give up his post while serving in the military, no one has ever called to apologize, he told The Times in April.
“I’m not holding my breath,” James said at the time.
Bernard Benedict James was born on February 7, 1921 in St. Louis and spent his formative years in Chicago. His mother’s Creole family came from Haiti to the United States; his father was half black and quarter Cherokee.
James attended the Illinois Institute of Technology and Wilson Junior College in Chicago and worked as a junior draftsman. But in 1943, at the height of World War II, the Army drafted James, who served as a technician in the European theater.
Josefa James, 67, does not believe her father suffered from PTSD, but said there were tantrums that flared up during her childhood that she could not understand at the time.
“I think it has to do with his time in prison. Once they imprisoned him during the army, I think he was always worried that the government could impose their will on you and you wouldn’t have anything to do about it,” said Josefa, who worked as prosecutor for 30 years in Alameda County. .
After leaving the military, James returned to school, first at the University of Michigan, then at Harvard University. He married Florence, a white journalist he met through Friendship House, a faith-based organization that championed civil rights in Chicago.
“The smartest thing my dad did was marry my mom,” said his son Will James, an American history teacher, adding that his mother went back to school after raising 10 children and earned his master’s degree in library science.
James would go on to pursue an illustrious career in the aerospace industry, including designing the capsules that carried astronauts on the Apollo and Mercury space missions.
After his job landed the family in Southern California, they often took their two station wagons on fishing trips to Mexico when the kids were little. During these road trips, Josefa said, her father would sometimes let her drive, and the two would engage in meaningful conversation. In such a large family, she savored this moment alone.
James was a skilled fencer and chess player, Josefa said, and taught her to recognize constellations and shoot a bow and arrow as a child.
She said a friend once described the James family dynamic as follows: “Your mother is in a rowboat with her back straight. You are all 10 in the boat, and she is rowing, while your father is swimming in the ocean around her,” Josefa said. “And that was my father.”
He once swore to fish in the ocean for all of his family’s meals. And when he wasn’t fishing, James liked to cook duck okra and other haute cuisine while celebrating the Creole culture of his family. He often sprinkled his stories with French and Spanish.
“Whenever my friends came to high school, they enjoyed all the conversations that were going on because my dad always had an answer to our questions,” his 66-year-old son Will recalled.
While race was not openly spoken in the family home, the James children were not immune to bigotry.
His daughter Maria-Elena James, 68, recalled that in 1962 her father had invited Walter Schirra, a personal friend of his and the first astronaut to go into space three times, to the school of his children.
“At the time, La Mirada was almost entirely white,” recalls Maria-Elena, 68. “I sat there beaming proudly as my father stood in front of the auditorium with a model of the rocket and a famous astronaut.”
Then a boy in front of her turned around and called his dad the N-word. She punched him in the mouth.
“I was sent home for fighting. I had five fights that day,” said Maria-Elena, who spent her career as a federal magistrate judge. “They didn’t like the astronaut, but they liked my dad being black.”
David recalled taking a family trip out of California in the 1960s and his father not being served at a restaurant.
“I was very young at the time,” he says. “It was a strange thing to realize how others just saw him as a black person compared to this very well-educated polyglot scientist.”
David said his father tried to eliminate racism whenever he was confronted with it and instead sought to celebrate life’s great coincidences.
Rather, James believed in the concept of for, the Latin word for luck or chance. He believed that nothing was ever really a coincidence.
Cherice Fraine met James when she was in her early twenties and worked in Macy’s shoe section while attending community college in Fullerton.
“I must have had a bitter look on my face because he asked me what was wrong,” Fraine recalled in February.
She told James that she was studying for a statistics course and that it was important for her to pass so she could transfer to a four-year college.
“He explained that he was a bit of a mathematician. I didn’t know he was an engineer. He offered to tutor me, and I didn’t know what to think,” Fraine, 41, said. She accepted and her tutoring helped her pass the course.
She now works as an analyst for the US government, a career she says would not have been possible without James.
James was predeceased by his wife of 64 years, Florence Fitzgerald James, and a son, Christopher James. He is survived by one brother, Andrew James; nine children — Frank James, Anthony James, Maria-Elena James, Josefa James, William James, Beatrice James, Philip James, David PI James, Isabel James — and four grandchildren: Ryan Quitzow-James, Ivan James, James Brandon and Ellen James.