The pamphlet dropped from the sky reads: “Do you enjoy the same rights as white people do in America?”
HBO’s Watchmen took viewers back to WWI’s Western front.
In the scene, German planes drop propaganda leaflets over black American soldiers.
The leaflets were one-hundred percent real; here’s what they read.
The second episode of HBO’s Watchmen opens with a dictation. It is the First World War—likely, fall 1917. A German officer pulls aside an English-speaking typist to draft a message to black American soldiers—to convince them to abandon the fight, to thumb their nose at the U.S. government, and to stay in Germany.
Aside from the seemingly parodic German accent, the contents of the dictation are one-hundred percent true to life. The Germans really did drop such letters over American troops. They really did urge them to desert and defect.
In Watchmen, the leaflet was kept by Louis Gossett Jr.’s character, Will. It was made clear at the end of the show’s first episode that he’s the son of the veteran seen collecting the letter, who kept it, and then wrote “watch over this boy” as he fled the Tulsa Riots of 1921. (Even after serving his country, he was targeted and killed by his countrymen.)
In the real world, German airplanes dropped the leaflets behind American lines, meant for the nearly 370,000 black soldiers drafted into the service but segregated from white units. So many black Americans joined the service that the War Department had to stop accepting volunteers only a week after President Woodrow Wilson declared war in April 1917; they had more than filled the black “quota.” Still, despite their patriotism, their eagerness to serve a country that had for centuries marginalized them, most black recruits were barred from combat units—serving instead as cooks or in non-combat roles. They faced discrimination, goading, and racism.
“You have been made the tool of the egotistic and rapacious rich in England and America,” the German leaflets read. “What is democracy? Personal freedom, all citizens enjoying the same rights socially and before the law! Do you enjoy the same rights as white people do in America?”
It’s unclear how many soldiers deserted.
Only in 1948 was the U.S. military officially desegregated, after an executive order signed by President Harry S. Truman. Black Americans have been serving in the U.S. military since the American Revolution.