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African Americans in World War 2

Updated on July 11, 2017

Significance of WWII for African Americans

The Second World War is one of the most significant events in history. However, like the Civil War and the First World War, it was of great significance for African Americans, who sought to actively participate in a bid to try show they belonged, and were citizens of the United States deserving of fair treatment. Despite the challenges they faced at first and the segregation they faced in the military and the Navy, African American Soldiers actively participated in the War both as units and individually in ways that demonstrated heroic acts to date. Such individuals as Doris Miller are still remembered for their courage and heroism despite the fact that they served as mess men. Here, I will discuss the participation of African Americans in the Second World War, and show how they contributed to the victory of the Allies despite facing significant challenges back home.

African Americans

Source

Participation in WW2

African Americans had suffered significant injustices since the Civil War. Despite having participated in both the Civil War and the Great War, they were still looked at as inferior and unworthy of equal treatment as the White Americans. Even their participation in the Great War was mocked by some from the American military. According to Neil Wynn (2010) reports from the First World War stated that;

"Black officers were failures; black men lacked the intelligence and courage to make good combat soldiers"

With the discrimination and violence the African Americans faced during this period, even those who had participated in the war and still wore their uniform faced similar aggressions with some even being lynched in the South. This activities proved that the situation of African Americans was not about to change despite dying for their country in Combat. As the Second World War approached, according to Neil Wynn (2010) African Americans did not expect much change to their situation. He notes that;

"..For many the conflict in Europe was not their affair-it was a "white man's war", and as some pointed out, the American and European governments had not rushed to defend Ethiopia. More than this, many African Americans questioned what another war would bring for them, and remembering the events of 1917 to 1919, they answered, "Nothing!"

On the other hand, according to Jeff Jeffries (1996) and Ronald Takaki (2000) African Americans would still suffer profoundly during the Great Depression. Having lacked good education, jobs and wages, their situation was aggravated by the Depression, and any initiative to assist them, such as the New Deal did little to improve their situation. Therefore, when it started, the Second World War may have presented some opportunities in the long run. Despite the disillusionment of the past therefore, there grew a need to participate. According to Christopher Parker (2009) black elites hoped to take advantage of the war, and thus bring about social progress that would improve the situation of the African Americans. For this war however, African Americans demanded for full participation in the war effort rather than being assigned menial tasks. By 1939, when the War was just starting, segregation had taken its root in all areas the American society as well as the army. For instance, in the army, African Americans could only serve in four of the regular army units that had been established during the Civil War. With a total of 3,640 soldiers, there were only five black officers with three of them being chaplains. On the other hand, while about four thousand African Americans served in the navy, they were all mess men given that none was allowed to serve in the Marine Corps or the Army Air Corps. Black organizations and leaders would not accept these conditions during the Second World War, and therefore went on to demand for more active participation, and ultimately eliminate segregation.

According to Brenda L. Moore (1997) the Second World War in general was of great significance for the African Americans. As a result of the Selective Service Training Act of 1940, restrictions that had been placed on race in military recruitment was lifted, which allowed for many more African Americans to be recruited for the War effort. Moreover, it allowed them (as well as women) to serve in high ranks, and thus greater variety in various military assignments. With pressure from the department of black political organizations, African American women were also recruited in to the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps when it was established. Although the women did not get to participate in the actual fight in the battle lines, they played a crucial role, dedicating their services to the war efforts as nurses.

African Americans in the War

Despite the difficulties they endured in participating, according to Clarence Taylor (2007) there were some changes during the course of the War. For instance, by the time the War was beginning about 2.5 million African Americans men had been registered for the draft. By 1945, well over 1.2 million of these had served either from home or abroad. However, discrimination would continue to be experienced in all branches. As the United States first got involved in the war, there was significant segregation in all units of the military. For this reason, most of the soldiers (African American) could only serve in the non-combat service units, carrying out such tasks as maintenance, transportation behind the front lines as well as supplies. On the other hand, while the Marines did not initially accept the blacks, pressure from the then president, Franklin D. Roosevelt ultimately resulted in well over 19,000 African Americans being enlisted and trained between 1943 and 1944. While some of these served in an all African American defense battalion, others played a role as combat support, where they unloaded ships and relayed material to the front lines. On the other hand, some of the African Americans found themselves serving as stewards and staff members in training camps.

In combat, African Americans demonstrated a great deal of courage and heroism as was evidenced in such initiatives the Red Ball Express. This was a supply line of trucks, which began operations in August of 1944, operating from Normandy to Paris, ultimately to the front lines in France. Some of the African Americans in the Army were assigned to this initiative (75 percent of the drivers were black), where they operated for about eighty-two days delivering 412,000 tons of gas, ammunition and other material. Through their active participation in this imitative, African Americans enabled the frontline units to make further advances, ultimately pushing German forces out of France. In the course of the War, some changes were evident with regards to the policy of segregation. By 1945, this policy had begun experiencing some weakness due to a number of factors. For instance, during the Battle of Bulge, in 1944, there was a significant shortage of replacement troops in the all- white military units, which forced Dwight Eisenhower, the then General to allow about 2,000 African American men to join the units (white units). By this time, the 2,000 African American soldiers had volunteered to participate in the frontline, which meant that they were ready to engage in combat. For this War, this became the first time that African Americans fought together with the whites, weakening the policy of segregation in the military. Some of the other changes from this point included more participation of African Americans in various areas of the military. For instance, African Americans were being accepted in various positions as medics, pilots, tankers and even infantry. Moreover, the number of officers from the African American troops began to grow, demonstrating positive changes in the military in general.

Africans Americans would further demonstrate their courage on the 6th of June 1944 (D-Day) when an all African American unit under General George Patton captured a total of thirty major towns in Germany, Belgium and France after 183 days of combat. This very event was proof that African Americans were very much capable of serving as their white counterparts in war situations. One of the most heroic acts in the course of the War was by Doris ("Dorie") Miller, an African American man who served as a mess attendant in the Navy during the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. Despite only being a mess attendant on the USS West Virginia at the time, Miller not only carried wounded sailors to safety and attended to the ship captain, who was mortally wounded, but also went on to man an anti-aircraft gun to the point that he ran out of ammunition. Miller died in 1943 while still in service when the ship he was in was struck by a torpedo. However, for his courage in 1941 he was honored with a Navy Cross, a high tribute for which he noted that;

"This marks the first time in this conflict that such high tribute has been made in the Pacific Fleet to a member of his race and I'm sure that the future will see others similarly honored for brave acts."

Miller

Source

On the other hand, under the Command of Benjamin O. Davis Jr. African Americans groups produced what has come to popularly known as the African American Tuskegee Airmen of the 99TH Pursuit Squadron and 332nd Fighter Group, which flew ground support missions in Italy, where they escorted bombers. Between 1943 and 45, the crew flew over 15,000 sorties destroying 261 enemy aircrafts (Todd, 2010). Since then, they have remained some of the most recognized units of the Second World War, and were some of the most decorated escort groups.

The determination showed by African Americans is also demonstrated by their struggle for equality and fair treatment back home. In the article "What Was Black America's Double War?" by Henry Louis Gates Jr., (2013) he notes that African American leaders at the time felt that the war would allow the blacks to demonstrate their strongest case for freedom and citizenship. Given that African Americans had faced a great deal of discrimination and even aggression from the whites, particularly in the South, there was a great need to show that they deserved equal treatment as the whites. Even two months after the Pearl Harbor attack, a column in the Pittsburgh Courier, then a widely popular black newspaper urged African Americans give their all to the war effort in support of their country. In the same tone, they asked the government make changes that would ensure all citizens were treated equally in accordance with the Declaration of Independence as well as various amendments of the Constitutions. This gave rise to the Double V Campaign, where African Americans felt that they were fighting two battles; one being to fight injustices in the international scene (against Germany and its allies) and the other at home, where African Americans were still being treated as inferior. Since the Revolutionary War therefore, they fought as men who were fighting for their freedom, and therefore gave their all in support of the United States, and to affirm their citizenship. This was the same scenario during the Second World War. As a motivational tool therefore, the Double V campaign also pushed African Americans to demand for more active participation in the War (Wynn, 2010). This showed that they did not simply want to undertake menial tasks, but actual wanted to take up arms and physically engage in the fight as citizens of the United States.

For African Americans therefore, participation in to the Army and the Navy was not a problem. This is even more evident by the fact that many more wanted to register and get recruited during the initiation phase of the War only to be turned away. Despite challenges they faced before and during the War, African Americans indeed served with a lot of courage and bravery in all theaters of the Second World War. Both and units and on an individual level, they distinguished themselves, coming through for their country and for the Allies in general as they positively contributed their efforts to the victory. Although all this may have been largely motivated by their desire to be identified as equals in America and be treated as citizens, this was actively demonstrated in the war front.

On the other hand, Black women also participated in the War, making their contribution to the force by enlisting as either WACS or WAVES. For instance, a majority of the women took up tasks in the 6888 Central Postal Directory Battalion delivering mail to the soldiers as well as reporting other important information. On the other hand, some of the women worked as nurses, attending to the wounded soldiers in the course of the war. Although this may have helped reduce instances of segregation in the army at the time, it did not change the situation of African Americans significantly back home. However, the contribution of African American men and women during the second world cannot be underestimated. It is for this reason that they received various awards and medals for the courage they demonstrated. Even decades after the war, President George W. Bush went on to award medals to some of the African Americans who had participated in the War.

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    • Patrick Patrick profile image
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      Patrick 5 weeks ago from Nairobi

      The reality is that African Americans were still looked down upon even during the War. But the fact that they still participated in the War despite all the challenges they faced is very admirable.

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      Chris 5 weeks ago

      The white Americans in the early 20th century still had this racist attitude. I read recently that black Americans were so despised during the Great War that large numbers of negro soldiers were "given" to the French as cannon fodder.

      Have things changed?

    • Patrick Patrick profile image
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      Patrick 5 weeks ago from Nairobi

      I agree with you my friend. I believe that actions speak louder than words and by risking and giving their lives in the war they were part of America

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E. Franklin 5 weeks ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      I think that WW2 was a turning point in African Americans' fight for equality. Not only did those who served in the armed forces demonstrate that they were just as capable as other Americans, but their participation in a war for "democracy" made the black population as a whole more determined than ever to be treated as full American citizens. I think the WW2 experience of the 40s led directly to the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s.

    • Patrick Patrick profile image
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      Patrick 5 weeks ago from Nairobi

      Thank you friend. I hope it is at least informative :)

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 5 weeks ago from Auburn, WA

      Important topic. Great facts. Thanks.