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Fighting for Democracy
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“Our attitude was if the Germans or the Japanese won the war, the white folk would get on their side and we’d have to fight both the German, the Japanese and the white folk.  So what we did was go over there and win the war and then come back up and pick up the gauntlet where we tried to get our civil rights.”— John Gray

Despite the bravery of African Americans in all of America’s previous wars, despite the argument made by the NAACP and others that “a Jim Crow army cannot fight for a free world,” the armed forces of the United States remained strictly segregated during the Second World War. The Selective Service Act expressly forbade the intermingling of “colored and white” draftees. Even blood supplies for saving the lives of the wounded were kept separate. Blacks were barred from frontline combat, at least at first, and asked instead to perform in uniform the menial tasks many had performed as civilians.

Two Marines walk in Harlem.
Library of Congress
Two Marines walk in Harlem.

Black citizens were outraged at the idea of fighting bigotry abroad while it was tolerated at home, but the military continued to insist on segregating African-American servicemen into all-black units. Some men refused to serve in the segregated armed forces and were imprisoned for it. Others were willing to serve, but frustrated by the intransigence of a Jim Crow military. The distinguished historian John Hope Franklin described his attempts to volunteer for the Navy:

“I went down to the recruiting office, the Navy and volunteered. I volunteered in response to the call that they made specifically for men to man the offices. The young recruiter for the navy said, ‘What can you do?’ I said, ‘Well, I can run an office. I can type. I can take shorthand if that’s needed.’ I said, ‘And, oh, yes, I have a Ph.D. in history from Harvard.’ And I wondered what he was gonna say. He said, ‘You have everything but color.’ And I said, ‘Well, I thought there was an emergency, but obviously there’s not, so I bid you a good day.’ And I vowed that day that they would not get me, because they did not deserve me. If I was able — physically, mentally, every other kind of way, able and willing to serve my country — and my country turned me down on the basis of color, then my country did not deserve me. And I vowed then that they would not get me.”

Franklin would keep that pledge and never served in the armed forces. But more than a million African Americas did join the military, and did what they could to make the best of a difficult situation.

Problems began as early as basic training. Many black draftees from the North, sent to training camps in the deep South, encountered Jim Crow laws for the first time. There were frequent and sometimes bloody confrontations between black servicemen and white civilians, black troops and white ones — over women and local customs and equal access to military facilities. African Americans soldiers discovered their army meal tickets would not be accepted; they would not be served in restaurants that freely fed German or Italian prisoners. In some towns, African-American soldiers were jailed. A few were lynched.

Once trained and deployed, most African Americans were relegated to service and support duties, regardless of their qualifications. African Americans made up half of the Transportation Corps in the European theater, including the members of the “Red Ball Express,” the enormous convoy system that supplied Allied forces moving through Europe following the invasion of Normandy. Black troops were assigned to build air bases, clear mines, and feed the troops, and to the unpleasant job of graves registration — identifying and burying the dead. Such tasks were essential to victory, and often terribly dangerous, but rarely afforded the glory connected with frontline combat.

Confronted with growing protest, the military did eventually make a few changes. An Army Air Corps training camp was set up at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Two all-African American Army divisions were deployed overseas — the 92nd in Europe, and the 93rd in the Pacific. A single ship, the USS Mason, was manned entirely by blacks — except for her commander. The all-black 761st Tank Battalion would eventually fight in Europe, sent to the front by George Patton with the admonition: “I don’t care what color you are, so long as you go up there and kill those kraut sonsabitches.”

Marines of the 51st Defense Battalion surround a gun named “Lena Horne.” Pacific islands, 1945.
National Archives
Marines of the 51st Defense Battalion surround a gun named “Lena Horne.” Pacific islands, 1945.

The Marine Corps had initially refused to accept any African Americans at all. But after 1942, as casualties in the Pacific mounted and pressure from civil rights groups intensified, blacks were finally allowed to sign on and serve, but were mostly assigned to non-combat jobs. Eventually one black unit would be trained for combat, the 51st Defense Battalion. Its commander won his men’s loyalty by declaring, “There is nothing that suitable colored personnel cannot be taught.” That, John Gray recalled, was a great improvement on the commandant of Camp Lejeune, where the 51st trained, who told the men he had been “out on the jungles and he had fought this and he had done that and he came back to find women Marines and dog Marines and then ‘You people.’ We didn’t like it when people said ‘you people’ instead of referring to troops as troops,” said Gray. “We resented that.”

Willie Rushton had also enlisted in the Marines. “A lot of people just thought the black man just wasn’t up to it,” Rushton remembered. “Because you had to be something to be a Marine, you know. And a lot of them didn’t think the black man had the ability. My job in the Marines was to prove to them that I could withstand whatever they could withstand.”

Slowly, the contributions of African-American servicemen began to shake long-entrenched prejudices. Black Marines on Saipan acquitted themselves so well that the Marine commandant proclaimed that “the Negro Marines are no longer on trial. They are Marines, period.” In Europe, black infantrymen had fought on Elsenborn Ridge and guarded bridges across the Meuse. Black artillery units and black tankers had helped defend Bastogne. The 761st Tank Battalion became so beloved by Patton that he used them to spearhead many of his advances. The Tuskegee Airmen so distinguished themselves that bomber crews began requesting them; the famed red-tailed 332nd Fighter Group never lost an escorted plane to enemy fighters.

In March 1945, with the war in Europe in its final months, black troops were finally integrated into white infantry units. For the first time since the Revolutionary War, black platoons would become full-fledged parts of white infantry companies. Practicality, not progressivism, had brought about the change — infantry replacements were in short supply after unexpectedly savage winter warfare. Waymon Ransom’s 5th Platoon, K Company, 394th Infantry Regiment, 99th Infantry Division, consisted of sixty African-American men. To the white troops pinned down by German machine gun fire at the Remagen Bridgehead near the Rhine, the black replacements were a welcome sight. “I think their first reaction was they were glad to see anybody. And before the night was over they was really glad to see anybody.” Ransom’s platoon was a part of the final push to drive back a still dangerous German army, and win the war in Europe.

But when African-American servicemen got home they found that little had changed. Returning black veterans, who had fought for freedom overseas, once again faced the same Jim Crow system they had left behind.

“It would be a matter of disgust and distaste with you when you found out that the fruits of victory were not yours,” Gray said. “That there were still elements of the status quo and people who fought to keep the status quo.”

But much had changed in the expectations of returning African-American servicemen themselves, and black veterans would go on to play a crucial role in the postwar struggle for civil rights. Japanese-American veteran Daniel Inouye reflected on the changes that the war brought for all minorities,

“One of the most important results of this war was to begin the process of integration,” Inouye said. “One must recall that in that war, you had the Japanese, like my regiment, the 92nd division, the Tuskegee airmen, the Navajo code talkers. The Filipino-Americans in Manila, the Puerto Rican regiment, the 65th regiment. All these segregated groups. And all of them, in their way, fought bravely and made a heroic chapter of their lives. And so I think the war played a major role in civil rights. Not realizing that that was the purpose, but, so after that, who will tell us, ‘No, you’re not worthy to be considered Americans?’ No one can tell us that to our face.”

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The all-African-American 332nd Fighter Group, known as the Tuskegee Airmen, never lost an escorted bomber to enemy fighters. They would be requested by numerous bomber crews.

With the 51st Defense Battalion, the Marines became the last branch of the military to accept a segregated unit.

The Red Ball Express was organized in August 1944 to move supplies 24 hours a day to the front. Three out of four drivers were African American.

In less than three months, the Red Ball Express rolled through 40,000 tires while delivering 412,000 tons of ammunition, food and fuel.

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William Perkins
Video IconWilliam Perkins »
He couldn’t believe his ears when he delivered lumber to fellow Marines on Guam.

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A cadet trains to become a “Tuskegee Airman” at the flight school for African Americans in Tuskegee, Alabama. January 12, 1942.
National Archives

A cadet trains to become a “Tuskegee Airman” at the flight school for African Americans in Tuskegee, Alabama. January 12, 1942.

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Daniel Inouye
Video IconDaniel Inouye »
Transfusions of African-American blood saved his life.

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A soldier injured during a fight in the Pacific. April 16, 1944.
National Archives

A soldier injured during a fight in the Pacific. April 16, 1944.

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Many Americans had to fight for freedom and equality in their own hometown.
See “Civil Rights”»

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Willie Rushton
Video IconWillie Rushton »
After a long battle at Peleliu, he wanted a haircut. It proved to be a challenge.

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Two soldiers in the South Pacific clean their rifles. Bougainville. April 4, 1944
National Archives

Two soldiers in the South Pacific clean their rifles. Bougainville. April 4, 1944

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William Perkins
Video IconWilliam Perkins »
Even a serviceman on leave wasn't immune in the segregated South.

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See all photographs and media on African Americans in “Search & Explore”»