Black Americans In The US Military From The American Revolution To The Korean War: World War Two

Prior to World War II the U.S. armed forces had declined, and segregation within them continued. The Air Arm of the U.S. Army refused to accept any Black applicants as late as the spring of 1939. Not until 1940 did the Army initiate a policy of accepting Blacks according to their proportion to the population, but still only accepted enough to make Blacks represent 6% of the Army while Blacks represented 10% of the American population. The Black soldier initially served as infantrymen or labor.

After many efforts by anti-segregationist and Black leaders, the racial policy of the armed forces only changed once it became a political strategy. Republican frontrunner Wendell L. Wilkie had declared himself an “enemy of racism” (Nalty, p. 138) and gained the support of the Pittsburgh Courier, an influential black newspaper. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in response to Wilkie’s successes in the Black electorate, announced a change to the armed forces racial policy that would allow Blacks to enlist to their proportion within the population. Roosevelt announced that Blacks would be eligible to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps, receive officer training, and work civilian jobs at army posts. In order to keep the scale balanced between the Blacks and any white Racists within the Government, Roosevelt refused to de-segregate the armed forces. Although Eleanor Roosevelt had always supported improvement of Black American participation within the many programs installed to combat the Great Depression, she was not always successful in convincing her husband to make changes. President Roosevelt seemed cautious with the changes he made.

One of the most famous fighter wings from World War II, the 99th, later known as the Tuskegee Airmen, made significant progress for the Blacks in World War II. Not only did they make key contributions to the war effort, they did so after barely getting a chance to serve in the Air Wing. Initially, the War Department tried to send the Black aviators to Liberia, from where the squadron would hunt for German submarines. The plan may have fallen through, but first of all, the Liberian government could not afford to pay the aviators. Secondly, William O. Hastie, the special advisor to the State Department for racial matters, had retired in order to protest the continued segregation in the Army and Air Force training. Hastie, a Black American, had gained the position of Assistant Secretary in the War Department, and was a leading advocate of Black manpower. Thirdly, the U.S. needed the Black fighter pilots once the Allies invaded into North Africa.

In North Africa, the Black airmen had a disadvantage in navigation, since cross-country training flights within the U.S. were difficult to arrange, since this required air bases to have separate facilities for Blacks. The 99th Fighter Squadron was attached to the White 33rd Fighter Group, and received poor treatment. The Black airmen did not receive all of the intelligence given to the White airmen, and had to follow the whites but never lead any attacks. They were called “boys” (Nalty, p. 150) by the White airmen and were expected to follow along without hurting the overall progress of the U.S. Airmen’s accomplishments.

Important information from the Tuskegee Airmen is pertinent today, as they overcame many barriers and gained respect on the battlefield. The New York State Museum of Military History recently interviewed one of these particular Airmen, Clarence Dart. Dart revealed that the Black Airmen felt as much pressure from themselves as they did from the enemy. They had been regarded as “too dumb” to be fighter pilots, despite previous achievements made by Black Aviators. For example, Eugene Jacques Bullard, known as the “Black Swallow of Death,” the only Black pilot of World War I. Bullard received a pilot's badge and a Croix de Guerre, for having served on the ground and in the air. Nevertheless, Dart noted that the feeling of unimportance faded away later into World War II as the Black pilots were needed as bomber escorts. Even if people regarded them openly as less skilled, they were still receiving important tasks, contradicting the myth of their incompetence.

The 99th Fighter Squadron merged into the 332nd Fighter Group on July 2nd, 1944. Members of the 99th had the experience, while the 332nd members had just arrived from the Tuskegee Institute. The 332nd gained the name "The Redtails" from the assigned paint color for their tails. Led by Col. Benjamin O. Davis, the Redtails had learned that their purpose in World War II was to protect the bombers, and never lost a bomber. (

In the ground war, there were few chances for Black units to represent the front lines. The 93rd Infantry Division was the only all Black unit of World War II, and served on the defensive in the Pacific. On February 7, 1944, the 93rd occupied the Solomon Islands, where it split up. Its elements served on the defensive as labor units in training. The 25th Infantry division engaged in limited offensive operations in the Guadalcanal, against the Japanese along the Kuma and East-West Trails. In May the 25th moved to the Green Islands to construct defensive fortifications and train. The 368th had similar tasks, first at the Bakina Russel Islands, where it worked at docks, warehouses and supply depots. This division saw only labor and defensive patrols, and its biggest responsibility being the complete control of Palawan Island when the 41st Infantry Division left. The 369th Antiaircraft Artillery Regiment, formerly the Infantry Regiment from the New York State National Guard, saw a similar fate. The 369th only engaged in defensive and tactical mopping up operations on the New Georgia Island, and later on Emirau, Los Negros Island Admiralty Island, Biak Island, Sansapor New Guinea, Middleburg Island, and Morotai Island. On Morotai Island the regiment established outposts and patrolled until the end of the war. On Biak Island the regiment supplied labor details. The 93rd was regarded as only experimental, and appealed more as a labor unit.

In the Battle of the Bulge, Blacks finally received a call to arms. As the Ardennes counteroffensive took its toll on manpower, Lieutenant General John C. H. Lee suggested that Black troops be allowed to serve in combat. In only the first week of battle, 50,000 Americans were killed or wounded. In the month of December, the U.S. lost 125,000 to the fighting and cold weather. Eisenhower agreed, and in late December, circulars went out for Black volunteers. The Blacks were deployed in platoons, and proved themselves to the whites in the units they joined. A survey of White company officers and platoon sergeants showed that 84 percent of the officers and 81 percent of the sergeants believed that the Blacks served “very well.” (Nalty, p. 178) Even General George S. Patton, Jr., praised the Black soldiers. The 761st Tank Battalion had joined the 26th Infantry Division under Patton’s Third Army. The 26th had been bogged down at Metz, France, and needed additional support to push ahead. The 761st helped the 26th Infantry and Ninth Air Force surround and capture Metz. It also helped push the retreating 13th SS Panzer Division back into Germany after its long assault in Bastogne. The 761st joined the 103rd Infantry in Alsace-Lorraine in March of 1944 and knocked out Siegfried Line defenses at Reisdorf. The “C” Company from the 761st continued this push past the Siegfried Line, destroying two anti-tank guns, nine machine gun nests and twenty-four pillboxes, killing 265 Germans and capturing 1,450. Two platoons of the 761st were responsible for the capture of Hermann Göring’s castle as well. Göring was the second in command behind Hitler, and the commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, the German air force. This unit then spearheaded the assault on Regensburg, and shortly thereafter received the order to continue toward the Enns River in Austria. On May 4th the 761st reached Steyr, Austria, and two days later met the First Ukrainian Front under Marshal Ivan Konev. This unit also captured 106,926 prisoners and liberated the Gunskirchen concentration camp. On July 15, 2002, The Holocaust Center of Northern California honored the 761st US Tank Battalion and the Japanese American 522nd Field Artillery Battalion for liberating hundreds of Jews from this concentration camp. (Unlikely Liberators)

Only the White units that the 761st had been attached to received Dinstinguished Unit Citations, despite Major General E.H. Hughes recommendation. Finally in 1978 President Carter signed the Distinguished Unit Citation. Even after all of Patton’s admiration of the 761st, the unit received no representation in the movie Patton, which was released in 1970.

Written by David Omahen

See also:

The American Revolution to 1808
The War of 1812
The Civil War
The Indian Wars
The Spanish American War and the Philippine Insurgency
The Brownsville Incident and Teddy Roosevelt
World War One
The Spanish Civil War
World War Two
The Korean War
Conclusion and Bibliography