The contributions of black Americans during World War II is indisputable. They served in the military and on the home front in civilian jobs that directly aided the war effort. Pictures from the National Archives show men and women in uniform and at work at their duties. At the time, these men and women got little recognition. Their stories appeared in the black press, but the majority of Americans -- who were white -- knew little and cared less. Racial tensions in the U.S. still ran high at the outbreak of World War II and American society was largely segregated. As social consciousness has gradually been raised, many Americans are hearing for the first time about the contributions of blacks. Actions have been taken to recognize individuals and compensate for the terrible negligence of war-era media to make the efforts and heroism of African-Americans more widely understood and appreciated.
In late 2009, President Obama signed legislation that gave full national park status to the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial at Concord, California. As a national park, Port Chicago will get federal dollars, rangers and a visitors' center in addition to preservation of the historical site and ruins. Port Chicago's new status brings attention to a mostly forgotten story about the worst home-front disaster of World War II, when 320 men, two-thirds of whom were African-American, died in a huge munitions explosion. White officers supervised the black enlisted men who were tasked with loading the munitions. The men had not had any training. Compounding the potential for disaster was the fact that the officers forced the enlisted men to compete in the loading, betting on the outcome (Welch). After the tragedy, the woes continued for black soldiers. While the white officers were given thirty days leave to recover, black soldiers were ordered to resume loading munitions at a nearby depot in Vallejo, California. Of the three hundred men ordered to load munitions, 258 refused. Fifty were singled out for court martial, while the remaining 208 were given bad conduct discharges. This is but one example of the way African-American service members were treated during World War II. Recognition for their contributions, as with the 2009 legislation to make Port Chicago a national park, came much later. Unfortunately, it came too late for many. Not much was known about the black experience in World War II at the time. More attention has been given in recent years to the contributions of black soldiers, and the public is learning -- often for the first time -- of the challenges they faced just to serve their country.
The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 prohibited discrimination by race or color in recruitment. Despite the Act, African-American soldiers did not train, camp, or serve with white soldiers. Segregated planes and trains returned them home at the end of the war (Black and Thompson 33). Over 1.2 million black Americans served in World War II. For the most part, they served in the Army, where they were relegated to quartermaster corps, transportation, food service and grave digging. In the Navy, blacks were limited to roles as messmen, and they were banned completely from the Air Corps and the Marines, at least at first (Chappell 59). The military limited black enlistees to ten percent of overall forces. Some eventually trained as combat soldiers and were mobilized to fight overseas. Eventually, there were nearly a million black men in the Army and nearly 200,000 in the Navy. Over 5,000 black Americans joined the Coast Guard, and there were approximately 24,000 in the Merchant Marine ("Institute on World War II").
Not surprisingly, some questioned why they were fighting for freedom when it was denied them at home (Black and Thompson 33). Conditions were difficult for black service members. They were often given the most menial tasks available and they were largely supervised by white officers. Treatment of black soldiers depended on the attitude of the commanding officer. If he believed in giving every one of his men an equal chance, blacks were treated better. However, if the commanding officer was ruled by prejudice, blacks in the units suffered.
A 1944 photograph shows some of the sixty-three African-American nurses who arrived at the 168th Station Hospital in England. Most look nervous and grim-faced, as if they wondered what was in store. What they soon learned was that segregationists had protested that black nurses treating white soldier was inappropriate. The nurses were assigned instead to treat German prisoners of war (Moore Chapter 21).
Perhaps the American public took for granted that race relations in the military were not a particular problem because of the Selective Training and Service Act banned segregation. One wonders, with the wisdom that comes with hindsight, how people could have truly believed the military was that much different from society at large. The discriminatory practices that occurred in the military were an extension of the same social issue that plagued civilian society. There were separate schools, separate water fountains, and separate restrooms. Blacks had to sit in certain sections on public transportation and they were not always allowed in any restaurant they chose. There was an enormous difference in being a white American vs. being a black American, and it was not limited to life in the South. Northern cities had de facto segregation, meaning that they were integrated in theory but not in practice. In Detroit, for example, employment and housing opportunities were largely segregated. There were few places where blacks and whites had occasion to meet with each other; one place was public transportation where racial stereotypes were, unfortunately, reinforced (Frohardt-Lane 224). Fights frequently broke out between blacks and whites, teaching each group that the other was a bunch of troublemakers. Fear and distrust were a way of life for many. An auto worker in Detroit was heard to shout, "I'd rather see Hitler and Hirohito win than work beside a nigger on the assembly line" (Moore Chapter 11). It is not surprising that these attitudes carried over into the military.
Boxers Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, for example, were arrested by military police (MP) for standing in the wrong section of an Alabama bus terminal. Louis asked what color had to do with anything when he was wearing the same uniform. The MP retorted, "Down here, you do as you're told" (Moore Chapter 18). Another soon-to-be-famous sports legend, Jackie Robinson, also suffered a great indignity. As a young lieutenant, Robinson boarded a bus at Camp Hood, Texas. It is alleged that the driver pulled a gun on Robinson, who responded with a fist, breaking several teeth. Court-martial charges were filed but did not proceed because the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Paul Bates, would not consent to the charges. However, Bates superior transferred Robinson to another battalion whose supervisor immediately signed the court-martial consent. Robinson was accused of being "insolent, impertinent and rude" (ibid.). He was also charged with disobeying a lawful command by a white officer to remain in the receiving room at the MP station. Because War Department policy prohibited racial discrimination in recreational and transportation facilities on U.S. Army posts, Robinson was eventually acquitted. Robinson wrote of his wartime experience, "I had learned that I was in two wars, one against a foreign enemy, the other against prejudice at home" (ibid.).
In addition to treatment off duty, racial segregation did not allow the full range of opportunities for blacks that the military had to offer. One area denied to blacks was service in the Army Air Corps. In response to escalating tensions in Europe and anticipating the need to build U.S. air power, a Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program was started in 1939. Initially offered at six historically black colleges, including the Tuskegee Institute, the program was also offered to some blacks who attended integrated colleges outside the south. Two non-college affiliated programs were run by blacks in the Chicago area. According to estimates, two thousand black men and women completed at least one CPT course between 1939 and 1944, the last year of the program (White). The instructors for these programs were overwhelmingly white, although there were a very small number of black civilians who served as weather instructors. Wallace Patillo Reed was commissioned as the first black weather officer. Reed, a graduate of the University of New Hampshire, was selected from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) cadet program and, following a short training period, was assigned as the Tuskegee base weather officer. The Tuskegee Weather Detachment was originally organized as part of the Tuskegee Army Flying School; the detachment was moved several times during the war and finished as the 67th Army Air Force Base Unit out of Atlanta. Like the rest of the Tuskegee peers, the twenty men of the Weather Detachment joined the Army after meeting high entry standards. They successfully completed an academically rigorous course. Ten of the men remained with the military after the war, continuing to work in a…