For many African Americans, the war offered an opportunity to get out of the cycle of crushing rural poverty. Black joined the military in large numbers, escaping a decade of Depression and tenant farming in the South and Midwest. Yet, like the rest of America in the 1940s, the armed forces were segregated. The Army accepted black enlistees but created separate black infantry regiments and assigned white commanders to them. Of the more than 2. 5 million African Americans who registered for the draft in WWII, about 900,000 served in the Army. But about only 50,000 African Americans were allowed to serve in combat.
African-American soldiers and civilians fought a two-front battle during World War II. There was the enemy overseas, and also the battle against prejudice at home. “Soldiers were fighting the world’s worst racist, Adolph Hitler, in the world’s most segregated army,” says historian Stephen Ambrose. “The irony did not go unnoticed. ” As the U. S. government called for volunteers to the Army and defense industries at the onset of World War II, thousands of African Americans came forward, but were not given the opportunity to serve in the same manner as white soldiers.
As they had been in World War I, black soldiers were relegated to service units supervised by white officers, often working as cargo handlers or cooks. After much urging from the NAACP, in 1941 the War Department formed the all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron of the U. S. Army Air Corps (later the Air Force) to train a small group of pilots. They trained at Tuskegee, Alabama, and became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. The group flew important supply and service missions in North Africa and Europe beginning in 1943. The Tuskegee Airmen were assigned to North Africa and later to Italy.
They flew 200 bomber escort missions over Southern Europe without allowing a single bomber to be shot down by enemy fighters. Their longest mission took them over Berlin where they encountered at least eight of the newest, fastest jet fighters. They shot down two and damaged the other five. The unit received two Presidential citations, and individual flyers received 150 medals. There was even a movie made recently honoring these men, which you may have heard of called “Red Tails” with Cuba Gooding, Jr. In the chaos of war, segregation broke down.
It’s hard to keep the races apart when both are being attacked. The breakdown began as early as Pearl Harbor. As the battleship U. S. S Arizona was sinking and still under attack, an African American sailor who had been trained as nothing but a janitor rushed to the deck, grabbed an unmanned anti-aircraft machinegun and kept firing until his ammunition ran out. Only then did he abandon ship. For months, the Navy refused to even identify the sailor. African American newspapers kept the story alive, and the Navy finally identified him as Dorie Miller and awarded him a medal.
African-American women also fought to serve in the war effort as nurses. Despite early protests that black nurses treating white soldiers would not be appropriate, the War Department relented, and the first group of African-American nurses in the Army Nurse Corps arrived in England in 1944. Yet Discrimination continued at home. Thurman Hoskins left the rural community of York Nebraska, for basic training in Louisiana. At first, his black unit was issued sticks instead of guns. They were trained with all the gun knowledge they needed, while still using sticks.
Later his unit was issued the same Garand M-1 rifles the white troops used. This awareness of racism reached popular culture. Josh White was a blues musician who wrote songs pointing out the discrimination experienced by blacks during the war. “Uncle Sam Says” is a biting, satiric indictment of discrimination. White took each branch of the service and pointed out that “Uncle Sam says, ‘Keep on your apron, son; / You know I ain’t going to let you shoot my big Navy gun. ’” White’s songs came to the attention of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt who invited him to perform at the White House.
That performance led to a long friendship and other visits. For at least one serviceman from Wichita, Kansas, the irony of being asked to die for a country that denied him basic civil rights was too much. James Thompson wrote to the Pittsburg Courier, and asked “Should I sacrifice to live ‘half American? ” The newspaper responded by calling for a “Double V” campaign. The campaign borrowed on the well-known two-finger “V for Victory” salute from Winston Churchill. The paper proclaimed that blacks should work for the victory of democracy both at home and abroad. The Double V campaign caught on.
Civil rights leaders such as A. Philip Randolph saw the unique situation created by World War II and the acute need for workers as an opportunity to demand equality. In 1941 Randolph threatened President Roosevelt with a 100,000-person march on Washington, D. C. , to protest job discrimination. In response, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, prohibiting discrimination in defense jobs or the government. On the home front, the U. S. government desperately needed workers to fill newly created defense jobs and factory positions left open by soldiers who had left to fight.
More than two million African Americans went to work for defense plants, and another two million joined the federal civil service. As these new opportunities drew more and more African Americans into cities, they opened the way for economic mobility. As the war dragged on, it affected American society at nearly every level. It shook up society and disrupted old patterns of social and economic segregation that had relegated African Americans to an inferior role. African Americans made a significant contribution to the war effort at home and abroad. It started to make Americans ashamed of their attitudes.