African Americans played a significant role in the United States' armed forces during World War II, serving all branches of the military. Some 909,000 were in the Army, with a peak of 700,000 serving at one time in 1944. Because of discriminatory practices, however, the majority of black soldiers were in support units, particularly quartermaster, engineer and transportation corps. Not until 1944 were blacks permitted to serve in combat units; therefore, only some 50,000 African-American troops engaged in combat during the war.
Because of discriminatory practices, African Americans served in black-only infantry, cavalry, air corps, marine corps, tank and field artillery divisions. In the Navy, African Americans served in various capacities, though many were prevented from going to sea; a notable exception occurred in 1943 when a submarine chaser and a destroyer escort were staffed with predominantly black crews.
Aside from segregation, additional forms of discrimination included difficulties experienced by black soldiers wanting to train as officers, the separation of blood plasma taken from white and black soldiers and the issuance of "blue discharges" to many African-American soldiers. These were administrative discharges that were neither honorable nor dishonorable; some 22 percent of these discharges were issued to African Americans -- a large percentage relative to the total number of African-American servicemen. The discharge often resulted in recipients being denied benefits of the G.I. Bill and difficulties in being accepted for employment.
Many African Americans served with distinction, receiving medals for bravery and valor. However, none was awarded the highest military award, the Medal of Honor, for a role during the war. However, in 1997, President Clinton awarded the medal to seven World War II servicemen -- one was still alive, and the other six were awarded posthumously.
Black-only units have also become famous for the integral part they played in the war effort. Examples include the 92nd Infantry Division and the 761st Black Panther Tank Battalion, which led a 183-day thrust by American forces from France to Germany, and the praise by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower for the efforts of the black-only 99th Fighter Squadron.
The end of segregation and discriminatory practices against African Americans began with President Roosevelt's Executive Order 8802 issued on June 25, 1941. Roosevelt had been under pressure to desegregate the military by civil rights groups, and the order was apparently his way of avoiding a march of 100,000 blacks on Washington threatened by labor organizer A. Phillip Randolph, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League. The order created the Fair Employment Practices Commission to eliminate race- or color-based discrimination in the armed forces.
However, the commission was underfunded and understaffed, and its powers were limited. As a result, discriminatory practices continued for the duration of the war and beyond. On July 26, 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which sought to end any form of segregation in the armed forces, as well as in schools and neighborhoods. It took until 1954 for all the black-only units to be disbanded.
There was, in fact, a temporary lifting of segregation in the armed forces when, in the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944, American infantry found themselves desperately outnumbered. Gen. Eisenhower solved the problem by allowing black platoons to be integrated into regular units.
The symbol adopted by blacks in the armed forces during World War II was the "Double V." First publicized in the widely circulated black newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier, the symbol represented a double victory against the foreign enemy and the enemy at home -- segregation, discrimination and prejudice.
African Americans also played an active role on the home front, with many contributing to the purchase of war bonds, volunteering in various capacities and working in industries supporting the war effort. More than 2 million blacks worked for the defense industries, with another 2 million joining the federal civil service.
The overall economic situation of African Americans improved greatly during the war years, largely because of labor shortages leading the government to seek all available manpower, regardless of color. Many impoverished blacks (as well as whites) from the South migrated to the North, Midwest and West to seek work in industry, as it offered better pay than the farming and domestic service positions open to blacks in the South. Altogether, some 700,000 blacks moved during the war, with 400,000 leaving the South. However, the migratory shift also led to a rise in racial tensions, particularly in overcrowded cities, with race riots in Detroit and Harlem in 1943.