African Americans and World II: A Pictorial Essay

By Neverdon-Morton, Cynthia | Negro History Bulletin, December 1993 | Go to article overview

African Americans and World II: A Pictorial Essay


Neverdon-Morton, Cynthia, Negro History Bulletin


African Americans made an auspicious entry into World War II when messman, Doris (Dorie) Miller's acts of valor at Pearl Harbor went well beyond the call of duty. Messman Miller, an African American from Waco, Texas, braved strafing enemy planes to help remove his mortally wounded captain to a place of greater safety. Before the day was through, Miller downed six Japanese planes while manning a machine gun on the water-covered deck of the battleship West Virginia. For his heroism, Miller received the Navy Cross which was personally presented by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. On June 30, 1973 in recognition of Dorie Miller's valor during WW II, the escort ship USS Miller (DE 1091) was commissioned.

In spite of other acts of bravery and a commitment to win the war by African Americans, it was not until the end of World War II that racial barriers in the Armed Forces began to be eliminated. African Americans, both male and female, were segregated and prevented from participating fully in integrated combat units and on battle vessels. Yet, when presented with the challenge, African Americans proved time and again that they were worthy and capable of handling any weapon of war in any situation on land, at sea, or in the air.

On June 25, 1941, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, establishing the Fair Employment Practices Commission to lead the way in erasing discrimination based on color or race through full participation in the defense program, including the Armed Forces. However, segregation and blatant discrimination against African Americans in the Armed Forces was not eliminated until Executive Order 9981 was issued several years later by President Harry S. Truman on July 26, 1948.

Service in Combat and Support Units

During World War II, African Americans served in combat and support units in every branch of the military. Of the more than 2.5 million African Americans registered for the draft, about 909,000 served in the Army. In 1944 the Army, constrained by a 10 percent quota, reached its peak enlistment for African Americans with more than 700,000.

Although African Americans were trained for combat on the same basis as other Americans, they saw limited combat action. The majority of the soldiers, 78 percent, were in the service branches which included quartermaster, engineer, and transportation corps. By November 30, 1944, almost 45 percent, (93, 292, of the 210, 209 African Americans in the European Theater of Operations) were in the Quartermaster Corps.

Some contributions of African Americans in the U.S. Army and Army Air Force are particularly noteworthy. Approximately 73 percent of the truck companies in the Motor Transport Service were black. Known as the Red Ball Express, these drivers participated in the transporting of goods and supplies required for American and other Allied forces to advance against the Germans.

Another significant black unit was the Tuskegee Airmen whose accomplishments in the war effort are legendary. Created by the Civilian Pilot Training Act of 1939, the Tuskegee Training Program at Tuskegee Institute, Alabama trained by early 1941, approximately 1,000 "Tuskegee Airmen." Tuskegee Institute was the only training facility for black pilots until the flying program closed in 1946.

Other units distinguishing themselves included the 777th and 999th Field Artillery battalions. The 761st Tank Battalion was the first black armored unit to go into combat action. The 93rd Division was the only black division to see service in the Pacific. Although never used in combat, the 555th Parachute Infantry Company was noted for its specialized training. See the annotated bibliography in this issue for data relating to other black units and divisions.

Women's Roles and Contrubutions

Black women also served with distinction in various capacities. In January 1941, the U.S. Army established a quota of fifty-six black nurses for admission to the Army Nurse Corps. …

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