Blacks in World War II

By Chappell, Kevin | Ebony, September 1995 | Go to article overview

Blacks in World War II


Chappell, Kevin, Ebony


Fifty years after the end of World War II, Black Veteran Frank J. Toland's combat wounds continue to nag him. The injuries are not visible, but the internal sears hurt so much that he went on a rampage some 30 years ago, burning anything and everything that indicated he had manned a machine gun on convoys in the Army's 46th Quartermaster Battalion.

"The wounds of Black World War II soldiers have been sealed, not healed, by ... history," says a reflective Toland, now in his 70s. White "people have the perception that you can have healing over the time by forgetting. ... But you can't. You have to open wounds and let light in so healing can take place."

As the United States celebrates the Golden Anniversary this month of the end of World War II, Black veterans like Toland, now a U.S. history professor at Tuskegee University, say it is imperative for all Americans to understand Blacks have a noble military history that extends back to the American Revolution and that the performance of African-Americans in WW II continued that tradition.

World War II erupted at a time of rising racial tensions in America, brought on by decades of segregation, discrimination and humiliation. When the war began, Blacks were forced into a handful of segregated units in the Army, confined to messmen in the Navy and baited completely from the Air Corps and Marines. This prompted race riots, militancy and mass demonstrations across the United States. African-American leaders threatened to march on Washington to protest the employment situation of Blacks, particularly the slow hiring of Blacks in the defense industry and the promotion of Blacks in the military. The march was averted when President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Fair Employment Practices Committee in 1941. But neither Roosevelt nor Congress dealt with the plight of Black soldiers who were discriminated against and continued to be banned from combat. While some White Americans were doing everything they could to avoid going to war, many Blacks relished the opportunity to prove the government wrong, even if that meant helping a country that had systematically turned its back on them. "It was an ego thing," says Jehu C. Hunter, who served as an officer in the 92nd Infantry from 1943 until the end of the war. "We wanted to prove our mettle."

Would-be Black soldiers turned to places like the flying school at Tuskegee and Washington Technical High in St. Louis for training in everything from flying and hand-to-hand combat to parachuting and marksmanship. Trained and ready to fight, Blacks pressured the government for the right to fly fighter planes, man dangerous front-line positions and serve on carrier ships. About 2,000 Black military men even volunteered to be riflemen in the infamous Battle of the Bulge.

Most government officials thought Blacks would fad miserably. So did White soldiers, who spread rumors that Blacks were subhuman and had tails like monkeys.

Despite makeshift training, terrible living conditions and the mental anguish of fighting two wars - one against the Japanese and Germans and one against American racism - Black military men and women proved their doubters wrong. It was common to see Black soldiers hold up the "Double V" sign, indicating their desire for victory abroad and victory at home. By the end of the war, Black soldiers had won more than 100 individual decorations of high honor, not including thousands of unrecorded Purple Hearts and other honors denied them because of racism.

Not one Congressional Medal of Honor was given to any of the 1,154,720 Blacks who took part in World War II. Thirty-four African-Americans did reach the rank of colonel or lieutenant colonel, but only one person, Benjamin O. Danis Sr., became general in the regular Army. He was appointed in 1940 by President Roosevelt, but it took another 14 years for the country to select its second Black general. In 1954, Davis' son, Benjamin Jr. …

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