African Americans played an important role in the military during World War 2. The events of World War 2 helped to force social changes which included the desegregation of the U.S. military forces. This was a major event in the history of Civil Rights in the United States.
The Tuskegee Airmen from the US Air Force
The U.S. military was still segregated during World War 2. Segregation is when people are separated by race or the color of their skin. Black and white soldiers did not work or fight in the same military units. Each unit would have only all white or all black soldiers.
What jobs did they have?
At the start of the war, African American soldiers were generally not a part of the fighting troops. They worked behind the fighting lines driving supply trucks, maintaining war vehicles, and in other support roles. However, by the end of the war, African American soldiers began to be used in fighting roles. They served as fighter pilots, tank operators, ground troops, and officers.
War poster featuring a Tuskegee Airman Source: National Archives
One of the most famous groups of African American soldiers was the Tuskegee Airmen. They were the first group of African American pilots in the U.S. military. They flew thousands of bombing and fighting missions over Italy during the war. Sixty-six of them gave their lives in combat.
761st Tank Battalion
Another famous group of African American soldiers was the 761st Tank Battalion. The 761st fought under General George Patton during the Battle of the Bulge. They were part of the reinforcements that helped to save the city of Bastogne that turned the tide of the battle.
Desegregation of the Armed Forces
Before and during the war, federal law stated that black troops could not fight alongside white troops. However, Dwight D. Eisenhower did allow African-American soldiers to fight in previously all white units during the Battle of the Bulge. The official segregation of the U.S. military ended a few years after the war when President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order desegregating the armed forces in 1948.
Famous African American Soldiers During WW2
Doris Miller from the US Navy
Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. was commander of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War 2. He continued to serve in the army after the war and became the first African-American general. He earned several awards including the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross Air Medal.
Doris Miller was a cook for the United States Navy. During the Attack on Pearl Harbor, Miller fired at incoming Japanese bombers using an anti-aircraft machine gun. He also rescued a number of injured soldiers saving their lives. He was first African American awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism.
Samuel L. Gravely, Jr. served as commander of the USS PC-1264, a ship that hunted down enemy submarines. The crew of the ship was mostly African-American and Gravely was the first African American officer of an active fighting U.S. navy ship. Gravely later rose to the rank of vice admiral serving in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Interesting Facts about African Americans in WW2
The Tuskegee Airmen painted the tails of their fighter planes red. This earned them the nickname the "Red Tails."
The famous baseball player Jackie Robinson was once a member of the 761st Tank Battalion.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt brought attention to the Tuskegee Airmen when she flew with one of their instructors C. Alfred Anderson.
Several movies have been made about the Tuskegee Airmen including the 2012 Red Tails.
Hall of Fame basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a book about the 761st Tank Battalion called Brothers in Arms.