Sponsored in part by

Black Soldiers in WW II: Fighting Enemies at Home and Abroad

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 and National Geographic explorer in residence Stephen Ambrose. "The irony did not go unnoticed."

The first group of African-American fighter pilots trained duing World War II were known as the Tuskegee Airmen. They trained at a segregated base in Tuskegee, Alabama.

Library of Congress
Prints and Photographs Division/Toni Frissel Collection.

Two Armies

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, says Ambrose.

During World War I, black scholar W.E.B DuBois wrote a controversial editorial asking that the black and white armies "close ranks," and set aside their "special grievances for the rest of the war and work for victory alongside their white fellow Americans." But DuBois' words fell on deaf ears.

After much urging from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (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.

Black soldiers were generally restricted from combat, but the realities of war would soon blur the lines of race. One major breakthrough came during the Battle of the Bulge, in late 1944, says Ambrose.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, faced with Hitler's advancing army on the Western Front, temporarily desegregated the army, calling for urgent assistance on the front lines. More than 2,000 black soldiers volunteered to fight.

Similarly, demands in Italy called the Tuskegee Airmen to action. In 1944 they began flying with white pilots in the European theatre, successfully running bombing missions and becoming the only U.S. unit to sink a German destroyer.

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.

On the Homefront

On the homefront, 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.

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.

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," says Ambrose. "It started to make Americans ashamed of their attitudes."

Sparking a Movement

After the war ended, A. Philip Randolph, with the support of civil rights organizations including the NAACP, continued to fight for equal rights for servicemen. In 1948 President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which desegregated the army and the civilian government.

"With the stroke of a pen, Truman struck a major blow to segregation in the United States," says Ambrose.

Truman's actions did not end segregation, however. Schools, public transportation, restaurants, and drinking fountains continued to be marked "colored" or "white."

The experiences of World War II, exposure to better jobs and an increasing feeling of social mobility—played out against the backdrop of continuing segregation—were beginning to add fire to the civil rights movement in the United States.

Not only had the war opened a new window of opportunity for blacks, a number of the civil rights leaders of the 1950s and '60s, including Medger Evers, had been trained in the Army, where they acquired leadership and organizational experience, says Ambrose."

"World War II really gave the Civil Rights movement its spar

  Related Stories

  Related Websites


More Information
Legacy of Service

From the first salvoes of the American Revolution, African Americans have fought—and died—for a country that refused to give them equal recognition.

James Lafayette, a Virginia-born slave, served as a double agent in the American Revolution, posing as a servant in the British camp of Lord Cornwallis, and passing important secrets to the French general Marquis de Lafayette. Information he gathered on troop movements and supplies helped George Washington plan the decisive victory for the colonies at the battle of Yorktown.

At the end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865, many African-American soldiers were sent to the American West, where Native Americans gave them the nickname "Buffalo Soldiers."

Known for their bravery and skilled horsemanship, the Buffalo Soldiers were among the first troops sent to Cuba in 1898 to fight the Spanish-American War.

In 1918 Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts were awarded the Croix de Guerre, (Cross of War) the highest military honor awarded by the French government for single-handedly defeating a company of German soldiers in the Argonne Forest during World War I. It was not until 1996 that the United States recognized Johnson's service to the country with a Purple Heart.