Blacks in World War II.
"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., a decorated Air Force pilot, achieved the status of general, following in his father's footsteps.
From the very start of the war - when Navy messman Dorie Miller became a major hero during the attack on Pearl Harbor - by fighting his wan through the burning wreckage on the USS Arizona, dragging his wounded captain to safety, manning a machine gun and downing four planes - Blacks proved their worth. Miller was awarded the navy Cross. During the beginning of the war, most Blacks were, like Miller, happenstance heroes. Being assigned mostly to mess hall duty or quartermaster units such as the Red Ball Express Blacks won some respect although it didn't give them the opportunity for the combat heroes many wanted. But as Blacks were given opportunities, it soon became obvious they were some of the finest fighting men in the world.
One example was the record established by the five Black soldiers who comprised the Fifth Chemical Company. Their shooting speed was unmatched. The group could fire 20 large mortar rounds in 32 seconds, something White soldiers had yet to accomplish. another example was the record-breaking 15th Air Force Service Command. a Black battalion that installed and maintained 2,300 miles of open wire, 500 miles of field wire and 100 miles of cable in their first four months in Italy. Then there were there the 10,000 Black troops who constructed the 1,044-mile Ledo Road, which connected China with India and proved vital to U.S. war efforts. Operating in unfriendly territory, where they came under constant fire by] the Japanese and had to contend with pounding rains, disease and attack by wild animals, the Black soldiers completed the road in 25 months. There was literally a fallen soldier's grave for each mile of road.
Black battalions, like the 969th Field Artillery and especially the 761st Tank Battalion, which fought 183 consecutive days with Gen. George S. Patton's army, were recognized for bravery. In the Navy, the 13 Black men who made up the "Golden 13" were among the first Black commissioned naval officers. And the pilots of the 99th Pursuit Squadron made history as the first unit of Blacks to fly combat missions in the Air Corps. The group, called the Tuskegee Airmen, were led by Benjamin O. Davis Jr. After one year of bombing raids, the 99th united with several other squadrons to make up the famed 332nd Fighter Group, which is credited with more that 15,000 missions. Black airmen destroyed a total of 261 enemy aircraft and received an estimated 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses.
Black women also did their part. At the height of the conflict, 3,902 Black women (115 officers) were enrolled in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WACS) and 68 were in the Navy auxiliary, the WAVES. The highest ranking women were Maj. Harriet West and Lt. Col. Charity Adams. Black women performed outstandingly, mostly serving as nurses, caring for injured and ill soldiers.
Historians say the great wartime showing by Blacks, more than anything else, laid the foundation for their claim to a better life. Some soldiers returned home and enrolled in college on the G.I. Bill, others became community and political activists and still others became blue-collar leaders in plants and factories. But there were few indications in 1946 and 1947 that Black valor in World War II had done much to arouse America's social conscience. In fact, Blacks continued to be dogged by segregation and unemployment, and some Black WW II vets even returned home to be beaten and lynched.
At the time, it appeared that the Double V would never become a reality. But it wasn't until 20 years later that African Americans realized that without the urgency for equality and militancy brought on by the efforts of Black soldiers in World War II, the Civil Rights Movement and the sporadic changes in segregation laws probably would have never happened. To that extent, and Black vets want history to show, both goals-winning the war abroad and at home-were attained.