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Jefferson, Robert F. Fighting for Hope: African American Troops of the 93rd Infantry Division in World War II and Postwar America.

Jefferson, Robert F. Fighting for Hope: African American Troops of the 93rd Infantry Division in World War II and Postwar America. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. 321 pages. Cloth, $55.00.

The Ninety-Third was one of two all-black infantry divisions organized during World War II. Deployed in the Pacific and used to unload ships and secure islands already taken by other Allied forces, it has not received nearly the attention given to its sister, the Ninety-Second, which saw heavier combat in Europe and engendered greater controversy. Jefferson's book helps correct this imbalance. In so doing, Fighting for Hope makes a valuable contribution to the literature by giving voice to infantrymen and their families who have hitherto gone unheard.

The author's research efforts spanned more than fifteen years. From the National Archives he mastered documents such as inspector-general reports and the correspondence of Truman Gibson, who served in the War Department as a civilian aide for racial matters. Jefferson, an associate professor of African-American studies and twentieth-century U.S. history at Xavier University (OH), also conducted research at the Army Military History Institute where he read the papers of Benjamin Davis, St., who monitored conditions for black soldiers as the only African American general of the war. Furthermore, Jefferson used the papers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and drew upon newspapers like the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier, which championed the "Double V" campaign--victory over the Axis and Jim Crow--and pushed for the commitment of African Americans to combat in an effort to discredit stereotypes that blacks made poor fighters. These sources aside, soldiers comprise the heart of the book. Jefferson cross-referenced unit rosters, personnel files, and court-martial transcripts with questionnaires, personal letters, and interviews to build a database of 1,149 people.

The Ninety-Third was activated in 1942 after black leaders and newspapers lobbied the War Department to establish more African American fighting units. Members of the division underwent individual training at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. After conducting exercises in Louisiana and California, they moved overseas during early 1944 as part of General Douglas MacArthur's "island-hopping" campaign. Instead of fighting, however, they spent their first months of service unloading ships. As a consequence of continued pressure to use blacks on the front lines, the Ninety-Third was split into regimental combat teams and sent to separate islands. One unit--the Twenty-Fifth--fought a battle on Bougainville that resulted in eighteen Americans killed and allegations that the infantrymen had performed poorly. The division was then reassembled on Morotai where its soldiers conducted mop-up operations instead of joining the main fighting on the Philippines. The Ninety-Third returned home in 1946.

Throughout his study, Jefferson details the racism members of the division faced. Readers will find their jaws dropping as they learn about a proposal to use black infantrymen to pick cotton in Arizona. Although Jefferson agrees that the idea was insensitive, he points out that the state really did suffer from a shortage of agricultural laborers and that harvesting the crop helped the military. Similarly, he explains that soldiers from the Ninety-Third arrived at the combat zone just as MacArthur came under pressure to empty hundreds of ships he had been using as floating warehouses. Jefferson extends the theme of army obtuseness by describing the results of placing the division on the same island as a unit of white National Guardsmen from Mississippi and Alabama.

Jefferson pays particular attention to ways in which racism forged community organization and grassroots activism. He details how soldiers organized clubs, published newspapers, and participated in quotidian resistance. He traces their social networks beyond the uniformed ranks to include wives, many of whom followed the division across the United States. Stories of the indignities these women suffered, their responses to prejudice, and their support for soldiers stationed overseas enhance the book's value.

The most significant contribution that Jefferson makes, however, is to undermine the notion of national black unity. Not everyone supported the "Double V" campaign. Although elites pushed for assignment of African Americans to the front lines, few of them faced the possibility of being killed or maimed. Exaggeration of black exploits by cheerleading journalists often caused embarrassment for those in harm's way. Advisers like Gibson ultimately valued civility over civil rights and had vested financial interests in the status quo. Career officers such as Davis were too far removed from the bottom ranks and too co-opted to be effective advocates for black advancement. Organizations like the NAACP provided the most help by staying out of matters pertaining to combat and working instead to fight unjust rape allegations and kangaroo court-martial trials.

In the final chapters, Jefferson has an understandably harder time linking military service to postwar community activism. He could have strengthened this aspect of his analysis by exploring informal networks of African Americans within the Army Reserve. Although Jefferson's lists provide details about men who had careers and attained high rank in this organization--which often transcends official boundaries into larger society--he does not pursue the implications of this finding. For example, the book ends with the murder of Lieutenant Colonel Lemuel Penn, a Ninety-Third veteran shot by Klansmen in 1964 while driving through Georgia on his way home from annual training. Penn had been riding with two other African American reservists. All three had served in combat together two decades earlier. All three lived in Washington, D.C. At least two had civilian careers in the same school system. Jefferson interviewed the sole survivor of the trio but never connects the dots.

Curiously, given his interest in gender studies, Jefferson does not discuss the role regarding the integration of women in the army played by Julius Becton during the 1970s and 1980s. A Ninety-Third veteran who became one of the first African Americans to earn a three-star rank in the Regular Army, Becton experimented with unisex latrines, created controversy by suggesting that pregnant soldiers should "have an abortion or be discharged," and helped develop army-wide policies. Jefferson apparently was unable to obtain an interview with the general although he did receive a completed survey. Becton's distinguished military career--not to mention the prominent civilian positions he later held--has secured his place in the historical record. By preserving the lesser-known stories of black infantrymen and their families that otherwise would have vanished, Jefferson has done a greater service.

Andrew H. Myers, PhD

Associate Professor of American Studies

University of South Carolina--Upstate

Spartanburg, South Carolina
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Author:Myers, Andrew H.
Publication:International Social Science Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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