African-American Soldiers in World War II Helped Pave Way for Integration of US Military

Millions of Americans fought in the military during World War II, including nearly one million African-Americans. VOA's Chris Simkins reports on the black experience in the military, and the challenges they faced from World War II on.

African-American soldiers played a significant role in World War II. More than half a million served in Europe. Despite the numbers they faced racial discrimination: prior to the war the military maintained a racially segregated force. In studies by the military, blacks were often classified as unfit for combat and were not allowed on the front lines. They were mostly given support duties, and were not allowed in units with white soldiers.

That changed in 1941, when pressure from African-American civil rights leaders convinced the government to set up all-black combat units, as experiments. They were designed to see if African-American soldiers could perform military tasks on the same level as white soldiers.

Eighty-seven-year-old Woodrow Crockett was a part of that experiment. He was a Tuskegee Airman, the first group of black pilots ever trained by the Air Force. He flew 149 missions between 1944 and 1945, protecting harbors in Italy and American bombers from German fighter planes. Mr. Crockett says the Tuskegee Airman had a lot to prove and did so. In 200 missions they never lost a bomber to enemy fire.

"Many times [military leaders] would brief the results of yesterday's mission. And I said it did not take a rocket scientist to listen to those briefings and they figured out that the 332nd [Fighter Group], all black, were not losing any bombers to enemy fighters. And soon they started requesting that we escort them," says Woodrow Crockett.

Retired U.S. Army Colonel Bill De Shields, a historian and founder of The Black Military History Institute of America in Annapolis, Maryland, says, "The symbol of black participation at that time was 'the Double V'. in other words, 'Double V' meant two victories: victory against the enemy abroad, and victory against the enemy at home. The enemy at home of course being racism, discrimination, prejudice and Jim Crow."

Mr. De Shields says widespread racial discrimination throughout American society made it difficult for black soldiers. He says the early successes of the Tuskegee Airmen and other black units paved the way towards fully integrating the military.

"The experiment and the participation African-Americans made during war time from World War II right on to the Vietnam War enabled us to make a change in civilian life. It shows you that blacks and whites working together, can work on a integrated basis. It shows that it does not disrupt the morale of the troops," says Mr. De Shields.

Despite orders from President Harry Truman in 1948 to integrate the U.S. military, black soldiers were still kept in separate units during the Korean War, which lasted until 1953.

Jack Jones joined the U.S. Navy in 1956. He says, "When I first came in blacks were relegated to service type tasks where you did cleaning, serving officers their food and doing their rooms. But by the time I got out African-Americans were all the way from the top down to the bottom. We had several admirals and a bunch of captains."

By the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 70s the military was fully integrated and blacks soldiers were on the front lines and making a difference. African-Americans made up more than ten percent of all forces in Southeast Asia.

According to Mr. De Shields, "The Vietnam War was the one war in which blacks did it all. They were the generals, they were the leaders, they flew the airplanes, they drove the tanks, they were in combat units, they led troops in battle, they did it all and they did it well so there was nothing left to prove."

Since the Vietnam War black participation in the military has grown. Today, there are more than 2.5 million black military veterans. And African-Americans who make up more than 13 percent of the U.S. population, now account for 20 percent of those serving in the military.

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