A recurring theme of movies made during World War II is servicemen risking their lives for their platoon buddies, invariably a New Yorker (sometimes Jewish), a Southerner, a Midwesterner, a Californian, someone of Eastern European background, an Italian American and an Irish American. In the movie’s standard setup, we learn their motivation: a brother/ friend lost at Pearl Harbor or a former European homeland overrun by Nazis.
Those 1940s movies never depict African Americans, who had to shoulder their civic responsibilities while denied citizenship rights. They faced the conundrum of fighting to liberate Europe and Asia while serving in a segregated military for a country that permitted lynchings, segregation and disenfranchisement. Considering what African Americans endured, what was their motivation? In one word: patriotism.
Since the Revolutionary War, African Americans have always shown their loyalty to their country. They risked their lives and went above and beyond the call of duty as they earned Congressional Medals of Honor: 25 in the Civil War; 18 in the Indian Wars; and 6 in the Spanish American War. Racism prevented the timely awarding of America’s highest military honor for valor to any African American for actions in the two world wars. Only in the last 30 years were two soldiers from the First World War and seven from the Second belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor.
After African Americans proved their mettle while fighting under French commanders during World War I, they returned to a country where the Ku Klux Klan was experiencing a countrywide resurgence. Indiana, Ohio, Illinois and Michigan vied for the dubious distinction of having the most members in that 3.5 million-member hate group.
When the 1940 draft began, racism and discrimination were endemic in the military. African Americans had to literally fight for the right to fight for their country. They were placed into segregated units and watched German and Italian POWs being treated better than they were. Nevertheless, when given the opportunity to prove themselves in battle, they did exactly that.
There were many African American World War II heroes besides the Tuskegee Airmen, who tend to be remembered the best. Black soldiers participated in the iconic Normandy Invasion and the Battle of the Bulge. African American Montford Point Marines showed their bravery on Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The mostly black Red Ball Express drivers insured the success of Patton’s Third Army by supplying it with the essential food, fuel and ammunition needed to rapidly drive across France.
When considering that in the war’s final year more than 300 soldiers died daily, the herculean efforts of those drivers shortened the war somewhat and undoubtedly saved countless lives and spared many more from injury. The Third Army’s African American 761st Tank Battalion never took a day off in six months of fighting across France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Germany and Austria.
After enormous infantry losses during the Battle of the Bulge, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower permitted African American servicemen to volunteer for combat duty. About 4,500 volunteered, but only 2,500 were accepted for that experiment. Two of World War II’s largest construction projects, the Alaska Highway and the Ledo Road, were largely built by African American engineers under extremely difficult conditions. The paratroopers of the Triple Nickles extinguished West Coast forest fires started by Japanese balloon bombs.
The black women of the 6888th Postal Battalion worked around the clock to ensure that the morale of soldiers in Europe was kept high by getting them timely mail. After the racist Navy Secretary died in 1944, the Navy finally accepted a handful of African American women: 70 of the 84,000 WAVES; five of the Coast Guard’s 11,000 SPARS; and four of the Navy’s 11,000 nurses were black. None served in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, which barred them until 1949. The Army limited the number of black nurses until FDR proposed drafting them, and even then they could only treat black soldiers and POWs.
After liberating Europe and Asia from oppression, black veterans espoused Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1919 mantra: “We return. We return from the fighting. We return fighting.”
African American veterans, rarely seen in World War II movies except in secondary roles, if at all, expressed their motivation for serving after the war by trying to register to vote, trying to collect on a promissory note which guaranteed them “inalienable rights” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”