The role African Americans played in World War II was so important, not only in the war, but to the improvement of the Civil Rights movement. Desegregation of the United States military was the first step towards ending segregation outside of military life as well.
What is segregation?
Segregation was the social norm before the Civil Rights Act in the United States. It meant that black and white people could not mix in schools, work, or in the military. Military units were either all black or all white. There were no units where both races were allowed to be together.
African American’s jobs in the war
When the United States joined World War II in 1941, African Americans were not a part of the combat troops doing the physical fighting. Their jobs were in a support role off the battlefield and required moving supplies and maintaining different vehicles used in the war. As the war progressed, things changed and African American soldiers were fighting on the front lines by the end of the war. They flew fighter planes, operated tanks, served as officers, and directed other troops.
Famous African American groups and soldiers
The African American soldiers in the U.S. military set an example in bravery and devotion to their country. The most famous African Americans in World War II are:
The Tuskegee Airmen: This was the first African American group of soldiers to serve as pilots. They successfully performed thousands of flying missions, especially bombings over Italy, in World War II. 66 members of the Tuskegee Airmen were killed during the war. Among their fellow soldiers and officers, the Tuskegee Airmen were named “the red tails,” as they had all painted the tails of their planes red.
The Commander of the Tuskegee Airmen, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr, continued to serve in the United States Army after the war was over and he became the first African-American general. He was awarded the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal as well as the Distinguished Flying Cross Air Medal for his great services to his country.
During the attack on Pearl Harbor Doris Miller, who worked as a cook in the U.S. Navy, fired an anti-aircraft machine gun at enemy aircrafts and saved the lives of many injured soldiers by helping them out. Miller was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroic acts.
Samuel L. Gravely, Jr. commanded the fighting Navy Ship USS PC-1264, which hunted and destroyed the submarines of the Axis Powers during World War II. He also served in the Vietnam and Korean Wars and achieved the rank of vice admiral.
The end of segregation
The segregation between African Americans and white American soldiers was enforced by federal law. This segregation was never broken until the commander of the Allied Powers, Dwight Eisenhower, ordered black soldiers to fight alongside white soldiers in their units. This was a great push forward for the Civil Rights movement. It was followed by an even greater push when President Harry Truman ended the segregation in the United States military once and for all by issuing an executive order in 1948.
Back to World War II topics