ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. - Black History Month promotes education and honors our country's African American heritage. In 2020, the Department of Defense (DoD) commemorates the 75th Anniversary of World War II (WWII) by recognizing the contributions and sacrifices made by all Service members and Civilians on the homefront. For more than 200 years, African Americans have served courageously in every conflict in U.S. history. They endured individual and institutional racism, while fighting for social equalities and opportunity. During WWII, more than 2.5 million African American men registered for the draft, and African American women volunteered in large numbers. When combined with black women enlisted into Women's Army Corps, more than one million African Americans served the Army during the War. At home, African Americans proactively fought for their right to work in positions in the Defense industry, facing discrimination and segregation. As we remember their contributions to WWII, we are reminded of the Nation's struggle for equality.
The Tuskegee Airmen stories continue to highlight the importance of African American service in WWII. Leading up to the war, civil rights groups advocated for the military to add black pilots to the ranks. In 1940, Secretary of War, Harry Stimson approved a plan to train an all-black 99th Fighter Squadron and construct an airbase in Tuskegee, Ala. By 1946, 992 pilots were trained and had flown hundreds of missions in southern Europe. Nicknamed the "Redtails," the Airmen lost 66 men and flew more than 15,000 sorties from 1943 to 1945.
The 92nd Infantry Division known as the Buffalo Soldiers, were the first African American Soldiers sent into combat in 1944. The division landed in Italy and made its way through the country until they encountered German troops in September. The Buffalo Soldiers are recognized for their push of the Germans far into Northern Italy.
In the winter of 1944-1945, the U.S. suffered 100,000 casualties after the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes region of Belgium, causing a severe shortage of infantry replacements. To fill the gap, commanders were ordered to integrate black volunteers into any unit that needed them. General Dwight Eisenhower resisted the order but formed black volunteer platoons that could be attached to combat units. The integration of these men proved their competence and capability to fight alongside any man in combat.
Becoming a pilot or engaging in combat operations was a unique opportunity, as African Americans were marginalized and often assigned to support roles throughout the war. African American Quartermaster Soldiers proved their value to WWII, as logisticians. The Red Ball Express was a 1944 logistics mission that required traveling a 700-mile supply route, hauling supplies from Normandy to Paris. At its peak of operations, the fleet carried 12,000 tons of ammo, food and fuel to the front daily. The route was 54 hours roundtrip, dangerous and difficult. Col. John S.D. Eisenhower stated that, "the advance through France was due in as great a measure to the men who drove the Red Ball trucks as to those who drove the tanks…"
At home, as the Defense industry expanded across the country, Americans welcomed new economic and job opportunities after the Great Depression. Rapid expansion forced leaders to confront discriminatory hiring practices. In June 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt created the National Defense Advisory Commission to create equitable employment for all Americans in the Defense industry. Still, enforcing anti-discriminatory hiring policies proved difficult across the war.
In June 1941, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People started a National Defense Day to protest discrimination of African Americans in government hiring. Labor leader, Philip Randolph called for 100,000 African Americans to march on Washington to protest discrimination in the armed services and in the Defense industry. In response, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, forbidding racial discrimination in government hiring and training programs to avoid escalating tensions during this critical time. The order set up the Fair Employment Practice Committee. It was the first federal action, though not a law, to promote equal opportunity and prohibit employment discrimination in the United States.
The lure of Defense industry jobs and promise of the FEPC triggered migration of African Americans from the South to Defense plants across the country. Industry leaders often refused to comply with the order, arguing that if African Americans were hired, employers would be forced to integrate the workforce. For example, the St. Louis Ordnance Plant deliberately ignored the hiring policies of the War Department, and refused to hire African Americans. They fought back and picketed in segregated employment lines outside the plant. Forced to comply, the plant responded by creating a segregated production line. In 1943, Roosevelt strengthened the FEPC and by 1945, the number of jobs held by African Americans had increased to eight percent of the industry workforce.
In the ammunition industry, WWII records convey how challenging it was to recruit and sustain a large enough workforce to first build the plants, and then operate them. Discussions on labor pools and hiring practices are not detailed in accounts of how the plant were operated. However, advertisements across the nation and in plant newspapers targeted specific groups of people, like white females. Employment statistics are sometimes available and illustrate the ratio of employment by race. For example, a 1944 employment chart from the Iowa Ordnance Plant (operated by a defense contractor), broke out figures into categories of white males and females and black males and females. Of 6,148 employees, 91 employees were African American. An explanation above the chart, indicates that "racial distinction is not in practice at this plant." This is one example or how racial quotas and hiring practices limited the opportunities for African Americans. Many authors have documented the inferior experiences by the black labor force in Defense, and the injustices they encountered as they were given more dangerous and dirtier jobs than white counterparts across industry. African American women were given the last order of employment, below white women, then black men.
The government set up special divisions dedicated to African American workers within the Labor Division of the War Production Board. The Negro Employment and Training Branch was to help qualified black workers participate in the employment and training opportunities of the national Defense program. The effort appeared worthwhile, but participants completed training programs, and were often denied placement in job fields that were critically understaffed.
Once employed in the Defense industry, at an ammunition plant for example, working and living conditions were often difficult for African Americans. Newly constructed ammunition plants were frequently located in remote areas of farmland. As they quickly constructed plants, living quarters and "company towns" had to be created around the plant. Living conditions were in tent and trailer camps, and sometimes temporary housing additionss off the highways leading to the plant's front gates. This was a difficult situation for everyone, but harder for minority employees who were segregated in society and at work. When establishment of Indiana Ordnance Works was announced, the town of Charlestown had approximately 200 homes and one hotel. The Indianapolis newspapers reported new workers arrived and lived in trailers, tents, cars, chicken coops, barns, lean-tos and even the town jail. The small town board of five members could not handle the complexities of becoming a "boom" town. Public health and sanitation were the most critical concerns amongst schooling, childcare, building jurisdiction, police and fire protection, traffic control and recreation. State and local governments intervened to provide solutions to the influx of people. Unfortunately, adequate funding was not available to address many of these complex community problems in short timeframes. In African American communities, the problems went unaddressed and reports of inadequate services, sanitation and treatment were common experiences in their neighborhoods. The problems the United States faced with integrating labor and the Armed Forces were exacerbated by trying to uphold segregation in all facets of society.
The injustices and accomplishments of African Americans during WWII provided steps toward racial equality in the civil rights movement. The government realized all citizens required constitutional guarantees, if it were going to lead the new, free world. In 1946, President Harry Truman appointed an interracial committee to investigate the status of civil rights. Truman told a friend "my stomach turned, when I learned that Negro Soldiers just back from overseas were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten." He referred to an incident in which a Soldier, Isaac Woodward, was attacked and lost his sight. The committee's final report denounced Jim Crow laws and suggested to end segregation. In 1948, Truman signed Executive Order 9981, ordering full integration for the Armed Forces. It was controversial and there was resistance, because the order did not specifically mention ending all forms of segregation. By the end of the Korean War, almost all the military was integrated. The first African American U.S. Supreme Court member, Thurgood Marshall stated, "In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute."
During Black History Month, we remember that racial barriers and segregation began to collapse, because of the dedicated African Americans that fought and worked for our country.