Photo Essay - African Americans in World War II

Dorie MillerCourtesy of the Library of Congress

This poster shows Dorie Miller, hero of Pearl Harbor. Born Doris Miller to sharecroppers in Waco, Texas, he joined the Navy in September 1939 and was assigned to the steward's branch, where he worked as a mess attendant. On the morning of 7 December 1941 Miller was collecting the officers' laundry on the battleship West Virginia when Japanese torpedoes struck the ship. In the ensuing chaos, Miller carried the mortally wounded Captain Mervyn S. Bennion to a safer place and, despite having no combat training, turned one of the ship's 50mm guns against the attacking Japanese planes. He shot down two enemy aircraft, firing until he ran out of ammunition. Despite this selfless act of courage and heroism, Miller was largely ignored for months after the attack, until protests in the black press led President Roosevelt to nominate him for the Navy Cross. Miller became the first African American to receive the Cross, the Navy's second highest honor, from Admiral Chester W. Nimitz on 27 May 1942. The story of his heroism fueled the aspirations of other black sailors and the African American community at large, and he spoke before large audiences throughout the United States. Miller ultimately returned to active duty as a petty officer and participated in the battle of Tarawa. Tragically, he was among 644 men killed on 24 November 1943, when the escort carrier Liscome sank during the battle for Makin.

Happy EasterCourtesy of the National Archives

Nazi Germany's racial policies targeted a number of so-called "inferior" groups, among them people of African descent, that were considered to be degenerate influences on the superior Aryan race. To prevent racial mixing, many black Germans were sterilized or sent to concentration camps. Some fled to escape this fate, while those few who remained were deprived of education or employment, sometimes surviving by working as actors or in circuses. The presence of African Americans on the front lines of the struggle to destroy the abominable Nazi regime is therefore especially gratifying. On Easter morning, 10 March 1945, Technician Fifth Grade William E. Thomas and Private First Class Joseph Jackson posed with some "Easter Eggs" specially prepared for Hitler. The photograph was taken by 1st Lt. John D. Moore.

The First LadyCourtesy of Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection.

This photograph shows First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in New York City on 12 January 1942, mingling with soldiers at a pageant paying tribute to African Americans' contributions to America. Roosevelt advocated strongly for increased rights for women and African Americans during her time in the White House and throughout her life. The First Lady was a friend of social reformer and civil rights advocate Mary Mcleod Bethune, helping Bethune to forge a close relationship with President Roosevelt and to advocate her cause at the highest levels of government. Eleanor Roosevelt also actively supported the Tuskegee Airmen, visiting the Tuskegee Air Corps Advanced Flying School in Alabama and flying with Charles "Chief" Anderson, a student pilot, for over an hour. Her advocacy brought national attention to the Airmen and helped them gain crucial support among the military establishment in Washington.

Old Blood and GutsCourtesy of the National Archives.

General George S. Patton, nicknamed "Old Blood and Guts," was one of the most famous American generals of WWII. Like many of his fellow Army commanders, he was ambivalent about the complete integration of black soldiers into the military and sometimes expressed doubts about the suitability of black troops. Nevertheless, in 1944 Patton requested command of the first black tank unit, the 761st "Black Panther" Tank Battalion. With characteristic flair, Patton told his men before going into combat: "I don't care what color you are as long as you go up there and kill those Kraut sons of bitches." Above all, the general respected toughness and courage. In this picture, taken on 13 October 1944, Patton pins the Silver Star on Private Ernest A. Jenkins of New York City for conspicuous gallantry during the liberation of Chateaudun, France.

Cpl. Carlton ChapmanCourtesy of the National Archives.

The 761st "Black Panther" Tank Battalion was organized in April 1942 and saw action from October 1944 until Germany's surrender, most notably in the Battle of the Bulge. The most famous member of the battalion was Lieutenant Jack "Jackie" Robinson, who would spearhead the integration of professional baseball shortly after completing his military service. During training in the Jim Crow South, Robinson was cited for insubordination and nearly court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of a bus when the driver—a white commissioned officer—ordered him to do so. The incident serves as a reminder that many seeds of the civil rights movement were planted during World War II. Despite such racist episodes, the 761st performed with distinction in Europe. This photograph from 5 November 1944 shows Corporal Carlton Chapman, a machine-gunner in an M-4 tank, attached to a Motor Transport unit near Nancy, France.

United We WinCourtesy of the National Archives

World War II could not have been won without the power of American industry and the sustained effort of citizens on the home front. Considering the demographic and social changes that this effort entailed, it is perhaps not surprising that there was considerable wartime friction between whites and blacks at home. The summer of 1943 witnessed more than 250 racial conflicts in forty-seven American cities, including Mobile, Detroit, and New York. The Federal government did little to address the unfair policies that were at the root of these conflicts or attempt to prevent their recurrence. Yet the war effort nevertheless had some positive social effects, showing that America had more to gain by utilizing all segments of its population than by keeping one group perpetually marginalized. This color poster, titled "United We Win" and featuring a photograph by Howard Liberman of integrated aircraft factory workers, shows that by 1943 cracks in the isolating wall of Jim Crow were already beginning to appear.

Inspecting MunitionsCourtesy of the National Archives.

The war dramatically accelerated the pace of economic change for black women. The demand for war materials and the entry of millions of men into the armed services created an unprecedented labor shortage in the United States. Millions of new jobs were created in the clerical and manufacturing fields, opening up opportunities for women and racial and ethnic minorities to secure new and better kinds of employment. Between 1940 and 1944, the proportion of black women workers employed in industrial work nearly tripled, from 6.8 percent to 18.0 percent. For many African American women, the move from domestic to industrial labor and from the rural South to the industrial North would be a permanent one, with dramatic social consequences. This photograph shows 21-year old Bertha Stallworth inspecting the end of a 40mm artillery cartridge case at Frankford Arsenal, near Philadelphia.

Benjamin O. Davis Sr.Courtesy of the National Archives

Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., the first African American to reach the rank of general in the United States Army, is shown here watching a Signal Corps crew erecting poles in France on 8 August 1944. Davis first enlisted in 1898, during the Spanish-American War, and graduated West Point in 1901. Despite his distinguished record and numerous promotions, he was often assigned to non-combat or teaching positions and was only granted his first high-profile assignment as a colonel, after lobbying to escort black mothers and widows of slain WWI soldiers to European cemeteries in the summers of 1930 through 1933. Promoted to brigadier general in 1940, Davis served as a military advisor on racial issues throughout WWII. His contributions included investigating reports of racial discrimination, agitating for integration of the armed services, and producing public relations and educational materials related to issues of race. The most significant of these materials was a film called The Negro Soldier (1944), produced by the U.S. Army film unit run by Frank Capra, which included references to the history of African American soldiers and prominent blacks and was shown to all incoming soldiers. Davis retired on 14 July 1948, after fifty years of service. Twelve days later, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, establishing "equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin."

Tuskegee AirmenCourtesy of the National Archives

The Tuskegee Airmen are perhaps the most famous unit of African American servicemen who fought in World War II, responsible for shattering racist notions that blacks lacked the discipline and intellectual capacity to perform well in complex combat situations. This photograph shows members of the 332nd Fighter Group, called the Red Tails, attending a briefing in Ramitelli, Italy, in March 1945. The 332nd was commanded by Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., son of the first African American general in the U.S. Army and recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross for leadership and bravery. Under the command of Colonel Davis, the squadron carried out more than 15,000 missions, shot down 111 enemy aircraft, and destroyed another 150 on the ground, losing only 66 aircraft of their own. More remarkably, the 332nd unit carried out 200 successful escort missions without a single casualty. Their skill and courage made an impression on the military brass. In a highly classified report issued shortly after the war, U.S. General George Marshall declared that black soldiers were just as capable of fighting, and equally entitled to serve their country, as white soldiers. The Airmen shown here are (left to right): Robert W. Williams, (leather cap) William H. Holloman, III, (cloth cap) Ronald W. Reeves, (leather cap) Christopher W. Newman, (flight cap), and Walter M. Downs.

Charity Adams EarleyCourtesy of the National Archives; Joe McCary, Photo Response Studio.

Pressure from civil rights activists, the NAACP, the black press, and Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Black Cabinet," combined with the military's changing needs to create opportunities for black women to serve their country. Perhaps the most important development was the creation of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in May 1942, later incorporated into the regular U.S. Army and renamed Women's Army Corps (WAC) in 1943. The WAC performed support roles ranging from manufacturing work to delivering supplies to the front lines. Charity Adams, shown here reviewing a contingent of WACs in 1945, was the first black women in U.S. history to be commissioned as an officer. Attaining the rank of major, she was the highest-ranking black woman in the military throughout World War II. Adams eventually led the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the first black female unit to deploy overseas, which delivered mail to approximately 7 million American troops stationed throughout Europe.

GreeceCourtesy of the National Archives

Following the success of the invasion of North Africa known as Operation Torch, the Allies began a difficult campaign up the Italian peninsula which ultimately resulted in the overthrow of Mussolini and Italy's withdrawal from the Axis Powers. This photograph from 22 September 1943 shows an ancient temple of Neptune, built around 700 BCE, where a company of American soldiers had set up a temporary office. At desk, front to rear, are: Sergeants James Shellman, Gilbert A. Terry, John W. Phoenix, Curtis A. Richardson, and Leslie B. Wood. In front of desk, front to rear, are: Technical Sergeant Gordon A. Scott, Master Sergeant Walter C. Jackson, Sergeant David D. Jones, and Warrant Officer Carlyle M. Tucker.

Japan SurrendersCourtesy of the National Archives

On 14 August 1945, these enlisted men aboard the U.S.S. Ticonderoga (CV-14) celebrated after hearing the news of Japan's surrender. This photograph was taken by Lt. B. Gallagher.