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A Tradition of Sacrifice: African-American Service in World War II

by Tim G.W. Holbert

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.

Frederick Douglass--1857

In his book, Red Tails, Black Wings, author John Holway tells the story of the famed "Red Tails"; the Tuskegee Airmen. The 99th Fighter Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group flew 1578 missions and over 15,000 sorties. 450 pilots flew into combat. Sixty-six of them never returned. Every single pilot was an African-American.

What is most impressive about the 332nd and 99th is their record in battle. In all of those missions flown by all of those pilots, zero friendly bombers were lost to enemy fighters. It is a record that few can match, though none should be surprised by. The men trained at Tuskegee knew that they had to be the best. Anything less would be used as further proof by those who believed that black men could and should not be pilots, and further condemn them to serve only as cooks and members of the ship or camp's band. The drive to be known not as a novelty but as feared pilots caused these men to work harder and longer than anyone could ever imagine. In the end they would enjoy success beyond what anyone could ever imagine…except themselves.

The story of Spanky Roberts, one of the Red Tails as recounted by John Holway, demonstrates the double-conflict that so many black soldiers and airmen had to face. Though the impeccable record of the Red Tails merited recognition, the 332nd was consistently under-decorated. However, during the war they did earn ninety-five Distinguished Flying Crosses, as well as a Presidential Unit Citation. Roberts would later recall,

I remember the day in Italy when I stood in parade formation alone in front of my squadron to get the Presidential Unit Citation surrounded by newspapermen and photographers. The general leaned forward to pin the medal on and in a low voice called me every unprintable name he could imagine: "Baboons can't fly…Baboons can't fight." He said the gun photos on our planes had been faked. I stood and looked him in the eye and said absolutely nothing. For my money, I proved myself to be a better American than he was.

And so went the struggle for African-Americans during World War II. Not only were they facing the Germans and Japanese, they were also fighting those on their own side who would rather see the black men fail, and hurt their own cause, than allow them to succeed. Black men and women had served America before, but it was thanks to men like the Red Tails that their service in World War II proved that they belonged on the battlefield with the rest of those Americans who loved and served their country.

While the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II may be the most celebrated African-American servicemen in our history, they were by no means the first. Black men and women have been involved with the military since before our founding. We have all heard the story of Crispus Attucks, the former slave who was first to fall in the Boston Massacre of 1770. However, there were many other African-Americans who shed their blood in the cause of liberty during the American Revolution. As tensions with Britain grew in the early and mid-1770s, the Continental Congress recommended to the colonies that able-bodied men form militia companies in case of conflict with the crown. At first, all able-bodied men were enrolled…including black men. A great many of the famed "Minutemen" of the early days of the war were black, and many served with distinction. Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill all saw black men fighting alongside whites for their common cause. A black man named Salem Poore fought with such valor that he earned a petition, signed by a number of Massachusetts officers, which stated,

"a negro called Salem Poore…behaved like an experienced officer, as well as an excellent soldier. We only beg leave to say in the person of this said negro centers a brave and gallant soldier. The reward due so great and distinguished a character, we submit to Congress."

However, as the conflict with Britain grew, that specter that has haunted the human conscience since ancient times reared its head: slavery. The American founders did not invent slavery, but could not abolish it. In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, himself a slaveholder, denounced the institution that he felt the crown was responsible for in America. Though Jefferson, like many Americans, knew that slavery was wrong, they could imagine no easy solution, and continued to push the issue aside in favor of taking on other tasks. Such was the worry of slave revolt that in the months following Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, many in the newly formed Continental Army refused to arm black men, and advocated discharging any who were already enlisted. The British, realizing this, were quick to attempt to capitalize on the slaves' desires for freedom. The British Army offered freedom to any slave who would assist in putting down the rebellion. These overtures towards slaves, combined with the overwhelming need for soldiers caused many colonies to rethink their policies of arming black men. The idea that winning the Revolution could lead to a country in which "all men are created equal" led black men to enlist in very large numbers.

Though the American Revolution did not lead to an immediate abolition of slavery in America, the seeds were sown with the help of freemen and slaves alike. Black men would serve, mainly in the Navy, in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. However, it was not until eighty-some years after the Declaration of Independence that another proclamation would inspire African-Americans to serve en masse once more.

The initial outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 did not see an overwhelming attempt to enlist black men. Though the South needed men, they could not arm even free black men for the same fears that haunted the colonists in the American Revolution. Lincoln and the North were preoccupied with saving the Union. As the war progressed, however, both the Union and Confederate called more and more upon black men to serve.

On January 1st, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. In it, he would write, "And I further declare and make known that such persons of suitable condition (newly freed black men) will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service." For the first time in the war, the Union Army heavily recruited black men. The most recognized black unit was the 54th Massachusetts, which was depicted in the film Glory. In July 1863, the 54th was chosen to lead a hopeless assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina. Though they lost almost a third of their men, the 54th proved to possess incredible bravery. Sergeant Robert Carney, the flag-bearer, though shot in the head and wounded horribly, made it back to the lines without dropping his flag. "The old flag never touched the ground, boys," he was remembered as saying.

Though African-Americans served bravely in the Civil War and many, including William Tecumseh Sherman, advocated integrating the Army, they were again forgotten for the most part during the later half of the 19th century. While many served, they were still harassed and attacked by a hostile population in the South and kept in segregated units in the West. Still, they continued to make a significant impact in the cavalry and Navy. The first black cadets began to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point. A young John Pershing earned the nickname "Black Jack" after accepting a position as commander of a black company. Pershing himself would recognize that the men under his command were just as qualified to serve as any other American.

For every two steps forward, the efforts of African-Americans to succeed in the military seemed to take one step back. While a few young black men were appointed to West Point and Annapolis, they were faced with massive opposition from many in the administration, not to mention their fellow cadets. Few were able to overcome such odds, and little of positive note came from these first men. Again, those who opposed them were able to use this record against them, and no black men were admitted to West Point again until after World War I.

As war waged across Europe in 1917, Americans were once again called upon to, in Woodrow Wilson's words, "make the world safe for democracy." Some African-Americans, feeling that fighting for America had never and would never advance their cause, believed that they should refuse to fight in Europe. "Why not make America safe for democracy?" was the question posed by the NAACP. However, W.E.B. DuBois, the founder of the NAACP, urged black Americans to fight once more. "First your country, then your rights," he would argue. DuBois pointed out that, indeed, joining the rest of America in defense of their country had secured rights that were denied them before. Black men fought in the Revolution, which led to the emancipation of slaves in the north and the end of the slave trade. They fought in the War of 1812, and many black men were given the right to vote in the north, causing a much stronger abolitionist movement to emerge. They fought in the Civil War, and the result was the freedom of all slaves, for all time. DuBois acknowledged that there would be setbacks, but they could not forget their duty to their country. He also realized that to truly be Americans, they would all have to sacrifice along with their white countrymen.

Heeding DuBois' call, over 400,000 served in the Army during World War I. While a relatively low percentage of these soldiers saw combat, two black divisions joined "Black Jack" Pershing's American Expeditionary Force. The "Men of Bronze" of the 369th New York Infantry would serve with special distinction, and won the admiration of the French citizenry they were protecting.

After the war ended, it seemed that once again, two steps forward were followed by another step back. Race riots and lynchings grew out of control, and the Ku Klux Klan enjoyed a resurgence. The Army's highest-ranking black man, Benjamin O. Davis, was unable to find himself promoted, and was given menial work away from the front lines. It would be up to his son, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., or B.O., to win honor for the family on the field of battle.

Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. was born on December 18, 1912 in Washington, D.C. After studying at the University of Chicago, he made his way to West Point, determined to succeed where those that had come before him had not. For four years he would suffer through some of the most trying and lonely times imaginable. For four years he was at best ignored. "I became an invisible man," he would recall. Davis was forced to room alone, sit alone at football games, and even dance alone at mandatory dance classes. Author John Holway explains, "Although he was assigned a table at the mess hall, Sunday breakfast was "open seating," and he was forced to go from table to table, mess tray in hands: "Request permission to join your table."

"Permission denied."

"It was designed to make me buckle, but I refused to buckle," Davis would remember. "They didn't understand that I was going to stay there. That I was going to graduate."

Davis did graduate, and even earned the respect of his classmates. The 1936 issue of The Howitzer, the Academy's magazine, describes Davis:

"The courage, tenacity, and intelligence with which he conquered a problem incomparably more difficult than plebe year won for him the sincere admiration of his classmates, and his single-minded determination to continue in his chosen career cannot fail to inspire respect wherever fortune may lead him."

Though encouraged to leave the Army for a career in law, Davis again showed his stubborn tenacity by accepting a position at the Infantry School in Fort Benning, Georgia, despite being rejected for the Army Air Corps; the reason being that there were no black units in the Air Corps. Though Davis did not yet have his wings, he would bide his time until an opportunity would present itself. That opportunity came just a few years later, when the Japanese bombed the American naval base on the island of Oahu; Pearl Harbor.

As regional wars in Europe and East Asia grew into a global conflict during 1939 and 1940, the United States mobilized for war in a scale never before seen. Men and women, black and white, farmers and lawyers; all prepared for a possible conflict with Japan and Germany. Still, when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, the United States was not fully prepared for what lay ahead. President Roosevelt, along with the top military brass, realized that air power would be essential in achieving victory over the Axis. Planes, America could produce. However, what were needed were pilots. Not just ordinary pilots, but the best in the world. American pilots had to be faster and smarter than any others in the world. Bombers had to reach their targets, and fighters had to control the skies. In March of 1941, the War Department had activated the 99th Pursuit Squadron, to train at Tuskegee Army Air Field, or TAAF. One of the first to report to fly was Benjamin Davis, Jr.

Because of his experience, ability, and background, Davis, now holding the rank of Captain, was a natural choice to become the leader of the "Tuskegee Experiment." These first men assigned to Tuskegee showed the same resolve that Davis did, and under his leadership began to flourish. Training was intense, and the hours were long, but the results were worth the sacrifice. A commonly repeated story is that of when Eleanor Roosevelt visited Tuskegee in 1941. Watching the pilots practice maneuvers, Mrs. Roosevelt mentioned, "I always heard the colored can't fly an airplane."

C. Alfred Anderson, known as "Chief," was the first black commercial pilot in America, and was now the head of the civilian flying program at Tuskegee. Standing next to Mrs. Roosevelt as she watched the planes fly, he blurted out, "Oh yes they can, Mrs. Roosevelt."

She replied, "Everybody here is flying. You must be able to fly. As a matter of fact, I'm going to find out for sure. I'm going to take a flight with you."

Her escorts were appalled, remembered "Chief" Anderson. They attempted to contact President Roosevelt to protest, but he was a man who realized that if his wife made up her mind to do something, she was going to do it. Mrs. Roosevelt proceeded to climb into the back of "Chief" Anderson's Piper J-3 Cub, and gave her a ride over the campus of the Tuskegee Institute and the surrounding areas.

"We had a delightful flight," Chief Anderson would remember. "She enjoyed it very much. When we came back she said, 'Well, you can fly alright!' I'm positive that when she went home she said, 'Franklin, I flew with those boys down there, and you're going to have to do something about it."

While the men training at Tuskegee were making great advancements, not all African-American soldiers were having so much success. The 92nd Infantry Division, an all-black unit, had undeservedly gained a bad reputation in World War I. Now that the Second World War was underway, it was being activated to serve once more. There was a great deal of apprehension on the part of many, who feared that the 92nd would once again be deemed a failure. Unlike the men selected to fly at Tuskegee, many of the men of the 92nd came from poor, uneducated backgrounds, and though many worked hard, advancement came slowly. Early in training, there seemed to be innumerable problems. Officers spoke of overcrowded quarters, shortages in supplies, the segregated club, and the refusal of the officers' barbershop to cut the hair of black men. With a stated policy of segregation by the War Department, there seemed little that could be done. Racial tensions stewed, and violence would often break out between black and white soldiers. Morale was incredibly low.

Benjamin O. Davis Sr., whose son was now training at Tuskegee, was now a Brigadier General serving as Assistant to the Inspector General. As he inspected the 92nd, he encountered Bradley Briggs, a lieutenant who was facing a court martial for refusing to carry out a training exercise. Briggs, angry at what he considered an unfair order and the racism of his superior officers, took his case directly to Davis.

"I told him that I was humiliated by the second-class status I received while serving my country," Briggs would later say, "and bitter that prisoners of war had more rights than I did. I listened while he lectured me for thirty minutes on his career and the prejudice he had faced."

"Your anger will ruin your hopes for a military career," Davis warned him. "So curb your tongue, quiet your temper, and remember that you are an officer, not a changer of behavior."

What stuck most in Briggs' mind, however, was what Davis said next: "Things will change. More opportunities will come to our soldiers but we must be ready for them. There are plans to give our soldiers the opportunity to serve in the air and in other branches of the service heretofore denied to them."

Demeaning treatment of black soldiers and sailors knew no fame or fortune. Baseball legend John "Buck" O'Neill played on nine championship teams during his eighteen-year career in the Negro Leagues. Following the 1943 season, O'Neill joined the Navy. Though he could have stayed out of the service, O'Neill, like so many of his generation, felt compelled to join. He was stationed at Subic Bay in the Philippines and worked to load and unload ships. O'Neill would later recall an instance in which he and his shipmates went to deliver a stockpile of ammunition to a destroyer:

"We got there in an LST, and started sending ammunition up. Then somebody started blowing taps. The little ensign on the deck got on and said, 'Attention Niggers!' When he said that I went up that ladder and said, 'Do you know what you're saying? I am a Navy man! I just happen to be black. I'm fighting for the same thing you are."

The captain was called and the ensign berated. O'Neill continued, " The thing about it was when he sat back and thought about it, he started to cry…I said, 'Don't cry. Just don't do it anymore.'"

Feeling the shame of their ignorance is one way that those who have blind hatred for a particular group of people come to realize their mistakes. However, nothing will change a person's mind like seeing the true character of a man in action. In battle, it does not matter who is fighting next to you, so long as he is fighting. What the African-American soldiers of World War II needed was a chance to prove themselves in battle. They would get their chance.

As 1943 wore on, fighting in Europe began to escalate and the 99th Pursuit Squadron from Tuskegee was ordered to Africa. In their first few months in Africa, the men of the 99th saw little of their white countrymen. Again, they were mainly kept off by themselves. During their first mission, flying escort in the bombing of the enemy island of Pantelleria, the 99th performed admirably. However, some would claim that the 99th became disorganized and showed no discipline, a claim that to this day, those who were there have worked to refute. Though Pantelleria fell, the role of the 99th was left unreported. In succeeding engagements there would be similar reports of disorganization and failure. Other units in Africa remained skeptical of the 99th at best, and many were openly hostile. Benjamin Davis, Jr. was ordered back to the States to take command of the newly constituted 332nd Fighter Group and would be out of action for some time. It seemed that this "Great Experiment" was doomed.

It was at the Battle of Anzio that their luck would change for the better. In early 1944, the Allies launched a second invasion of Italy, south of Rome. At initial landing, the Allies were pounded by German artillery. Determined to push the Americans back into the water, the Germans unloaded everything they had onto the small beachhead. On January 27th, 1944, the Tuskegee Airmen were ordered to shoot down any approaching enemy planes and guard the beachhead at all costs.

That morning the patrols encountered fifteen German pilots on their way to attack the beachhead. The German FW 190's were much faster than the American P-40s, so the men of the 99th realized that they would need to use all of their skill to prevent disaster. Throughout the battle, the American pilots continually outmaneuvered the Germans, and the kills began to add up: one kill…then two…then two more… At the end of the day, nine enemy plans had been confirmed as shot down, with an additional two listed as probable, and at least four more damaged. It was one of the most impressive displays of flying in the entire war.

Benjamin O. Davis would later say, "Initially, the 99th was not well received in the Mediterranean theater. But after they had been there a few months, the victories over two days at the Anzio beachhead proved to everybody, that not only could blacks fly airplanes, but they could fly successfully in combat operations."

Davis was more than right. The Tuskegee Airmen would go on to become some of the most successful pilots in the United States military over the following decades. Colonel Charles McGee would fly 409 missions in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam; the highest three-war total in Air Force history. Daniel James became the first black officer in the history of the United States military to obtain the rank of Four-Star General. At a memorial dedication a few years ago, his son, Major General Daniel James III, said, "To those of us who came after them, they made a great, great difference. I stand here today, the proud son of a proud and patriotic father."

As the Tuskegee Airmen were building a reputation for their skill and bravery, on the other side of the world, African-American soldiers were playing a key part in one of the bloodiest battles of the war: Iwo Jima.

Most African-American soldiers serving on Iwo Jima were equipment operators. Many drove the six-wheeled transport vehicle that could operate on land and water, often called a "duck." During an incredibly fierce battle, a duck loaded with white Marines was being driven to shore by Louis Addison and Horace Taylor, two black men from a segregated unit. As the duck made its way toward land, its propeller twisted up with a rope tied to a ship, causing the duck to lurch. The vehicle full of Marines was in danger of flipping over, killing all aboard, while at the same time was a sitting target for the Japanese. Addison dove to the back of the duck, pulled out his knife, and cut the rope free, saving every single Marine aboard. Both Taylor and Addison received the Silver Star.

The Japanese were adept at using psychological warfare, and put it to their best use against the African-Americans at Iwo Jima. In an effort to turn the Americans against each other, radio broadcasts were beamed toward the American lines. Frederick Gray, an African-American serving at Iwo Jima, remembers:

"There was this lady, Tokyo Rose. She would come on every morning and ask us, (I mean the black soldiers), 'Why are you all fighting us? In your own country you cannot go to a restaurant, you have to go out a back door; you are being lynched in the south. We are your friends; we are not your enemies. We don't want to kill you; we want to kill the Marines, the whites. They're the ones who are mistreating you.' We took that with a grain of salt because we knew that they were trying to use psychological warfare on us, so it did not work."

Gray would continue,

"The racial situation, by and large, I would say was great. As George Patton would say, 'War is hell.' With a few exceptions, you would become closer in battle than in any time you can imagine."

Battle was where men could prove themselves as equals. Like the Tuskegee Airmen, the 761st Tank Battalion, known as the "Black Panthers," gained a reputation as fierce and loyal fighters whom any soldier would be proud to fight alongside. In October of 1944, the 761st landed in France, ready for combat. The "Black Panthers" fought in 30 engagements in six European countries. A period of 183 days of continuous combat marked the longest stretch of combat of any other unit in the war.

General George Patton, who would only accept the best in his Third Army, personally requested the 761st.

"We went into combat on the 6th of November in 1944, and just about a day before that is when he came up and made his famous speech to us," Tanker Joseph Kayhoe would recall of Patton. "He didn't care what color we were, as long as we went out and killed the "Kraut SOB's."

Kayhoe later said, "Then we went up to the Battle of the Bulge. We saw absolutely no segregation in the front lines. When we got up to the front lines, it looked like all blood was the same."

The great patriot and aviation pioneer Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. died, ironically, on July 4, 2002 at the age of 89. At the time he left the Air Force, he had risen to the rank of Lieutenant General, wearing three stars. In 1998, President Clinton awarded General Davis his fourth star, elevating him to the rank of full general.

"General Davis is here today as living proof that a person can overcome adversity and discrimination, achieve great things, turn skeptics into believers; and through example and perseverance, one person can bring truly extraordinary change," Clinton said.

General Davis did overcome adversity and discrimination, and it was his example that led the Tuskegee Airmen during their early trials to help them to achieve immortality over the skies of North Africa and Europe. Davis is indicative of so many who were driven to succeed, no matter the costs. The African-American soldiers who served in World War II were not gods or angels. They were fallible, like the rest of us. They were human. Some succeeded due to their character and virtue. Some failed under the strain and burden of the pressures they felt. What is most important however, is one characteristic that they all had in common: They were all Americans.

Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr. is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, alongside so many of our greatest heroes.

Works consulted for this article include two excellent histories of African-American service in our nation's history: Red Tails, Black Wings, by John B. Holway, Yucca Tree Press and The Right to Fight by Gerald Astor, Presidio Press