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.
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
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
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
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,
"a negro called Salem Poore
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
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
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."
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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