African-American World War II veterans who visit the new WWII Memorial in Washington will share a special recollection unique to their wartime experience.
In addition to their experiences on the front line facing the enemies without, they will also reflect on their experiences with more abstract opponents within — segregation and discrimination.
Despite not being afforded many of the rights at home for which they were fighting abroad, many African-American soldiers gave their lives in service to their country. The war they waged daily was both internal and external, and their victories on both counts played a major role changing America.
In WWII, like all preceding battles in this country, African-Americans soldiers took part in an exercise in irony. To the outside world, the U.S. armed forces were a unified body of diverse individuals united under our flag. The United States was determined to defeat oppressive dictators subjecting millions of people to an unspeakable plight. At home, meanwhile, African-Americans suffered unspeakable indignities — and worse — as a result of segregation.
In our vigor for victory, the Armed Forces in WWII opened their doors to African-Americans, albeit in a calculated way, as had been the protocol in previous wars. An estimated 700,000 African-Americans served their country in WWII, accounting for nearly 20 percent of the U.S. troop total.
Although we were supposedly united in battle, the policies of segregation, which African-Americans faced in the states, followed them to the battlefields. African-American soldiers were in many cases restricted in their areas of service, despite their obvious abilities. In addition, they often were not given the same training as whites and were at times forced into battle with substandard equipment. African American soldiers were peppered by their fellow soldiers, and even their officers, with the same racial slurs and epithets they faced back home.
The U.S. government failed to award the Congressional Medal of Honor to any African-American soldiers in either World War I or World War II. It was not until later — decades later — that this injustice was corrected.
Despite these circumstances, African-American soldiers in WWII excelled in battle, as had their brethren in previous wars. The legendary exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen, an elite group of decorated African-American pilots who had an impressive battle record during World War II, have been chronicled in books and in a recent movie honoring their legacy. Their leader, Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., was the first African-American to rise to the rank of four-star general.
Other notable African-American soldiers from WWII included Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers, who despite being seriously wounded refused to evacuate his tank when his unit came under attack. Instead, his tank continued providing cover fire, allowing the rest of his company to escape. Rivers was killed during the battle. His valor was posthumously recognized in 1997, when he was awarded the Medal of Honor — along with six other African-American heroes.
The battlefield heroism of African-American soldiers tells only part of the story, however. Because World War II soldiers also had another fight on their hands — the fight against segregation and the widely held belief African Americans were inferior. A strong case can be made that some of the most important civil rights marches in U.S. history first occurred in Europe and the Pacific, when African-American fighting men exhibited the kind of patriotism, valor, bravery and skill that belied the venomous myths upon which state-sanctioned segregation was based.
The achievements of these soldiers posed a quandary to those who promulgated segregation in America: “If we can effectively fight as one nation abroad; why can’t we live as one nation at home?” The contributions African-American soldiers made to America’s victory in World War II was a major factor in President Harry S. Truman’s 1948 decision to issue a groundbreaking Executive Order establishing equality of treatment and opportunity in the Armed Services — an early and important victory in the battle for civil rights.
The National WWII Memorial will serve as a lasting reminder of the sacrifices and patriotism of the men and women of America’s “greatest generation.”
As we continue to reflect on their bravery and courage this summer, we should pay special tribute to the African-American soldiers who bravely fought a hated enemy abroad, while fighting the enemy of hate at home. They were true civil rights pioneers. And their contributions should never be forgotten.
Alvin Williams is president and chief executive officer of Black America’s Political Action Committee (BAMPAC), which supports candidates for public office.