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Home | Cold War Turns Hot | The Armed Forces Integrate | What the Experts Say

Black Soldiers in WWI and WWII

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Hammond: WWI, W.E.B. DuBois and others advocated that blacks be incorporated and go into the war and this would be wonderful way to prove their worth to society. There was a lot of resistance to this from the Army and everything else. General Pershing, they called him Black Jack Pershing, because he was a commander of black soldiers in the west, but he was a man of profound racial prejudice. NAACP in effect made such a stink that congress set up two divisions for black soldiers and in due course they went to Europe. Pershing took one, 91st or 92nd, and put it with the French and he took the other one. The one that went with the French was armed by the French and essentially commanded by French officers who had long experience in dealing with black people in Algeria and so forth. The French have not been particularly racially prejudiced. They dealt with these men just about as they dealt with their own people. And they did really well, I forget how many dozens and dozens of the Croix du Guerres the men of that unit got serving under the French.

The men under Pershing got nothing and nowhere. When they got to fight, they did all right, but nobody was willing to admit it and they didn't get to fight that much.

Bit of reaction after the war. Black people didn't get anywhere. Some of the veterans got beat up after they got off the boat. Nothing happened.

Hitler comes along and starts that war. And the Army again isn't too interested in black people, but the black people are interested in becoming part of the Army. They want to become airmen and want to establish themselves. But there's considerably more reticence, they are not as enthusiastic about this war. And one black fellow I read about made the point—yeah, Hitler's an awful man and deserves to be put out of power and doing terrible things in Europe, but gosh, stop and think about it, black people. He's not very much different that the county sheriff. They're lynching us, doing these things to us. So the blacks, especially militant ones, developed the Double V Campaign - victory in Europe, victory in America for us. They went forward on that basis.

Again they get relegated to secondary duties for a long time. 91st Division fought in Italy under Ned Almond, who was a true racial bigot, who despised them. They did not distinguish themselves, I can't say that they fought poorly, but they did not distinguish themselves. They were fighting in Italy in Monte Cassino and all that. Awful battle. The longer they stayed, the more their officers and sergeants were killed, and the whites weren't going to put in anybody any good. Then they had poor command. The Germans figured out that this unit was out there and was not well commanded. If you were an American fighting someplace and you know that there are three units out there and one of them isn't very good, where do you put your attack - right through the middle of them. So black soldiers always said that " we were beset by horrible fighting all the time, and it seemed that they were always on us". And this is the reason. Given a bad leadership, it's a sure fire combination for failure. Terrible set of circumstances.

Next: Occupation Duty in Japan