A. The Plight of the African-American Soldier

Army Policy

The official Army policy on Negro military service for the inter-war period was simply stated in a letter from Army Chief of Staff G.C. Marshall to an inquiring United States Senator: "It is the policy of the War Department not to intermingle colored and white enlisted personnel in the same regimental organization. The condition which has made this policy necessary is not the responsibility of the Department. . . ." This letter was drafted on the same day a conference was held at the White House to discuss discrimination against blacks in the military, attended by President Roosevelt; the Secretary of Navy and the Assistant Secretary of War; A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Walter White, Secretary of the NAACP; and T. Arnold Hill of the National Youth Administration. While the aim of the conference was to end discrimination and segregation in the military, the resultant policy merely called for utilization of blacks "on a fair and equitable basis." In effect, the new policy established a "separate but equal" regime, allowing for segregation according to race, but striving for equality of opportunity within the segregated Negro units themselves. The policy statement expressly rejected integration, further entrenching segregative efforts: "The policy of the War Department is not to intermingle colored and white enlisted personnel in the same regimental organizations." The White House attempted to imply that the black leaders in attendance had ratified the wording of the War Department policy. In a telegram to the White House, the three black conferees expressly rejected the implication of their approval and vociferously protested the President's approval of the new policy.

The policy of segregation was also perpetuated by the Selective Service and Training Act of 1940. Black leaders had hoped that this Act, the vehicle by which Americans entered the military, would enforce notions of equality and fairness in military recruiting. In an effort to ensure equality, several spokesmen testifying before the House Committee on Military Affairs, the committee that played a significant role in the wording of the Act, urged the adoption of amendments *88 explicitly forbidding discrimination in the conscription and voluntary service process. When the Act was passed, it only banned discrimination insofar as it established a ten percent hiring quota for blacks; this small percentage would be afforded an opportunity to volunteer for induction into the military regardless of race. While these provisions appeared on their face to decrease discrimination in military hiring, a loophole in the Act undercut its ostensible ameliorative goals. The loophole provided that

no man shall be inducted for training and service under this act unless and until he is acceptable to the land or naval forces for such training.. .. [and] no men shall be inducted.. . until adequate provision shall have been made for [separate facilities] . . . as may be determined . . . to be essential to public and personal health. This loophole allowed discrimination in military hiring to continue under the auspices of legislation purporting to end such discrimination.

Segregation in the military was justified as a means of preventing racial trouble. Military leaders believed that, as long as segregation was the national norm, the Army was not to be a source of racial experimentation. The thought was that if units were integrated, the racial strife generated would not only affect morale but also readiness and efficiency. Segregation remained the express Army policy for the duration of the World War II period and even for a period shortly thereafter.

Rights Consciousness, Rights Denied

Rights consciousness among black servicemen arose in concert with social consciousness among the black citizenry as a whole. The crisis in Europe gave blacks more reasons and opportunity to protest racism at home. This social consciousness was carried into the military arena by forward-thinking, democracy-hungry black soldiers. Simply by looking at their white counterparts, black soldiers were aware of the *89 rights and privileges that they were denied. While civil equality (equality in employment in military service) was the focus of the servicemen's efforts, the related categories of political and social equality were also goals of servicemen and servicewomen entering World War II. Many black servicemen entered the military expressly because they believed that the military offered a better chance of equality than what they could obtain in the civilian world. At bottom, blacks wanted the Four Freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Blacks wanted nothing inconsistent with the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. 3 African Americans wanted complete economic, political, and social equality, including the right to die for their country. It was thought that equality could be achieved through military service, but black servicemen quickly realized this was not the case.

The military during World War II offered many types of career fields, the vast majority of which were off- limits to black servicemen. When allowed to enlist, blacks were primarily limited to serving in support roles. In 1940, the Navy restricted blacks to the messman's branch, while the Marine Corps and Air Corps contained no blacks at all. Little had changed upon the nation's entry into World War II in December 1941. The military continued to deny blacks entry into majority-white career fields. As a result, most blacks ended up in the Army Quartermaster and Engineer Corps. The cover of the July 1940 issue of The Crisis most accurately described the plight of blacks in regard to military service. It depicted military warplanes flying over an airfield, with the words "FOR WHITES ONLY" emblazoned across the picture and the following caption at the bottom: "Warplanes--Negro Americans may not build them, repair them, or fly them, but they must help pay for them." Blacks who not only met, but far exceeded, the requirements for a given career field were often bypassed. For example, one soldier who held a Bachelor of Science in physics, a minor in mathematics, and was a physics instructor and physicist at the National Bureau of Standards enlisted with the hopes of obtaining a position commensurate with his skill set. The Army assigned him the job of mail clerk.

The fortunate few blacks who found themselves able to serve, albeit unable to fight, were forced to realize that the federal government was the largest Jim Crow institution in the nation. The imposition of racially separate facilities was commonplace and included theaters, post exchanges, service clubs, and military buses. More often than not, the segregated facilities were substandard and makeshift at best.

The plight of the black enlisted man was intolerable, as he was both a de facto and de jure subordinate to the white military command establishment. The indignities suffered by black officers, however, presented a particularly poignant reminder of the status of blacks in the military. As a military officer, one was supposed to be afforded both responsibility and respect. And even if respect was not earned, it was given merely for the fact that one wore an officer's insignia on one's uniform. Thus, while every officer was a subordinate to a higher-ranking official, the officer was still, according to military protocol, considered superior to all enlisted personnel. Such respect was never afforded the black officer. In 1942, only 0.35% of blacks in the Army were officers. Even after the number of black officers increased, the career fields offered to them were limited to non- command positions (e.g., recreation officer, as was one of Lt. Jackie Robinson's career fields), and the locations at which they could serve were limited by the nonavailability of segregated living and recreational facilities for black officers. The lack of viable career fields for blacks was further exacerbated by the fact that the Army forbade blacks to outrank or command white officers. These restrictions prevented black officer from proving their ability to lead, and thus perpetuated the myth of black officers' incompetence. While black officers endured certain injustices unique to their status as commissioned officers, all black service personnel were routinely denied fundamental substantive entitlements normally afforded American soldiers. Blacks were often times given what amounted to other-than-honorable discharges, preventing them from obtaining many of the veterans' benefits enjoyed by most white veterans. There were instances where, even if a black serviceman obtained an honorable discharge, the Veterans Bureau routinely frustrated or, in many cases, outright denied the attempts of black veterans to receive veterans' benefits. The denial of two particular substantive military rights was especially difficult to accept: the denial of proper treatment as a military member as compared to the concomitant preferential treatment given to German and Italian prisoners of war, and the segregation of black children in government schools.

While the struggle for black servicemen to achieve equality in military service ensued, a parallel fight was being waged: the struggle for black women to achieve equality in military service. Black women were doubly marginalized; their daunting struggle was for acceptance not only as blacks, but as women. Compared to their white female counterparts, *92 black female soldiers were placed at the bottom of the list for consideration for equality. White women were afforded the opportunity to be nurses from the start of the war, could work in secretarial capacities, and were allowed to fly military aircraft as members of the Women Air Service Pilots. By comparison, black servicewomen were assigned as cleaners, laundry workers, and kitchen help, and only 500 of the 50,000 female army nurses were black. 5

While the attempts to equalize substantial rights for war-fighting servicemembers were stifled, at least there was obvious precedent to show what rights as servicemembers blacks were supposed to enjoy: any right or privilege accorded white servicemembers should have been accorded to blacks. The battle for social equality within the ranks was much more difficult to obtain. Commonly held prejudices and ignorance were transported from contemporary American culture into Army policy, and they were adopted in everyday interactions between black and white soldiers, as well as between black soldiers and white civilians. For example, even in the face of dire need, the Army, in concert with the American Red Cross, maintained segregated blood supplies during the war. In a letter from Major General James C. Magee, the Army Surgeon General, a weak rationale for this practice was offered:

For reasons not biologically convincing but which are commonly recognized as psychologically important in America, it is not deemed advisable to collect and mix Caucasian and negro blood indiscriminately for later administration to members of the military forces. In the same letter, General Magee addressed a suggestion that blood donor stations themselves be segregated. General Magee disagreed with such a system, opting to keep donor stations integrated and storage of plasma segregated, purely on grounds of efficiency: "[I]n my opinion, this additional expense would not be justified by the relatively small amount of negro blood to be obtained under such a plan." It is curious to note that while General Magee recognized both the inefficiency of the policy of separate storage and processing and the dubious *93 psychological underpinnings, the Army maintained this policy throughout the war.

Another social right demanded by blacks, and frequently interfered with by the white military establishment, was that of freedom of association in the form of interracial dating. While interracial marriage in America was taboo, if not illegal in many states, black soldiers had occasion to date white women overseas. Even in foreign lands, American views regarding this practice were fully enforced. The unofficial enforcement of the prohibition against interracial dating, even as between blacks and non-American whites, is reflected in a letter home by a white sergeant: "Every time we have seen a nigger with a white girl we have run him away. I would like to shoot the whole bunch of them." Discontent with the denial of economic equality (e.g., equality in military employment) and social equality manifested itself in instances of open protest. On the civilian side, in June 1943, competition between blacks and whites for jobs in Detroit erupted into the largest race riot of the 1940s. One of the most famous military confrontations occurred at Freeman Field, Indiana, in the spring of 1945. Freeman Field housed about 2500 personnel in support of a black bombardment group and service group. The base contained a contingent of nearly 400 black officers. After the base commander attempted to enforce segregation in the base officers' club, several black officers entered, demanding service; 101 black officers were subsequently arrested for refusing to sign the base's segregation regulation. The Army Air Forces supported the policy of segregation, primarily citing the fact that the clubs were for social interaction, which often included officers' families. The issue eventually reached the desk of Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy, who determined that the base commander exceeded his authority when he segregated facilities funded by the federal government.

One key belief was present in the consciousness of all African Americans, both military and civilian, in the struggle for economic and social equality: segregation was discrimination. This thinking was *94 captured in a piece circulated by A. Philip Randolph's Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service and Training:

The military authorities, like the Supreme Court, deny that segregation is in itself discrimination. Actually, however, the record of the armed forces to date in this war is the strongest possible proof that discrimination is inextricably bound up with segregation. The Negro civilian in jimcrow states finds that, even if he is willing to accept segregation, he does not in actuality--whatever legal theories the Supreme Court may spin about it--get equal educational, housing and transportation facilities. And the Negro soldier or sailor also discovers, and even more dramatically, that even if he accepts segregation, he gets anything but equal treatment. It was this fundamental understanding of the situation in the military that guided the actions of the press, even those organizations that were opposed to any idea of mass, coordinated, direct action to obtain military equality.