African Americans have always been ready to fight throughout America's wars. During World War II, despite the ingratitude of the country for their sacrifice and distinguished...
“Fighting for America: Black Soldiers, the Unsung Heroes of World War II”
by Christopher Paul Moore
One World/Random House,
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400 pp., $27.95
African Americans have always been ready to fight throughout America’s wars. During World War II, despite the ingratitude of the country for their sacrifice and distinguished service in previous wars, they resolutely volunteered for duty, remaining in segregated units.
Christopher Paul Moore’s book, “Fighting for America: Black Soldiers, the Unsung Heroes of World War II,” chronicles the experiences of black soldiers, including Dorrie Miller, the Navy cook who shot down four Japanese planes at Pearl Harbor; the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen; the sturdy, resolute work of black nurses; and the unsung but pivotal role of black soldiers as the heart of the Quarter Master Corps.
Moore, a distinguished playwright and the son of two WWII veterans who met in Europe, is especially gifted at highlighting the ironies and caprices of black soldiers’ lives, as the 1944 cases of Cpl. Leroy Henry in England and of six privates in New Guinea illustrate.
Henry, falsely accused of rape by an English housewife, was found guilty and sentenced to death by a court-martial. When it became clear that the woman had lied, the English rallied to his cause. Spurred on by protests from the NAACP, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower thoroughly reviewed the case, revoked the death sentence and ultimately dismissed all charges.
In the New Guinea case, two white nurses accused six black soldiers of rape. All six soldiers pleaded “not guilty,” and trial testimony supported their pleas. Gen. Douglas MacArthur had the last word, and since the case was not made public, was left to his own devices. MacArthur ordered all six executed. Moore notes that “Almost sixty years later, the chief of the prison facility that held the six defendants termed the trial ‘gross negligence.’ ”
Despite systematic racism, black soldiers carried on. The famed Buffalo Soldiers, sent to the front in July 1944, so immediately distinguished themselves that even Winston Churchill took notice. Countless memoirs celebrate the “Red Ball Express” for its incredible accomplishment of moving food and gasoline to forward positions so that troops could move swiftly to Germany in 1944. As Gen. George Patton once exclaimed, “My men can eat their belts, but my tanks gotta have gas.”
Moore notes that 75 percent of the Red Ball drivers were black men, many of whom were adept at removing the governors on the truck engines so that they could drive twice as fast as ordered. They did the job so speedily that superiors overlooked this infraction. Indeed, Col. John Eisenhower wrote that without the spectacular performance of the Red Ball drivers, “the advance across France could not have been made.”
Most annals of World War II overlook the role of women — especially black women. When the first contingent of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) arrived in England in 1943, there were no African Americans among them. Not until more than a year later were black WACS sent abroad in segregated units.
Getting into the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) was even more difficult for black nurses, as the Army initially replied, “Your application cannot be given favorable consideration as there are no provisions in Army regulations for the appointment of colored nurses in the Corps.” When Eleanor Roosevelt and African-American political activist Mary McLeod Bethune applied pressure, the Army relented a bit, granting a quota of 50 black nurses per year to care for Negro soldiers only.
For these nurses, great ironies also prevailed. In 1944, for example, the Army sent 63 black nurses to England to tend German prisoners of war who, given Nazi beliefs in white racial superiority, may have regarded them as subhuman. By September 1945, of the 50,000-member Army Nursing Corps, only 479 were African Americans.
“Fighting for America” is a satisfying read. While it reveals a number of sad and ugly racist episodes in the lives of black soldiers during World War II, it also records, through numerous letters and memoirs, their triumphs and their steadfast and unwavering faith in a just and fair American future.
Moore ends with the conviction to “Carry the flag, because freedom, democracy, and fairness are together the essence of America.” Black soldiers throughout the centuries believed that. So do most African Americans today.
John C. Walter is professor of history
in the American Ethnic Studies Department
at the University of Washington.