Background: African Americans in World War II

Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd US infantry division in Italy, 1944; photo credit.

African Americans had long been part of the US armed forces before the start of World War II.  Perhaps as many as 180,000 men had served and fought in the Union forces during the Civil War, including in the famed Massachusetts 54th regiment, subject of the movie Glory.  After the war, the so-called Buffalo cavalry regiments served in the west against native Americans.  In World War I, despite President Woodrow Wilson’s hesitations, and fierce opposition by the US army high command, by the end of the war with Germany over 350,000 African Americans had served with the American Expeditionary Force in France. Many units, including the 369th regiment, the Harlem Hell fighters, fought directly under French command, as U.S. armed forces remained segregated, and most of the US commanders refused to deploy African American units in command until relatively late in the war.

After the Great War, the American army continued to refuse to allow African Americans to join.  White officers that Black troops were inferior and claimed that they had fought poorly in the war.  The reality, as shown by units such as the 369th, was quite different, but the rumors and distrust persisted.

With the onset of World War II, the US military initially did not want to deploy African American troops abroad.  In addition, there was widespread agreement amongst army leaders not to allow African Americans to serve in combat.  This persisted throughout the war.  Mostly they were assigned to units as support troops, and often used as engineers, supply men or truck drivers.  “About 78 percent of all black males -- and only 40 percent of all white males-in the Army were placed in the service branches (including quartermaster, engineer, and transportation corps).” (

Finally in late 1942, two African American divisions were activated, the 92nd and the 93rd.  Both ended up training in Arizona.  In December 1943 the 93rd was sent to the Pacific theater of operations, while the 92nd eventually served in the US Fifth Army in the Italian campaign, brutally fighting its way north against fixed German positions and fierce resistance.  Other African American support troops participated in the D-Day landings in France, and then in the remainder of the French campaign several units distinguished themselves, such as the 761st tank battalion (the Black Panthers) in General Patton’s 3rd US Army and the artillery battalions that fought with the 101st Airborne division at Bastogne.

African American troops faced considerable racial prejudice throughout the war in all locales in US and abroad.  Even Great Britain and Australia tried to restrict or limit the stationing of African American troops in their countries initially.  Throughout the US, army facilities and training bases remained segregated, and African Americans were assigned to their own separate units.  Overseas, the discrimination and segregation continued.

After the war African American veterans continued to face discrimination.  While President Franklin had signed a GI bill to provide benefits to veterans after the war, African Americans had difficulty finding colleges where they could use the education benefits, and there were substantial hurdles to using the GI bill housing benefits.

During the course of the war, “1.2 million African Americans served in the Armed Forces and 708 were killed in combat. 350,000 American women served in the military during World War II and 16 were killed in action.”  ( Michael Clodfelter. Warfare and Armed Conflicts- A Statistical Reference to Casualty and Other Figures, 1500–2000. 2nd Ed. 2002, pp. 584-585) Some other oft-cited statistics re African Americans:
•    2,500,000: registered for draft between 1941 and 1945
•    100,000: stationed overseas in war zones
•    50,000: served in combat.