In A Nutshell
Until 1948, black soldiers served in segregated units in the US military. However, during the final months of the European theater of World War II, the military experimented with integrated companies. Although Hollywood and many historians would forget this experience, the success helped turn the US military into the most integrated element of society from what was one of the most segregated.
The Whole Bushel
Officially, President Harry S. Truman integrated the US Armed Forces in 1948 with the signing of Executive Order 9981. Even then, it took the North Korean onslaught at the start of the Korean War (1950) to fully integrate the combat units. However, what many students of history and the civil rights movement have forgotten is that a decision made in World War II strongly influenced the outcome of an integrated military.
Throughout World War II, black American soldiers primarily served in labor operations in segregated units. A common belief among military command was that black soldiers were cowardly and had less inherent fighting ability. Thus, the military gave black soldiers tasks such as building bases, clearing mines, transporting troops and supplies, and grave registration. Although such jobs were necessary, many soldiers viewed them as menial. Furthermore, soldiers assigned these tasks did not receive glory unlike frontline troops.
The situation changed in December 1944. The Allies had suffered many casualties during the Battle of the Bulge and they were running low on manpower. Still, the US Army was keeping the majority of black soldiers behind lines, although blacks units (such as the 761st Tank Battalion, especially favored by General George S. Patton) performed well during the battle. Then Lt. General John C.H. Lee proposed an innovation to General Eisenhower: The army would begin integrating black soldiers with white infantry units. Black platoons would become full members of some white infantry companies. After discussion among high command, General Patton, not a man known for racial sensitivity, agreed to the proposal, and thus began the training of black soldiers for frontline combat.
Fast-forward to March 1945. The US Army had crossed the Rhine River at Remagen, and the soldiers of K Company in the 394th Infantry, 99th Division, were about to cross another barrier: racial segregation. K Company, largely men from the segregationist South, had hunkered down under the withering sniper, machine-gun, and artillery fire of the counterattacking Germans. The advance of the Allies in this sector was stopped, and K Company wondered if relief would come. They even called upon friendly artillery fire to break the counterattackers.
Then they saw a sight that shocked them. Troops were advancing toward their position. At first, it wasn’t clear who these troops were. As they came closer, it became clear that they were wearing uniforms of the US Army. But the advancing troops’ faces were similar to the color of the uniform. These were black troops, the 5th Platoon, and they weren’t coming to relieve them, but to fight beside them along the riverbank. After a fierce fight, K Company drove the Germans back, and the advance into Germany continued.
According to the late J. Cameron Wade, who fought at Remagen, “The results [of the integration] were amazing. We ate together, slept together, fought together. There were no incidents. The army couldn’t believe it.” Because of the cohesiveness in the integrated 394th regiment, other divisions, such as the famous “Big Red One” 1st Division, began integrating some of their regiments. Immediately following the end of the war in Europe, the military surveyed a selection of white commissioned officers, non-commissioned officers, and enlistees about their experience serving with black soldiers. The majority said that black troops performed well in combat and that the black troops’ performance even increased their favorable feelings toward blacks.
The military as a whole was still hesitant about the experiment, though. By the end of summer in 1945, the military was re-segregated, and many of the exploits of the black soldiers were forgotten. Nevertheless, the success of Lee’s proposal and Patton’s implementation of that proposal during World War II likely helped Truman decide to integrate all of the military branches just a few years later.
Show Me The Proof
Featured image credit: Toni Frissell
Blood for Dignity, by David P. Colley
Center of Military History: African American Volunteer Infantry Replacements
Employment of Negro Troops, by Ulysses Lee
Washington Post: J. Cameron Wade, World War II veteran and activist for forgotten black soldiers, dies at 87