The Battle of Saipan and Iwo Jima: The First Battle of Black Americans and the Training of Black Soldiers in the U.S. Marines
DelMONT: The military refuses to put Black Americans in combat roles until very late in the war. Black Americans aren’t allowed to serve in the Marine Corps at the beginning of the war. They established a camp for the first group of Black Marines at Montford Point in North Carolina in the late 1940s after extensive protest. The Black Marines eventually fought in the battles of Saipan and Iwo Jima. The Army didn’t have any Black infantry troops until 1943. They make a call for volunteers in early 1945, when there is a need for more infantry troops late in the war. That’s the first time that a lot of black troops are fighting in a war. Part of that is that they consistently don’t believe that Black men have the courage or skills to be in combat roles. The vast majority of the 1 million black Americans who have been enlisted in the war were put into supply and logistical roles.
The Navy used to have a lot of black men working as messmen and they worked in the galley preparing food and serving stuff. They were subservient roles, really. What did you learn about the treatment of them?
DAVIES: Right. And because draft boards were actually run by local officials, no matter what the national law passed by Congress said, they could make their own decisions about who got to serve and who didn’t, right?
DAVIES: Yeah. Black soldiers were kept out of the whites only mess hall at the base where German prisoners of war were allowed to eat while white military officers ate in it.
It was Delmont. It was eventually. But it took time. White media often undermined Black troops during the war, but that didn’t happen very often in comparison to the performances of white units.
DELMONT: Yeah. The 94th Engineer battalion went from Fort Custer, Mich., to Gurdon, Ark., in the summer of 1941. And it’s one of these small Southern towns that becomes a boomtown as the military starts to develop. So it goes from a population of just a couple thousand to having more than 20,000 different military units there. War games training is what the engineer battalion is doing. The summer of 1941, the U.S. military entered the war, and it is clear that they are going to be a part of it. And so these engineers are training – building bridges and roads, doing the kind of work that they would be doing once they deploy for combat.
Their experience, though, in Gurdon was horrific. They made a camp. And as soon as they go into town, this small town of Gurdon, they’re harassed by local white townspeople. They’re nearly run off the road by drivers in town. They are forced to march back to their base in the woods. The night after they were pushed out of town they were worried that the townspeople would try to take them further out of Gurdon, shoving them into the woods in Arkansas.
They are discussing what to do. Some of the military personnel say that they should try to fight back because of previous race riots in the military. They couldn’t do that because they didn’t have enough money to buy it. Some lynchings of military men have already happened, according to other troops. They are worried about being attacked in the woods in Arkansas.
So eventually, the majority of this battalion decides that they’re going to flee from Arkansas. And so they scatter in a half-dozen different directions. They hop freight trains and just start walking away from Arkansas, trying to get back to Fort Custer, Mich. It takes them nearly two weeks to get back there. Once they get back, they’ll be charged with desertion. They have to explain in a legal proceeding what they experienced in Arkansas and why they were scared for their lives and then why they went back to Michigan.
DAVIES: You know, these incidents were really unknown to white Americans, but they were reported widely in Black publications, particularly weekly publications, which were in major cities. I think you describe a letter that a man named James Thompson did not send in the military at the time. But he wrote a letter to the Courier, which was a weekly in Pittsburgh, an African American paper. This is what you drew the title of the book from, right? Tell us a bit about how the message was received.
There are similar stories. Julius Ellsberry was the first person from Alabama to be killed in World War II and he was at Pearl Harbor. In the war there were other mess attendants who fought bravely. And so it’s a strange paradox within the Navy, that the Navy insists that Black men don’t have the ability to perform in combat. Yet, consistently, there are evidence and records in Black newspapers and elsewhere that describe Black messmen doing exactly that, performing heroically when given the opportunity.
There are people who call them DAVIES. Right. Dorie Miller picked up that 50-caliber rifle and shot it in Pearl Harbor. And then he got on another ship and didn’t make it through the war.
There was a connection between the war effort and the civil rights movement after the war, as a result of the social changes that came with the war. Didn’t this experience have an impact?
It’s Delmont. Absolutely. The groundwork for the civil rights movement was laid prior to World War II. But World War II was really an accelerant. It forced Black Americans to recognize that the kind of discrimination they encountered was something that they could and should organize to fight against. The infrastructure for the fight was built during the war. So the NAACP at the start of the war is a relatively small organization. It has more than 450,000 members in the country by the end of World War II.
Much of that work is credited to Ella Baker, who’s a pioneering grassroots activist. Her methods of organizing were eventually picked up by activists in the Black Lives Matter movement. She travels throughout the country talking to Black communities, talking to everyday people, and organizing to fight for the issues that matter to them. And so that’s where you see some of the most important initial steps to fight for voting rights and the fight against school segregation, fight against job discrimination.
The Airmen of the Tuskegee Airmen – they weren’t aggressive when they were assigned to the shore patrol rather than to combat
DAVIES: Yeah, and I’m sure they’d had experiences where, you know, if they might have grown up in a rural area of the South where whites were all of one mindset about race relations, they’d had broader experiences that made them realize it doesn’t have to be this way.
By and large, it was Black troops that did that work to move those supplies. There were Black port troops across the channel who loaded the ships that moved the goods across the channel and into Normandy and other ports in France. The Black units were the ones who unloaded the ships and loaded them onto the trucks. The truck drivers who moved those goods were part of a truck convoy called the Red Ball Express, 75% of whom were Black truck drivers. The war effort was greatly impacted by the truck drivers because they moved 400,000 tons of supplies all across France and Europe. Without that effort, the Allied troops wouldn’t have been able to do anything.
Part of what takes them so long is, first, they need to build up enough numbers to have a full fighter squadron. White commanders in the Army Air Corps are not sure if Black pilots can do the job. They are reluctant to deploy this Black unit even though they are trained and have more training than other white pilots. And so the – when you follow the story of the Tuskegee Airmen on a month-by-month basis, it’s amazing what they had to overcome just to get the opportunity to serve in combat.
DELMONT: They did extremely well. They first had a chance to fight in the Mediterranean in 1943. And even though they perform well, they’re initially tasked with accompanying bombers on runs to hit key access targets in the Mediterranean. Even though they perform well on those missions, then they have to deal with their primary white commander, who tries to undercut them in his after-action report. So in his report, he says that they weren’t aggressive in combat, that they didn’t have what it takes to be fighter pilots. And he tries to get them assigned to shore patrol rather than to combat.
DAVIES: So the claims that they were not up to the task were eventually refuted with experience. Was the impression corrected in the media?
DAVIES: We’re speaking with Matthew Delmont. He is a historian. His new book is called Half American, and it is the story of African Americans who fought in World War II. We will be back after a short break. This is not your average show.
DAVIES: Yeah. There’s one point where you list by name 15 separate cases of Black veterans who were murdered by white men, in many cases police officers. And there were some cases where, I think you said, relatives advised returning Black servicemen, don’t wear your uniform. Put on some clothes, right?
They were allowed to eat at the same dining facilities, see the same movies and sit in the same parts of the train cars. Black Americans were able to see that the policies of the Nazi regime and those of the Americans were just a few examples of the same thing. And that really leads them to question the sincerity of what their fellow white soldiers had been fighting for – that if they were going to be this chummy and this friendly with actual Nazis, who had been at war with them just months earlier, it really led them to question real commitments to freedom and democracy at home.
DELMONT: They did. The GI Bill never explicitly states that Black veterans are going to be discriminated against. When this legislation is created, the Southern segregationist Democrats have to decide how it’s going to be deployed. They want states to control how the GI Bill benefits are distributed. And it’s clear to everyone that that means that discrimination is going to be baked into the GI Bill. That’s what happens in practice. White vets can use the access to housing, business, and college benefits to join the middle class, while black vets can’t because they haven’t joined the middle class. By and large, Black veterans are excluded from that.
The NAACP and other civil rights leaders in the area were appalled by this, the inequity of the situation, and wanted to get the United Nations to investigate it. What happened to that?
They would like to be able to give the kind of treatment that Black Americans are receiving. They want the United Nations to look into the lynchings of Black Americans as well as other human rights abuses like that in other countries. Under DuBois’ leadership, the NAACP publishes a pamphlet called “An Appeal To The World” that’s a 150-page treatise on human rights and describes a number of the abuses that Black Americans, including Black veterans, experienced during the war. Walter White takes over as the NAACP’s leader, and he leads the organization to a more moderate, less radical direction after it erupts in controversy and causes a break within the organization.
How Did America Go World War II? DAVIES: A historical perspective on the United States and its fight for civil rights, voting rights and euthanasia
DAVIES: You know, you write that the story that you tell in this book matters not just because it’s important to set the record straight but because it will help us to understand and navigate the present and future. Explain what you mean.
DELMONT: I tell my students that the stories they hear about the past are very important to them. And I think if we only tell very simplistic stories about World War II, if we only talk about it as a good war and only talk about this idea that America was unified in some way, that doesn’t do justice to the reality of what the country was actually like at the time period. If we can reckon honestly with this history of World War II – the fact that the military was segregated, the fact that Black Americans experienced intense racism both in the military and at home across the country and that they organized the fight for civil rights – I think we have a better position to understand why we’re still fighting some of these battles today. Some of the issues of voting rights and police brutality were front-page issues in the 1940s. As a result of World War II, we have to remember that.
patriotism isn’t unquestioning devotion to country. The true patriotism is demanding one’s country live up to its ideals. In this sense, Black soldiers have been the most dedicated, unheralded and patriotic soldiers this Nation has ever seen.
NPR Programs: The Color of Compromise and How to Fight Racism. An Empirical Account of a Civil War Veteran of the Air Force
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. The text may be changed or updated in the future. There may be different accuracy and availability. The audio record of NPR programming is the most authoritative.
Editor’s Note: Jemar Tisby, PhD is the author of “The Color of Compromise and How to Fight Racism.” He is a professor of history at Simmons College of Kentucky and regularly writes at JemarTisby.Substack.com. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
My uncle joined the Air Force when he was a young man. Like so many before and since, flying enraptured him. The ability to transcend our natural ground-bound state and soar among the clouds in a machine slicing the air at hundreds of miles an hour thrilled his imagination.
When my uncle was younger, being a Black pilot in the Air Force seemed like more of an impossibility than lifting your arms up and trying to get off the ground.
I never failed to notice that my uncle, a fun-loving guy, who always had a quip on his tongue and a good time on his mind, talked about his military days with a tinge of sadness – the kind of unresolved longing that only a dream denied can cause. He died at the age of 72.
His discharge records, which my aunt read to me after his death, indicated he attained the rank of Airman 2nd Class, and he served as a “vehicle operator/dispatcher.” There was a note that explained the civilian equivalent of his position was “chauffeur.”
The True Story of Jonathan Majors: The Black Soldier, Tom Hudner, and the Rise of Black Patriotism in the Air Force
The true story of Brown, a little known and underappreciated Black pioneer portrayed in the film by Jonathan Majors, is made known in the film by the same name that was adapted from the book of the same name. It also features his relationship with his wingman, Tom Hudner, who is White and played by actor Glenn Powell.
In the movie, Brown engages in a chilling ritual just before the many times he climbs into a plane. Without going into detail and spoiling the movie, Brown replays the trauma of his racist experiences to himself and, in so doing, strips them of their power to sap his confidence in the cockpit. This practice also gives him the fortitude to deflect ongoing attacks on his identity with poise and equanimity.
The film also focuses on the friendship that developed between Brown and his wingman, Hudner. The two could hardly have been more different –Brown, born into a poor sharecropping family in rural Mississippi and Hudner, raised in a three-story Victorian home in New England. The two men met in the Air Force but their military experience would never be the same.
As the two friends get to know each other, Hudner tries and fails to be a faithful wingman. Through a firm but calm example, Brown shows his well-meaning but naïve wingman that Black people don’t need a savior, they need solidarity.
The conventional historical record tends to valorize a sort of Captain America image of devotion to nation – a vigorous White man whose military service is not only valued but heralded.
What do you think should happen to the Black soldier? Is there a place for Brown, who sacrificed his life for his country, to be?
What is the place for people like my uncle who wanted to serve his country and live out his dreams of being a pilot, only to be dismissed because of his race?
We see signs of American-style fascist in politics, education, and other areas, which makes it more urgent that we win over racism at home.
Irvin-Partridge, the 6888th Battalion, in her mother’s memory of World War II, recalled with pride
She shared her memories of the friends she made during the war and her love of the English countryside. They had a mantel in every home that their family lived in with a black and white picture of her wearing a military uniform and beret.
More than 6,000 African American women served in the Army during World War II – 855 of them in the 6888th Battalion, said Col. Edna W. Cummings, a retired Army officer.
Irvin-Partridge died of kidney cancer in 1990 at age 66, taking her secret to the grave. For many years, she wondered what had happened to her mother, who was black, at a time when women were not allowed to serve in the military.
She had so many questions. What role did her mom play in the Army? What unit was she in? Then in 2016 Brown learned about the pioneering 6888th, nicknamed Six Triple Eight, and things began to fall into place.
The group of women soldiers stood for an inspection during the Second World War. And there, at the edge of the frame, was her mother in the second row – staring straight ahead with a stoic expression on her face.
The Women of the 6888th Brigade in World War II: When Madea and I Met Your Brother, I Came to Help. After The First Flight, Were Back
“My brother ran into my room and asked what’s wrong. I told him to look at the computer and give me information. I didn’t tell him anything about what I saw,” she said. “He pointed and said, ‘That’s Madea.’ My tears fell. I was unable to speak for a while.”
The battalion’s women received a Congressional Gold medal from the president after Congress passed a bipartisan bill to honor them. And Tyler Perry will write and direct “Six Triple Eight,” a Netflix film about the women’s heroics starring Kerry Washington, Susan Sarandon and Oprah Winfrey.
Congress established the 6888 Battalion under the Women’s Army Corps in July 1943 after civil rights activists demanded that Black women also get opportunities to serve overseas.
Its members spent roughly four months training in the US before they sailed to Europe in early 1945. They survived a German rocket explosion when they disembarked from their ship and dodged German U-boats in the North Atlantic.
There was a huge amount of mail to be distributed to 7 million American soldiers and government workers in Europe.
Without the luxury of the internet or cellphones, letters were the main form of communication for those serving in the war. US service members, eager for word from home, were frustrated by the slow pace of mail delivery.
The women of the 6888th were given six months to sort out the mail. They worked around the clock and cleared a million pieces of mail in three months. They said they had a motto that was no mail, low morale.
“It was hard, blackout conditions. We had poor lighting, poor heating. One member of the last six survivors of the group told CNN that they couldn’t allow the sun to shine because they were still fighting in that area.
She said that Madea told them how to change jobs based on shift. “Sometime they even had guard duty, even though they were not allowed to carry guns.”
Hunt-Martin in France, and the treatment of her fellow black women during the Second World War II. She recalls how she and her mother treated each other
In France, wine was served with every meal, and on weekends she spent time at beautiful works of art, which her mother told her about.
She told her children about the treatment that she and her fellow soldiers received overseas, which was far different from the racial harassment they were used to at home.
In Europe, the Black women were liberated from the Jim Crow laws that limited which establishments they could visit in parts of the US. They were out in restaurants and nightclubs.
“That was very devastating and very painful,” she said, “to see that the same countryman that you’re fighting the same war for was the one who disrespected me the most.”
Nobody mentioned it. Nobody even said nothing about it, for about 70 years,” Hunt-Martin told CNN before her death in 2020 at age 98. “That’s when we started understanding what a good job we did.”
Partridge-Brown believes that may be one reason why have her mother didn’t mention her specific unit – she didn’t recognize how efficient they’d been amid the chaos of war.
A portrait of her mother, Anne Partridge-Brown, buried in the South-View Cemetery, Wisconsin, 1927-27
Her children and children’s children were at her house when she died. She was buried at the South- View Cemetery where other Black heroes have been laid to rest.
At Fort Leavenworth, she was able to see a monument with her mother’s name on it. She obtained her mother’s honorable discharge certificate recently.
They needed money because things were so bad. “She and my uncle in the military both sent allotments home. They were able to find a nice home.
Through her research, Partridge-Brown learned that her mother served as a cook in England and later helped sort mail in France. She used the GI Bill to attend classes at the University of Florida after she had left the military.
A corner of her bungalow is dedicated to her mother. Its shelves are full of photos, medals and newspaper headlines. There is an award next to an American flag and it is written on it as an Oscar-like award.
And like a bridge connecting the past to the future, the portrait of her mother in uniform that sat on the mantel of their family homes for decades is still proudly displayed.