African American Service Men and Women in World War II

More than one and a half million African Americans served in the United States military forces during World War II.  They fought in the Pacific, Mediterranean, and European war zones, including the Battle of the Bulge and the D-Day invasion. These African American service men and women constituted the largest number enlisted in the Army and Navy, and the first to serve in the Marine Corp after 1798.  

However, as members of the United States military, this Greatest African American Generation encountered unequal treatment and limited opportunities for promotion and transfer due to the practice of racial segregation adhered to by the U.S. military, as well as the nation. Despite the 1940 United States Selective Service and Training Act outlawing racial discrimination, African Americans were only accepted if there were openings in units and training facilities specifically designated for their “racial” category.  Since most U.S. bases did not have such additional areas that included housing, only half of the nation’s African American volunteers and draftees were actually inducted into the U.S. military during World War II. Those who were inducted usually served in large units whose members represented a wide range of skills and levels of formal education. All of them conducted their work assignments separate from white soldiers, received medical treatment from separate blood banks, hospitals, and medical staff, and socialized only in segregated settings. If they left their stateside bases, they often experienced hostility from local white civilian communities.

Moreover, the authority of African American officers was restricted to African American units only and, if there were white officers in these units, the African American officers were not allowed to have higher positions. In addition, pernicious beliefs of “race” often stalled the use of African American troops in combat units and excluded them from receiving recognition for their World War II service. It was not until 1993 that the first Medal of Honor was awarded to an African American World War II veteran.

Anna Woods, Women's Army Corps., 1943.  From the Afro-American Clubwomen's Project Collection, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries

About 4,000 African American women joined the Army’s Women’s Army Corps. While they often experienced racially-integrated instructional facilities, they were usually assigned to menial labor positions. However, one of these African American units served overseas as a postal battalion. They also served in limited numbers as nurses in the Army Nurse Corps and a few in the Navy’s WAVES.

The Double V Campaign

Double V campaign poster, The Pittsburgh Courier, ca. 1943

For the Allied Powers, “V” was the WWII symbol that unified their war effort to achieve victory for democracy over the tyranny of the Axis powers. But in the United States, “Jim Crow” laws and practices continued to deny African Americans their full citizenship rights, including equal opportunities for work, and equal access to housing, schools, and public facilities. 

Double V campaign buttons

A month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, on January 31, 1942, an African American resident of Wichita, Kansas, Mr. James G. Thompson, wrote a letter to The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s leading African American newspapers, suggesting “that while we keep defense and victory in the forefront that we don’t lose sight of our fight for true democracy at home.” In response, the Courier, supported by other African American newspapers, created the insignia which featured two Vs and described as double victory for “Democracy at Home and Abroad,” launching the Double V Campaign in 1942 in support of the nation’s war effort. Posters, emblems, and various displays featured two Vs.  The Double V slogan was adopted by many African American communities who used it to mobilize volunteers from their churches, organizations, and schools to engage in the War’s mass civilian efforts and support African Americans in the United States Armed Forces.

This World War II oral history project is sponsored in part by the Sandra Gautt KU Endowment Fund, which Professor Emerita Gautt established to honor her father, Sgt. Thaddeus A. Whayne, a member of the Tuskegee Airmen unit. It is part of the ongoing efforts of the African American Experience Collections to document life in the Kansas region.