African-American Soldiers’ Roles in World War II

I remember watching television one night with some friends, several years ago, and I saw the trailer for what many believed would be the biggest film of that particular summer. That film was “Pearl Harbor.” I was not prepared for the dazzling array of special effects that were unleashed, but the special effects paled in comparison to one unforgettable shot in the amazing three-minute trailer. As the bombing commenced, military personnel and civilians were seen scrambling for cover. Ear piercing explosions destroyed many of the ships, planes and weaponry. In the midst of all this, the camera panned to an African-American sailor behind an anti-aircraft machine gun, and he cried as he fired upon the Japanese bombers. I was shocked, silent and proud all at the same time, and a lump had found its way into my throat. I reacted in this manner because I know that Hollywood has major problems with historical accuracy in its movies, especially where African-Americans are concerned. As a former student of cinema, its history, and African-American history, I truly appreciated what those precious seconds meant as the camera captured Cuba Gooding, Jr. behind that gun. Soon, as a result of seeing this film, many of you will come to know, if you don’t know already, why this scene is so important to the history of this country.

The man behind the anti-aircraft gun was Dorie Miller, and he was not some character written into the script by the writers, directors or producers. He was considered by many to be the very first American hero of World War II. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, it was Dorie Miller, a mess man (cook) on the USS Arizona, who rose to the occasion. Coming up from the ship’s galley during the attack, Miller, who had no previous shooting practice due to the segregated nature of navy training, dragged his wounded captain to safety, commandeered the anti-aircraft gun on his own and shot down four Japanese airplanes before the Arizona sank. Miller was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism on May 27, 1942. The event was highlighted by the fact that it was pinned on his chest by Admiral C.W. Nimitz. However, this was not enough to make him a navy gunner. Racism had struck again. Miller later died in World War II during the Japanese attack on the Liscome Bay, an aircraft carrier on which he was still working as a messman.

The legendary accomplishment of Dorie Miller was absent from much of the text I read about World War II, from elementary school to high school, and it really pissed me off! It was only through my introduction to African-American history, during every semester I spent at Queens College, that I began to learn and appreciate the contributions that African-Americans made to this country during World War II. The more I learned, the angrier I got. I could not believe that preliminary education had denied me access to such a wealth of information and heritage.

While Hollywood and television showcased John Wayne, Tyrone Power, and George C. Scott as the military gods of the World War II era, nothing was conveyed to American audiences regarding the existence of segregated units, high-ranking blacks in the military, and the numerous racial riots on military bases that took place.

The Tuskegee Airmen, the first black pilots in the U.S. armed forces, flew their first combat mission in North America on June 2, 1942, and broke a barrier against blacks in aerial combat that the army had maintained since World War I. Moreover, African-American pilots amassed an excellent record in World War II. They flew over fifteen thousand sorties, over fifteen hundred missions, and shot down or damaged over four hundred enemy aircraft. Perhaps the most important contribution made by black fighter pilots was in escort missions with heavy bombers over Germany. They flew two hundred such missions without losing one American heavy bomber to enemy fighter aircraft! To this day, their accomplishments have not been embraced by America, at least to the degree that they should have been.

In December of 1944, in what became known as The Battle of the Bulge, the Germans overran Allied positions in a desperate last attempt to win the war. Faced with a shortage of white soldiers, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of the Allied forces, accepted a recommendation from General John Lee to take volunteers from black service units. As a result, more than five thousand blacks volunteered, many of which were non-commissioned officers who took reductions in grade to get an opportunity to fight the Germans. This is not taught in many of the classrooms across this country, past or present. See? That’s that bullshit! The list of African-American heroes from the World War II period is extensive, and the fact that so many of them have been left out of educational textbooks, magazines, television movies and major films about World War II is a national disgrace! These men, and women, chose to defend a country that did not respect or recognize them as human beings or children of God.

Military life, in World War II, was not immune to the horrors of discrimination. Segregation was a common practice within the services, and the Marines and Army Air Corps excluded blacks altogether. Blacks who did fight alongside white soldiers were often subjected to taunts and inhumane treatment, such as white soldiers urinating or defecating in the boots or bunks of black soldiers. In spite of these hardships, black soldiers held on to their dignity and defended America’s honor.

The great author and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, described it best twenty-seven years ago while speaking at Far Rockaway High School in New York, which I attended. He revealed how he was in a concentration camp with many other Jews who were dead or dying. The war had ended, and the Germans were fleeing the campsite. Wiesel stated, “We looked toward the gates, and they were being opened by these black men. We were frightened because we had never seen black people before, but when we realized they were American soldiers, we were elated. They cared for us until we could be safely transported. They were the first soldiers to free us, and I have never read one book that told of this incident. It is truly, truly sad.”

So, each Memorial Day, I salute all those who fought and died for this country, but I offer special acknowledgements to all the black veterans of the World War II era. I am a huge fan of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, but they must be called out for continuing the tradition of ignoring the accomplishments made by African-Americans during WW II. The two mega-stars highlighted how Private Ryan was saved, and posthumously saluted a band of brothers in an HBO series. If Director Penny Marshall could brilliantly, and I do mean brilliantly, capture the contributions made by Negro League baseball players in her film “A League of Their Own”, in just a two-minute scene, surely Hanks and Spielberg could’ve done the same for black soldiers. The Dorie Miller’s of the WW II era made black America stand proud and stand tall. This alone is reason enough for blacks to lift every voice and sing, and fight to uphold their legacies.

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