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Citizen Soldiers

Jim Crow and Black Segregation

Converted for the Web from "Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army From The Normandy Beaches, To The Bulge, To The Surrender Of Germany" by Stephen E. Ambrose

In the popular World War II cartoon strip The Sad Sack, the character was a naive, confused, lazy, bumbling private, but happy enough and almost lovable. In real life, a sad sack was a miserable person. Perpetually unhappy himself, he tried to make everyone around him equally miserable. He was filled with hate -- for his officers, for the Army, for blacks, Jews, Italians, whoever. Whenever he could get away with it, he was a bully. He was a habitual liar. He disappeared when real work or fighting had to be done. Not only did he fail to carry his weight, he was a constant and serious drain on the Army's efficiency. At his extreme, the sad sack was a mean, vicious son of a bitch, without a redeeming virtue.

The worst sad sack of all was Jim Crow.

The world's greatest democracy fought the world's greatest racist with a segregated Army. It was worse than that: the Army and the society conspired to degrade African-Americans in every way possible, summed up in the name Jim Crow. One little incident from the home front illustrates the tyranny black Americans lived under during the Second World War.

In April 1944 Corp. Rupert Timmingham wrote Yank magazine. "Here is a question that each Negro soldier is asking," he began. "What is the Negro soldier fighting for? On whose team are we playing?" He recounted the difficulties he and eight other black soldiers had while traveling through the South -- "where Old Jim Crow rules" -- for a new assignment. "We could not purchase a cup of coffee," Timmingham noted. Finally the lunchroom manager at a Texas railroad depot said the black GIs could go on around back to the kitchen for a sandwich and coffee. As they did, "about two dozen German prisoners of war, with two American guards, came to the station. They entered the lunchroom, sat at the tables, had their meals served, talked, smoked, in fact had quite a swell time. I stood on the outside looking on, and I could not help but ask myself why are they treated better than we are? Why are we pushed around like cattle? If we are fighting for the same thing, if we are to die for our country, then why does the Government allow such things to go on? Some of the boys are saying that you will not print this letter. I'm saying that you will."

In ETO, many black soldiers were assigned to prisoner duty. It is the universal testimony of the German POWs interviewed for this book that they got better treatment from black than white guards, to the point that the POWs had a saying, "The best American is a black American."

Old Jim Crow ruled in the Army as much as in the South. Blacks had their own units, mess halls, barracks, bars -- State-side, England, France, Belgium, it didn't matter. There were no black infantry units in ETO. There were nine Negro field artillery battalions, a few anti-aircraft battalions, and a half dozen tank and tank destroyer battalions. Some did well, some were average, some were poor.

The 969th Field Artillery Battalion earned praise from Gen. Maxwell Taylor for its supporting fire during the defense of Bastogne. "Our success," Taylor wrote the 969th's commander, "is attributable to the shoulder to shoulder cooperation of all units involved. This Division is proud to have shared the Battlefield with your command." He put the battalion in for a Distinguished Unit Citation, which it received on February 5, the first Negro combat unit to be so honored.

Patton had not been eager to accept black tankers, because he fancied that black men did not have quick enough reflexes to drive tanks in battle. But when at the end of October the 761st Tank Battalion, the first Negro unit committed to combat, showed up assigned to the 26th Division, Third Army, Patton welcomed the black tankers warmly: "Men, you're the first Negro tankers to ever fight in the American Army.... I don't care what color you are, so long as you go up there and kill those Kraut sonsabitches. Everyone has their eyes on you and is expecting great things from you. Most of all, your race is looking to you. Don't let them down, don't let me down."

They didn't. The battalion spent 183 days in action. Every commander it fought under sent his commendations. It won one Medal of Honor and many Distinguished Service Crosses.

The Negro 827th Tank Destroyer Battalion, however, had a poor record, so bad that the Army almost disbanded it and many commanders refused to have it. The causes were familiar: untrained, with white officers who were the castoffs of other units, poorly equipped. Shortly after the end of the war Walter Wright, chief historian of the Army, commented that the real trouble was the inferior officers. Blacks had to have the best, Wright insisted, because "American negro troops are illeducated on the average and often illiterate; they lack self-respect, self-confidence, and initiative; they tend to be very conscious of their low standing in the eyes of the white population and consequently feel very little motive for aggressive fighting."

Why should they, Wright went on, when every black soldier knew "that the color of his skin will automatically disqualify him for reaping the fruits of attainment. No wonder that he sees little point in trying very hard to excel. To me, the most extraordinary thing is that such people continue trying at all."

It wasn't only that the whites wouldn't reward a black soldier who did his job well; those blacks who did strive were ridiculed by their fellows for doing so. Isaac Coleman was the second oldest of fourteen children, raised on a farm in Virginia. He had quit school at age fifteen to work; besides, there was no public high school for blacks in his area. He enlisted in 1941 and moved up rapidly "because I was ambitious and did my job the best I could. I was obedient and accepted responsibilities. Others called me 'Uncle Tom' and worse, and I had a few run-ins with black soldiers, but I was satisfied. I made Master Sergeant when I was twenty-years-old." That meant $140 a month, most of which he sent home.

Sergeant Coleman fought his way through Europe. He got back to Virginia in January 1946. "When I got home there was snow on the ground and a white fellow at the bus station gave me a ride home. My father came out barefoot and picked me off the ground. Daddy cried and we visited and saw everybody that night. Daddy had seven boys in the war, six overseas at once, and we all came home. I wouldn't have minded staying in the Army but my wife was a teacher and didn't want to quit, so I gave in. I bought a farm with the GI Bill."

Most black soldiers never got a chance to fight. For a few, an opportunity came during the replacements crisis at the time of the Bulge. Within General Lee's SOS were thousands of physically fit black soldiers whose jobs could be done by limited-duty personnel. Lee offered them an opportunity to volunteer for the infantry, then be placed in otherwise white units, without regard to a quota but as needed.

When SHAEF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Walter B. Smith read a circular Lee had put out, he stormed into Lee's office. Smith had been in charge of "negro policy" for the Army in 1941; he told Lee, "It is inevitable that this circular will get out, and equally inevitable that the result will be that every negro organization, pressure group and newspaper will take the attitude that, while the War Department segregates colored troops into organizations of their own against the desires and pleas of all the negro race, the Army in Europe is perfectly willing to put them in the front lines mixed in units with white soldiers and have them do battle when an emergency arises."

Breathing deeply, Smith went on, "Two years ago I would have considered this the most dangerous thing that I have ever seen in regard to negro relations."

"I can't see that at all," Lee replied. (Whatever his faults, he stood tall on this one.) "I believe it is right that colored and white soldiers should be mixed in the same company."

"I'm not arguing with that, one way or the other," Smith snapped. "But the War Department policy is different."

Smith couldn't persuade Lee, but he did convince Eisenhower to maintain an essential segregation in ETO: the Supreme Commander declared that Negro volunteers would be trained as platoons and put into the line on that basis.

At this point, Catch-22 took over. The Replacement Depots were not prepared to train platoons, only individuals. Individual replacements were badly needed in the all-black artillery and tank battalions, but the depots could train only infantry. There were 4,562 volunteers, many of them NCOs who took a reduction to private to do so. The Replacement Depots were not prepared to handle so many.

On March 1, 1945, the first 2,253 volunteers had completed their training. They were organized into thirty-seven rifle platoons and sent to the front, where they were distributed as needed to the companies. The platoon leader and sergeant were assigned from the company, and of course were white. With some exceptions, the platoons preformed well. A few were outstanding. In general, their performance was so good it led many officers who served with them to reject segregation in the Army of the future. If anything, the judgment was that they were too aggressive. In one case, three black soldiers used a captured panzerfaust to knock out a Tiger tank. They were rewarded with a week in Paris. Thereafter, there were many black soldiers seen stalking the enemy's armored monster with panzerfaust in hand.

Maj. Gen. Edwin Parker, CO of the 78th Division, said of his Negro platoons: "Morale: Excellent. Manner of performance: Superior. Men are very eager to close with the enemy and to destroy him.... When given a mission they accept it with enthusiasm, and even when losses to their platoon were inflicted the colored boys pressed on."

Jim Crow was on the run, but not done. In the last month of the war, the worry became: what happens when we move into barracks? It was unthinkable that blacks and whites would share the same barracks. In the event, that worry proved to be misplaced. After two months in an integrated barracks, a battalion commander in the 78th Division said he had no problems of any kind and explained, "White men and colored men are welded together with a deep friendship and respect born of combat and matured by a realization that such an association is not the impossibility that many of us have been led to believe.... When men undergo the same privations, face the same dangers before an impartial enemy, there can be no segregation. My men eat, play, work, and sleep as a company of men, with no regard to color."

There were other hopeful signs that the Army would soon be rid of Jim Crow. Yank magazine did print Corporal Timmingham's letter. A couple of months later, he wrote again. "To date I've received 287 letters," he said, "and, strange as it may seem, 183 are from white men in the armed service. Another strange feature about these letters is that the most of these people are from the Deep South. They are all proud that they are from the South but ashamed to learn that there are so many of their own people who are playing Hitler's game. Nevertheless, it gives me new hope to realize that there are doubtless thousands of whites who are willing to fight [Jim Crow]." Yank noted that it had received thousands of letters from GIs, "almost all of whom were outraged by the treatment given the corporal."

After the experience of World War II, by the end of 1945 the ground had been prepared for Jim Crow's grave. Chief Historian Wright concluded his wartime report on the employment of Negro troops with these words: "My ultimate hope is that in the long run it will be possible to assign individual Negro soldiers and officers to any unit in the Army where they are qualified as individuals to serve efficiently." That was done, under the command and leadership of the colonels, majors, captains, and lieutenants of ETO, who had seen with their own eyes. Within a decade, the Army had changed from being one of the most tightly segregated organizations in the country to the most successfully integrated.

Copyright © 1997 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

This text is from Chapter 14 of Stephen E. Ambrose's book "Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army From The Normandy Beaches, To The Bulge, To The Surrender Of Germany." To read another online chapter, "Expanding the Beachhead, June 7-30, 1944," click here. Click here for purchasing information from Amazon.

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