On November 11,
we will celebrate Veteran's Day to honor those Americans, both living
and dead, who have served with the United States armed forces during
wartime. The contributions of such people cannot be truly appreciated
until one realizes that the ranks of those who have served and died
are as diverse as this country is. Of the various ethnic groups, the
African Americans are no exception and, from the opening salvos of the
Revolutionary War to Operation Desert Storm, they have contributed
their fair share, frequently against a backdrop of segregation,
discrimination, and racism.
In the Revolutionary
War (1776-1783), 10,000 African Americans -- some of them slaves
-- served in the continental armies, participating in the defeat of
the British at several famous battles. In one case, a female African
American disguised herself as a man and served in the Fourth
Massachusetts Regiment. She was later cited for bravery. Black
Americans also helped defend American sovereignty in the War of 1812
and made up between ten and twenty percent of the fighting navy. On
January 8, 1815, as General Andrew Jackson met the British army
outside of New Orleans, six hundred Black soldiers in his ranks held
their end of the line under massive British attack, then surged
forward to help inflict a mortal blow on the enemy.
In the American Civil
War (1861-1865), the Confederacy declared that captured Black Union
soldiers would be hanged or pressed back into slavery. In spite of
that declaration, 186,000 soldiers of African descent served in 150
regiments of the Union army, making up about almost 13% of the Union
army's combat manpower. Another 30,000 were in the Navy. In four years
of fighting, it is believed that 37,000 African Americans died in
battle or from disease. Twenty Black soldiers were awarded the
Congressional Medal of Honor for their services in the Civil War.
In the Indian Campaigns
(1866-1890), African-American soldiers took part in many of the
hostilities and twenty of them were awarded the Congressional Medal of
Honor for service above and beyond the call of duty. Several years
later, the Buffalo soldiers of the 9th U.S. Cavalry Regiment fought
side by side with Teddy Roosevelt's celebrated Rough Riders in Cuba
during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Eight Black soldiers were
awarded the Medal of Honor for their role in that war.
participation in World War I (1914-1918), 367,000 Black Americans
served their country both at home and overseas. Eventually they would
comprise 11% of the troops that went overseas. The two thousand
African-American soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment served in
France along the Western Front. The 369th won the respect and
admiration of their French comrades for their tenacity in fighting off
incessant German attacks. The men of the 369th called themselves the
Black Rattlers, but their German adversaries, in recognition of their
ferocity, called them the Hellfighters. Suffering heavy casualties
after 191 days in combat -- more than any other American unit -- the
369th was awarded 170 medals by the French for their courage and
In the years preceding
World War II, Black labor battalions in the Army were assigned to
loading ships and general maintenance. When war finally came in
December 1941, most African-American volunteers were initially placed
into segregated Army units and denied overseas combat duty. According
to Ulysses Lee of Howard University, author of "The Employment of
Negro Troops," Black Americans "asked with increasing frequency for
the opportunity that they believed to be rightfully theirs in the
first place: the opportunity to participate in the defense of their
country in the same manner ... as other Americans." Under pressure
from African-American leaders and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the
military was persuaded to change its policy and, by the end of the
war, 500,000 African-American soldiers had been sent to overseas duty.
In all, 1,154,720 Black soldiers served in the armed forces, 909,000
of them in the Army.
At the Tuskegee
Institute in Alabama, a group of highly-talented, college-educated
Black soldiers attended a special flying school. In April 1943, the
graduates of this school, later known as the Tuskegee Airmen, crossed
the Atlantic into the war zone. Flying escort for heavy bombers over
European skies, the pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group flew 15,533
sorties in the course of 1,578 combat missions. The Tuskegee Airman
destroyed 261 enemy aircraft and caused great damage to the enemy on
the ground. After gaining widespread recognition for their exploits,
they received a total of 900 medals, including a Presidential Citation
for the group.
In the Battle of the
Bulge (December 1944), Nazi forces launched a fierce winter
counterattack and broke through the Allied defenses in the area of
Belgium and Luxembourg. In desperation, the American military
recruited and sent 2,500 black soldiers into the First Army's
counterattack to replace lost soldiers. According to Colonel John R.
Ackor, these hastily-assembled platoons of African-American soldiers
"performed in an excellent manner at all times while in combat. These
men were courageous fighters and never once did they fail to
accomplish their assigned mission."
The all-Black 761st
Tank Battalion fought 183 consecutive days with General George S.
Patton's army in Europe and was credited with killing 6,266 enemy
soldiers and capturing another 15,818. During the Battle of the Bulge,
the 761st "entered combat with... conspicuous courage and success." In
April 1945, the 761st Battalion liberated the Nazi death camps at
Buchenwald and Dachau, where they were greeted as heroes by the
According to the noted
author William Loren Katz, 71% of African-American troops in World War
II were confined to quartermaster, engineer, or transportation duties
and denied combat experience. However, many of these troops also
performed their duties admirably and conscientiously. Ten thousand
Black troops constructed the 1,044-mile Ledo Road, which connected
China with India and proved vital to the American war effort.
Operating in hostile territory, where they came under constant fire by
Japanese snipers and had to contend with pounding rains, disease and
attack by wild animals, the soldiers completed the road in 25 months.
There was literally a fallen soldier's grave for each mile of road.
In World War II, 3,902
African-American women answered the call of their country and enrolled
in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WACS); another 68 joined the Navy
Auxiliary (WAVES). During the Cold War years, sixteen African-American
soldiers received the Congressional Medal of Honor for duties
performed in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The exact number of
African-American troops who have served their country cannot be
determined with any degree of certainty. However, their record of
courage under fire was irrefutable proof of their loyalty to America.
|1. Chappell, Kevin.
Blacks in World War II. Ebony, Vol. 50, No. 11 (September 1995),
|2. Katz, William
Loren. A History of Multicultural America: World War II to the New
Frontier, 1940-1963. Austin, Texas: Raintree Steck-Vaughn
|3. Ploski, Harry A.
and Williams, James. The Negro Almanac: A Reference Work on the
Afro-American. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1983 (4th ed.).
|4. Time-Life Books.
African Americans Voices of Triumph: Perseverance. Alexandria,
Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1993.
|5. Wright, David K. A
Multicultural Portrait of World War II. New York: Marshall
Mr. Schmal is a senior editor
at a publishing company in Chatsworth, California. His hobby, and
passion, is that of a genealogist who specializes in
African-American Southern lineages as well as Puerto Rican and
Mexican lineages. He has written several articles about ethnic
contributions to American life, usually military contributions or
Copyright ©1999 by
John P. Schmal. Reprints require approval by the