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.
During America's 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 perseverance.
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 emaciated inmates.
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), p. 58.
2. Katz, William Loren. A History of Multicultural America: World War II to the New Frontier, 1940-1963. Austin, Texas: Raintree Steck-Vaughn Publishers, 1993.
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.).
5. Wright, David K. A Multicultural Portrait of World War II. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1994.
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 American holidays.