True Stories And Grim Realities For Black Servicemen During WWII
Despite their numbers and their exemplary service, Black servicemen in WWII struggled with harsh realities and limited civil rights. They faced discrimination at every step; Black men were often determined to be unfit for combat and were constantly passed over for promotions. The racism was blatant - in some places, for instance, Black soldiers were denied entrance to restaurants that were providing food to German POWs.
Despite the grim consequences of serving in a world rife with prejudice, Black men and women continued to fight in the conflict with valor. But that fight wasn't easy, particularly for those unfortunate enough to be captured by either Japanese soldiers or members of the Third Reich. WWII changed the world for everyone, including African American soldiers. Their stories paint a picture of devotion to country, even when that country turns its back on you.
Hundreds Of Black Soldiers Perished In The Port Chicago DisasterPhoto: Fae / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Located north of San Francisco, Port Chicago was built to help keep up with the demand for supplies to be loaded onto ships. It was grueling and dangerous work and, like so many of the menial tasks of that era, it frequently fell to Black service members. The US military often provided Black soldiers with little to no training. So, with limited experience in dock work and munitions handling, over 1,400 Black men toiled in 125-man shifts under the expectation of loading 10 tons per hour per hatch. It was a wildly unrealistic bar; professionals had managed to load 8.7 an hour at best.
The manic pace set the stage for disaster. It struck on July 17, 1944, when munitions on the pier went off with a detonation that measured 3.4 on the Richter scale, shattered windows in San Francisco, knocked every building in the port to the ground, and sent debris rocketing up 9,000 feet in the air. The incident claimed the lives of 320 men, 202 of which were African American. The tragic incident accounted for 15 percent of all African Americans who perished during WWII.
SS Soldiers Terminated 11 Black SoldiersPhoto: US Major James L. Baldwin / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
On February 15, 1945, the bodies of 11 Black servicemen were found frozen under a light carpet of snow in Wereth, Belgium. They had apparently been outside for a month, and their bodies indicated a severe amount of harm. The men had suffered multiple blows to their heads with blunt objects, and additional physical harm was administered. It was clear the soldiers had been targeted by retreating SS soldiers, but their families back home were merely told they had fallen in combat.
It took 70 years for the truth to finally come out. The 11 soldiers from the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion had been cut off from their unit during the Battle of Bulge and sought shelter in a Belgian home. When SS soldiers stopped at the house, the men surrendered to save the family from trouble. They were marched off and struck down instead of taken to a POW camp. Their bodies were left by the locals for fear of reprisal.
Black Soldiers Were Used As Guinea Pigs
When people think of chemical experiments on human subjects during WWII, the Third Reich's horrific actions in concentration camps usually come to mind. But the United States also conducted experiments that would have made Germany's scientists proud, in which subjects were exposed to mustard gas and the chemical agent lewisite.
African American soldiers were used as guinea pigs, supposedly so government officials could see "what effect these gases would have on Black skins." The servicemen were led into gas chambers, where the noxious solutions were pumped in.
These tests were top secret; soldiers weren't even allowed to seek follow-up care for the harm they endured, lest they divulge sensitive information. Experiments were conducted on other groups as well, including Americans of Japanese or Puerto Rican descent. Scientists chose to use white soldiers as the control group.
Black POWs Faced Especially Harsh Treatment
Facing racism on the home front was hard enough. Overseas, Black POWs faced an even worse fate. Japanese and German soldiers were hardly kind to anyone not of their race. In prison camps and concentration camps, Black soldiers often succumbed to the harsh conditions and treatment.
That was if they made it to a camp at all, as many were systematically harmed or terminated before they even arrived.
Black Blood And Plasma Was RejectedPhoto: US National Archives / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Anti-Black sentiment seeped into every facet of life for African Americans during WWII, even in life-saving efforts like blood donation. The Red Cross operated under regulations that forbade the acceptance of blood taken from Black donors. Donations from Blacks weren't accepted until 1942, and then only on a segregated basis.
This occurred despite the fact that there was absolutely no difference in the blood or plasma.
German POWs Were Treated Better Than Black SoldiersPhoto: Hohum / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
In 1944, Corp. Rupert Trimmingham and several other Black servicemen were traveling from Louisiana to Arizona. During a layover in a small Louisiana town, they tried to find something to eat, but were told the only place they would be allowed was the back of a restaurant at the railway station.
While the men waited near the kitchen door, they saw two white American military policemen come into the restaurant, accompanied by German POWs. The MPs and the POWs were seated and served, and the scene outraged Trimmingham so much that he penned a letter to an army magazine:
Here is the question each Negro soldier is asking. What is the Negro soldier fighting for? On whose team are we playing? ... Are [the German POWs] not sworn enemies of our country? Are they not taught to hate and destroy all Democratic governments? Are we not American soldiers, sworn to fight and die if need be for this country? Then why are they treated better than we are? Why does the government allow such things to go on?