MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. — Many are familiar with the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, but they were not the first African-Americans to serve in the American armed forces. African-Americans have continuously served in the U.S. military since colonial times.
After the Revolutionary war began in 1775, the British offered to free any African-American slave who served with them, prompting Gen. George Washington and the Continental Congress to offer the same proposal. As a result, several thousand African-Americans served as Continental Soldiers, Sailors and Marines.
During the War of 1812, most states rejected attempts of African-Americans to join state militias. However, 500 African-Americans fought at New Orleans in late December 1814 and several hundred with the Navy.
At the start of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, wary of offending the slave-holding border states, prohibited African-Americans from enlisting. As the need for soldiers grew, the U.S. government lifted the restriction and began enlisting African-Americans. By April 1865, more than 200,000 had served in the Union Army and Navy and 25 of them had received the Medal of Honor.
During the Frontier Wars, African-Americans served in four segregated regiments and were known as the “Buffalo Soldiers.” They fought Indians and outlaws, garrisoned forts and protected settlers. By 1900, 13 more had received the Medal of Honor.
On Feb. 15, 1898, 22 African-American sailors died when the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, Cuba. The Buffalo Soldiers fought in Cuba during the Spanish-American War and five earned the Medal of Honor. African-American soldiers also accompanied the Punitive Expedition of 1915-1917 into Mexico.
During World War I, more than 367,000 African-Americans were among the 4.5 million Americans sent to Europe, of which 42,000 saw combat. The 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Hellfighters from Harlem,” served the longest time of any American regiment and earned the French Croix de Guerre as a unit, as did 171 members. One soldier eventually received the Medal of Honor.
By 1939, the Army had only 3,600 soldiers in the segregated Buffalo Soldier regiments out of 360,000 men and the Navy had several thousand, mostly as mess stewards. The Marine Corps and the Air Corps had none.
Between December 1941 and September 1945, about 1.3 million African-Americans served in all military services. More than 95 percent of African-Americans soldiers served in combat support units and always in segregated units. The best known were the truck companies, collectively known as the “Red Ball Express,” that transported supplies, food and ammunition 24 hours a day and seven days a week to the frontline troops after the July 1944 breakout from the Normandy beachhead.
The reactivated all-African-American 92nd Infantry Division fought in northern Italy from August 1944 until April 1945. The 93rd Infantry Division, activated in May 1942, saw limited combat in the Southwest Pacific. In late December 1944, after the German breakthrough in the Ardennes, some 4,500 African-Americans served as combat soldiers. One of them, Staff Sgt. Eddie Carter, Jr., posthumously received the Medal of Honor in 1997.
Between 1942 and late 1945, the Navy had a total of 150,000 African-Americans. They served at shore duty installations or harbor or coastal vessels and as mess stewards aboard the larger ships. By September 1945, the Navy commissioned only one African-American officer and African-Americans fully manned only one naval vessel. In the same period, the Marine Corps enlisted 17,000 African-Americans, assigned mostly to supply and depot units.
The most famous African-American unit of World War II was the 332nd Fighter Group manned by the Tuskegee Airmen.
The 99th Fighter Squadron, formed on March 22, 1941, entered combat in North Africa. By May 1945, the 332nd Fighter Group, consisting of the 99th, 100th, 301st and the 302nd fighter squadrons, had established an outstanding combat record.
The Army Air Forces had enlisted 145,000 African-Americans. In many places, they not only had to deal with the prejudices of commanders and enlisted personnel, but also the prejudice of the local communities. The 4th Aviation Battalion served at Maxwell Field, Ala., living in facilities that are now part of the Federal Prison Camp.
The African-American men and women who had served in the U.S. military services during the war, performed well in leadership and technical positions, demonstrating the illogic and inefficiency of the segregation policies in place at the time.
After 1945, these policies, racial prejudices of some base commanders and few promotion and career field opportunities for African-Americans in the military produced several base disorders. Investigators squarely placed the underlying cause of the disorders on the military’s segregation policy. As a result, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in July 1948, integrating the U.S. military services.