By Don Vaughan
institutional racism as well as the enemy, African-Americans have fought
throughout our nation’s history with honor and bravery, often making the
ultimate sacrifice in service to their country. Here are just a few of their
is estimated around 179,000 African-Americans served in the U.S. Army during
the Civil War, and another 19,000 served in the Navy. Perhaps the
best-remembered African-American regiment of that era is the 54th Massachusetts
Infantry, which comprised 1,007 black soldiers led by a white colonel named Robert
The 54th Massachusetts fought
well, demonstrating valor and bravery over several battles in South Carolina,
Georgia, and Florida. But there were horrific losses, too. On July 18, 1863,
just four months after the regiment was formed, Shaw amassed 600 soldiers for
an assault on Fort Wagner, S.C., which guarded the Port of Charleston.
Unfortunately, Union intelligence regarding the fort was faulty, and an
overwhelming force of 1,700 well-armed Confederate soldiers awaited them. The
result was a massacre. More than a third of Shaw’s forces were killed, wounded,
or captured, and Shaw, who led the charge, was among the first to die. Though
the assault was a failure, the 54th managed to inflict heavy damage and the
fort was abandoned shortly after.
On Memorial Day 1897, a statue by Augustus Saint-Gaudens
commemorating the 54th Massachusetts Infantry was unveiled on the Boston Common. The regiment
also was the subject of the 1989 movie Glory,
starring Matthew Broderick as Robert Gould Shaw.
369th U.S. Infantry
referred to as “Pershing’s orphan soldiers,” the predominantly black 369th U.S.
Infantry Regiment broke the color barrier as the first African-American
soldiers to man the front lines at the height of World War I. However, they had
to join the French Army to do it.
Gen. John Pershing attached the
360th to the 16th Division of the French 4th Army because he didn’t
want them fighting alongside white American soldiers. The war-weary French,
however, greeted the 369th with open arms. As part of the French 4th, the 369th
saw a total 191 days of combat, fighting so bravely their French comrades
nicknamed them Harlem’s Hellfighters.
Indicative of their valor on the
battlefield was an incident involving Pvt. Henry Johnson and Pvt. Needham
Roberts, who were manning a listening post in no-man’s land on the Western
Front when they were attacked by 24 German soldiers on a nighttime
snatch-and-grab mission. Both men were shot, Johnson three times. But he
quickly rose and fired his three-shot rifle, killing as many enemy soldiers. He
used the empty rifle as a club until it shattered, then grabbed his bolo knife
and savagely slashed at every German soldier within arm’s reach. Unable to
capture the feisty redcap from Albany, the remaining German soldiers finally
retreated but not before Johnson used his grenades to kill several more. For his
bravery, Johnson was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French military. Later,
the entire regiment was awarded the same. In June 2015, Johnson posthumously
was awarded the Medal of Honor (read more in “Selfless Courage”).
“The Hellfighters were pioneers,”
observes Stephen Harris, author of Harlem’s
Hell Fighters: The African American 369th Infantry in World War I. “They
paved the way for other black regiments and proved they could fight. It’s a
legacy that continues today.”
more about the Hellfighters in the February 2014 issue of Military Officer.
the morning of June 6, 1944, Allied forces stormed the beaches at Normandy,
France, in an effort to finally bring the ground war to Germany. It was a day
of tremendous peril, and in the thick of it was the 320th Barrage Balloon
Battalion, the only African-American combat unit to take part in the D-Day
Barrage balloons were huge, unmanned
inflatables anchored to the ground with steel cables. Their job was to provide
protection from low-flying enemy planes, either by snagging them with cables or
forcing the planes to fly at higher altitudes.
The 320th came ashore with the infantry early
on the morning of June 6, and its medics immediately started treating the
hundreds of casualties that lined the beach. One medic named Waverly Woodson
worked almost nonstop for 30 hours despite being wounded himself, finally
collapsing from exhaustion.
Once the beachheads were secure, the
men of the 320th deployed their barrage balloons along the length of the
Normandy coast, providing landing craft effective protection from German attack
planes. “[The balloons] confounded skeptics by their part in keeping enemy
raiders above effective strafing altitude,” reported Stars and Stripes.
Four members of the 320th perished
during the Normandy invasion, but the battalion got the job done. In a
commendation to the 320th, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote, “Despite the losses
sustained, the battalion carried out its mission with courage and determination
and proved an important element to the air defense team.”
The Tuskegee Airmen
the best-known group of African-Americans to serve during World War II is the
Tuskegee Airmen, which included pilots, navigators, ground crews, and others
and provided fighter support in North Africa, Sicily, and the mainland of
The 99th Fighter Squadron, which
later joined the 332nd Fighter Group, was the first black American flying unit
and the first of its kind to see combat. It deployed to North Africa in April
1943 and flew P-40s in defense of Allied shipping in the Mediterranean Sea, as
well as missions against various enemy targets in Italy. Its valor earned the
99th two Distinguished Unit Citations before it became part of the 332nd.
In 1944, the Tuskegee Airmen found
themselves escorting heavy bombers on raids deep into enemy territory for the
15th Air Force. Their planes — P-47s and, later, P-51 Mustang long-range
fighters — had red tails for group identification, which gave the squadron the
nickname Red Tails.
A total of 992 black pilots trained
in Tuskegee, Ala., between 1941-46, and 355 deployed overseas. The squadron
proved adept at flying almost any plane given to them and equally effective at
protecting the bombers in their charge, even shooting down a few much faster
German jets. Over the course of their service, the Tuskegee Airmen flew 1,578
combat missions (1,267 for the 12th Air Force and 311 for the 15th Air Force)
and 179 bomber escort missions. A total of 84 airmen lost their lives in combat
or accidents, and 32 were held as prisoners of war.
The Tuskegee Airmen received numerous
citations for their service, including at least one Silver Star, 96
Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, 744 Air Medals, and eight Purple
Postal Directory Battalion
American forces spread rapidly across Europe following the Normandy invasion,
the distribution of mail from home began to falter. By early 1945, warehouses
in England and France were overflowing with undelivered letters and packages.
It was the mission of the all-black, all-female 6888th Central Postal Directory
Battalion to sort through the mountains of mail and make sure it was properly
delivered. One general predicted the task would take at least six months; the
unit did it in three.
Led by Maj. Charity Adams Earley,
the 6888th comprised 824 African-American enlisted personnel and 31 officers
drawn from the Women’s Army Corps, the Army Service Forces, and the Army Air
Forces. Like most service personnel of color, they faced tremendous hardships
while trying to accomplish their mission, including forced segregation from
white female soldiers and inferior living conditions.
The women of the 6888th worked
eight-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Individual servicemembers
were tracked using nearly 7 million information cards that included serial
numbers so the sorters could distinguish between soldiers with the same name.
They played detective, searching for clues in letters and packages that were
improperly or insufficiently addressed. They also had the sad duty of returning
mail addressed to servicemembers who had died.
According to Beth Ann Koelsch,
curator of the Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project at
UNC-Greensboro, the greatest legacy of the 6888th was the advancement of women
of color within the U.S. military. “They were under an incredible spotlight and
had to struggle against a lot of prejudice,” she says, “but by all accounts I
have read, these women talk with great pride about their service.”
more about their story in “All-Black Female Battalion Made History.”
2nd Ranger Infantry
to the 7th Infantry Division, the all-black 2nd Ranger Infantry Company was an
elite Army unit that served in Korea between December 1950 and June 1951.
Though not quite as well-remembered today as some other all-black military
units, the 2nd Ranger Company played a significant role in demonstrating the
dedication and courage of black servicemembers in combat and, ultimately,
proving the value and importance of desegregation within the armed services.
After several weeks of training, the
2nd and 4th Ranger Companies reached Korea Dec. 29, 1950. The 2nd Rangers were
attached to the 7th Infantry Division and experienced combat quickly. They
participated in their first firefight Jan. 7, 1951, when 20 North Korean
guerillas encountered a Ranger roadblock near the village of Changnim-ni. The
unit also spearheaded an attack on the village of Majori-Ri and later aided a
company trapped by the enemy, losing eight of their own in the process.
On March 23, the 2nd Ranger Company,
attached to the 2nd Battalion, 187th Regimental Combat Team (Airborne), made
military history by becoming the first African-Americans to
a parachute assault in combat — an airborne attack near Munsan-ni known as
Operation Tomahawk. They successfully engaged the enemy several times over the
next four days, with limited casualties.
The valor of the 2nd Rangers is
confirmed by the number of merit citations the unit received: more than 100
Purple Hearts, nine Silver Stars, and 12 Bronze Stars for valor above and
beyond the call of duty.