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'Half American' explores how Black WWII servicemen were treated better abroad

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. When you see movies about World War II and photos of the Allied campaigns against the Axis powers, the military depictions are almost always white. But more than a million Black men and women served in World War II, fighting at Normandy, Iwo Jima, and the battle of the bulge and served in support roles that were critical to the Allies' success. Historian Matthew F. Delmont is the author of a book about the Black American experience in World War II, which isn't limited to their contributions to the war effort. Delmont describes the discrimination Black Americans faced in the military and in civilian defense industries, and the brutality many Black American servicemen suffered when stationed near white communities that resented their presence. But Delmont writes that many Black Americans were energized and enlightened by their experiences in the war, and later became active in the Civil Rights Movement. Matthew Delmont spoke with Dave Davies last year. His book is titled "Half American: The Epic Story Of African Americans Fighting World War II At Home And Abroad." It comes out in paperback in January.

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DAVE DAVIES: Matthew Demont, welcome to FRESH AIR.

MATTHEW DELMONT: Thanks for having me.

DAVIES: So if we go to 1940, I mean, the United States is not in the war yet, but, you know, France, Germany are engaged in the conflict after the Germans invaded Poland. And Roosevelt really wants to get the United States to support the European allies here. And they - Congress organized the Selective Service System, a draft. And it's interesting that it included anti-discrimination provisions, but they didn't exactly work. I mean, what was the status of Black Americans who wanted to serve in the military in practice? How did it work out?

DELMONT: In practice, the Selective Service draft didn't work to the benefit of Black Americans because the military didn't have enough units in which to place Black draftees or Black volunteers. And so it was important to understand in the lead up to the U.S. entering World War II, Black newspaper editors, Civil Rights activists, have to actively fight just to make sure Black Americans have a chance to serve their country. It seems almost crazy to imagine that as America is preparing to join the Allies in fighting this massive global war that Black Americans actually had to push their way into military service. The entire military is segregated at this point. At the start of the war, the Marine Corps doesn't allow any Black Americans to serve, and both the Army and Navy are segregated. And so the first battle that Black Americans have to fight is really just getting their foot in the door to even have a chance to take on meaningful roles in the military. And it's these quotas that the military has that keeps a lot of Black Americans out.

DAVIES: Right. And because draft boards were actually run by local officials, no matter what the national law passed by Congress said, they could make their own decisions about who got to serve and who didn't, right?

DELMONT: Exactly. And what that meant when you turned things over to the local level, it meant you were relying on the local prejudices that existed in all parts of the country. So not only in the South, but in different parts of the Northeast, Midwest and West, when Black volunteers or draftees went into these draft boards, they were often turned away and told that there was no place for them in the military. That was true both before Pearl Harbor and even more troublingly, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, that there were dozens of stories of Black Americans going to their local recruiting branches and being turned away, that they got in line with hundreds of other Americans because they wanted to join the military to help defend the country now that the United States had officially entered the war. But these Black Americans were turned away because at the time, the military didn't have enough units to accommodate them, and they were just left dumbstruck 'cause they're asking what's wrong with our service? What's wrong with our patriotism that we can't defend our country?

DAVIES: And they didn't have enough units to accommodate them, because then you had to have an all-Black unit to bring them into because the military was segregated. Did it remain the policy throughout the war that - you know, that there were white divisions and Black divisions?

DELMONT: It did. With very, very few exceptions, military segregation was maintained throughout the war, and it wasn't until 1948, when Truman signs an executive order that the military finally takes steps towards desegregation. And the thing that's kind of crazy making as a historian to look back at this is that there was no good military reason to have racial segregation. In fact, it was the exact opposite that it made a huge amount of logistical work for all branches of the military to have to do essentially everything in duplicate. They had to create separate units. They had to do separate barracks, separate eating facilities, separate recreation facilities. The only reason the military maintained this racial segregation during the war was to appease white racial prejudice. There was no strategic or tactical reason to do it.

DAVIES: You know, African Americans wanted to get into combat roles much sooner than they were able to. There was tremendous resistance in the military, but hundreds of thousands served in support roles in engineering units, in support and logistical units. You make the point that this was really critical stuff. Tell us about this.

DELMONT: So I think often when we think about World War II, we think only about the frontline fighting troops. But in reality, that was only about 10% of the entire military. Particularly for Black Americans, the lion's share of their service was in supply and logistical roles. And it actually turns out that's really important to trying to fight and win a global war. And so one of the arguments I try to make in the book was that World War II wasn't just a battle of strategy in will, it was a battle of supply. And I think the best way to understand that is thinking about something like D-Day. D-Day just stood for day of the invasion. There was D-Day: Plus One, D-Day: Plus Two. And in the weeks and months after, the Allies had to transport huge numbers of men and huge amounts of material across the channel and then through France to keep up with the armies as they were pushing into Germany.

By and large, it was Black troops that did that work to move those supplies. There were Black port troops across the channel who loaded the ships that moved the goods across the channel into Normandy and other ports in France. And then it was Black units like the one Medgar Evers was in that unloaded those ships and then loaded them onto trucks. The truck drivers who moved those goods were part of a truck convoy called the Red Ball Express, 75% of whom were Black truck drivers. These truck drivers were absolutely crucial to the war effort because they moved 400,000 tons of ammunition, food and other supplies all across France and the European theatre. Without that effort, it would have been impossible for Allied troops to move, shoot or eat.

DAVIES: Well, let's talk about African American combat units. I mean, probably the most famous is the Tuskegee Airmen. These were people who were trained military pilots. They overcame a lot to get access to the training. And eventually, the 99th Fighter Squadron was trained and ready in 1942, but it took a while for them to get missions. Why?

DELMONT: The Tuskegee Airmen - the - an experiment of training Black pilots at Tuskegee starts in 1941. That first cohort arrives there, but they have to train for nearly two years before they have a chance to deploy to the Mediterranean in the spring of 1943. So whereas white units - white pilots are training for six weeks, eight weeks before they deploy, it's nearly two years of consistent training in Alabama before the Tuskegee pilots have the same opportunity. Part of what takes them so long is first, they need to build up enough numbers to have a full fighter squadron, but then they still face resistance from white commanders within the Army Air Corps who are not convinced that Black pilots can do the job. And so they're reluctant to actually deploy this Black unit even though they've been trained and they've had, at that time, more training than most white pilots have. And so the - when you follow the story of the Tuskegee Airmen on a month-by-month basis, it's amazing what they had to overcome just to get the opportunity to serve in combat.

DAVIES: And when they got in the air, how did they do?

DELMONT: They did extremely well. They first had a chance to fight in the Mediterranean in 1943. And even though they perform well, they're initially tasked with accompanying bombers on runs to hit key Axis targets in the Mediterranean. Even though they perform well in those missions, then they have to deal with their primary white commander, who tries to undercut them in his after-action report. So in his report, he says that they weren't aggressive in combat, that they didn't have what it takes to be fighter pilots. And he tries to get them assigned to shore patrol rather than to combat. This ends up exploding in the media. Time and Newsweek pick up the story and really reprint the claims of the white commander. And then the Black press - they come to the defense of the Tuskegee Airmen and say that these pilots have trained and they need to have an opportunity to continue to prove themselves.

There's a series of back-and-forths over the summer of '43, and then eventually the Tuskegee Airmen have another opportunity to be in combat later that summer. And there, after finally having a chance to shoot down Nazi planes, it becomes clear to all members of the Air Corps that the Tuskegee Airmen do have what it takes, and they are able to push open that door to Black service in the Air Corps.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Matthew Delmont. He's a historian, and his new book is "Half American: The Epic Story Of African Americans Fighting World War II At Home And Abroad." We'll be back after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with historian Matthew Delmont. His new book describes the experience of Black Americans in World War II. It's titled "Half American: The Epic Story Of African Americans Fighting World War II At Home And Abroad."

Well, when the war was over, how were returning Black veterans treated when they came home?

DELMONT: One of the hardest parts about writing this book was reading these accounts of Black veterans and the kind of disrespect they were shown when they returned to the country. They frequently described getting off ships and being directed, being immediately segregated as soon as they left the ship. The white troops were pointed one way, and Negro troops were pointing the other way, and often they would use racial epithets to point Black troops in that direction. They described having no parades to greet them when they got back and being routed through only the Black section of town, being almost treated as though they were convicts when they return to the country.

And then there were numerous examples of violence against Black veterans that - at least a dozen Black veterans were killed or attacked, some while still wearing their military uniforms, in part because the white communities they often return to were threatened by Black veterans in the service. They recognized that these veterans were going to come back and be leaders in the Civil Rights Movement. In that context, the military uniform and the service of Black veterans was viewed as extremely dangerous, and it led to extremely hostile treatment for a lot of veterans when they returned home.

DAVIES: Yeah, there's one point where you list by name 15 separate cases of Black veterans who were murdered by white men, in many cases police officers. And there were some cases where - I think you said relatives advised returning Black servicemen, don't wear your uniform. Put on some overalls, right?

DELMONT: The treatment was terrible. And trying to recount those stories is - it's harrowing even today to think about that. These men had fought for their country. They were wearing the uniform of their country. They came home, and what you described - they had to change out of that uniform to work clothes, into overalls, so that white townspeople wouldn't attack them while they were wearing their uniform. It's almost mind-boggling to think about, but that's the threat that a lot of white Americans saw when they looked at a Black veteran in uniform. They saw this as something that was almost like a red flag waved in front of a bull that was going to engender such feelings of animosity and anger. I think it reveals how deeply divided America was at the end of the war.

DAVIES: Most people can't name many pieces of congressional legislation, but the GI Bill that was enacted by Congress after World War II is widely remembered as an enormously influential act that helped build America's middle class by providing funding for college and vocational training and low-interest home mortgages. The bill prohibited outright discrimination, right? But Black veterans ended up being treated differently.

DELMONT: They did. And if you were to look at the language of the GI Bill, it never explicitly says Black veterans are going to be discriminated against. But everyone at the time understands that when this legislation is crafted, Southern segregationist Democrats have a really key role in determining how it's going to be deployed. And so they make sure that states are controlled - that states control how these GI Bill benefits are going to be distributed. And it's clear to everyone that that means that discrimination is going to be baked into the GI Bill. And that's what happens in practice. So whereas white veterans are able to use this access to home loans, business loans and college tuition benefits to become part of the middle class and then be able to pass on those benefits to their family, by and large, Black veterans are excluded from that.

To cite just a couple of examples from it, in Mississippi, only two of more than 3,200 VA-guaranteed home loans issued in 1947 went to Black borrowers. And things weren't much better up North. Of 67,000 mortgages that were insured by the VA in New York and northern new Jersey suburbs in 1947, fewer than a hundred went to Black people. Nationally, by 1950, white veterans had received nearly 98% of these VA-guaranteed loans. And so it had this extraordinarily detrimental impact on the ability of Black veterans to move into the middle class and to accumulate wealth.

DAVIES: You know, this might be a point to talk about the connection between the sociological changes that came with the war and building up the war effort and the Civil Rights Movement that would come in the years after the war. This experience had an impact; didn't it?

DELMONT: Absolutely. The Civil Rights Movement - the groundwork for it had been laid in the decades before World War II. But World War II was really an accelerant. It forced Black Americans to recognize that the kind of discrimination they encountered was something that they could and should organize to fight against. The infrastructure for that fight was really laid during the war. So the NAACP at the start of the war is a relatively small organization. But by the end of World War II, it has more than 450,000 members and a thousand branches all over the country.

Much of that work is credited to Ella Baker, who's a pioneering grassroots activist. Her methods of organizing were to get picked up by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, in the 1960s, and then even later by Black Lives Matter activists in the past years. But what she does is she tours all across the country talking to local Black communities, talking to everyday people about the importance of working together and organizing to fight for the issues that matter to them in their communities. And so that's where you see some of the most important initial steps to fight for voting rights and fight against school segregation, fight against job discrimination.

Speaking even more largely, the kind of things that the war is about, freedom and democracy, help to fuel demands of Black veterans and citizens after the war. And so that whole generation of Black veterans who fought in the war, they come back and start fighting for civil rights. As one veteran put it, they went from fighting in the European theater of operations to fighting in the Southern theater of operations.

DAVIES: And I'm sure they'd had experiences where, you know, if they might have grown up in a rural area of the South, where whites were all of one mindset about race relations, they'd had broader experiences that made them realize

it doesn't have to be this way.

DELMONT: Exactly. So one of the consistent stories that Black troops describe is when they went to Europe, their treatment and experience talking to white people in Great Britain and in France was entirely different than their experience with white Americans in places like Mississippi and Alabama. They felt like they were treated as equals for the first time.

So Medgar Evers, the famous civil rights activist, he's only 19 when he ends up in Normandy, just days after the D-Day invasion. As his unit is pushing through France, he has a chance to spend some time with a French family. And he says it's the first time he's ever been treated as a full human being by a white person. And it opens his eyes to what's possible. And so when he goes back to Mississippi, he believes that a different kind of world is possible, a different way of interacting across racial lines is possible. And that was true for thousands of Black troops who served in the European theater.

DAVIES: You know, you write that the story that you tell in this book matters not just because it's important to set the record straight, but because it will help us to understand and navigate the present and future. You want to explain what you mean?

DELMONT: The thing I tell my students all the time is that the stories we tell about the past matter. And I think if we only tell very simplistic stories about World War II, if we only talk about it as a good war and only talk about this idea that America was unified in some way, that doesn't do justice to the reality of what the country was actually like at that time period. If we can reckon honestly with this history of World War II, the fact that the military was segregated, the fact that Black Americans experienced intense racism both in the military and at home across the country and that they organized the fight for civil rights, I think we'd be better positioned to understand why we're still fighting some of these battles today. Some of these issues regarding voting rights and regarding police brutality, these are things that were front-page issues in the 1940s during the war. And we have to remember that as part of the history of World War II.

And the other piece that's important is that the experience of Black veterans is - makes clear that patriotism and dissent have always been intertwined. And I think sometimes it's easy today to think about those as being entirely separate beliefs - that either one is patriotic, or they're dissenting. That's never been true for a lot of Black Americans. And it certainly wasn't true for Black veterans. Black veterans fought for the country, and many of them identified as being deeply, deeply patriotic. But for them, that meant that you also had to demand that America be a country worth fighting and dying for. And so the sense that patriotism and dissent need to be seen together is a really important one that I don't think comes across clearly enough in our contemporary political discourse.

DAVIES: Well, Matthew Delmont, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DELMONT: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me.

MOSLEY: Historian Matthew Delmont speaking with Dave Davies last year. His book "Half American" will be published in paperback in January. Coming up, a review of the film "The Killer." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.