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Black History Month: Honoring the Past, Securing the Future

  • Published
  • Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute

This month, the Department of Defense pays tribute to African American men and women who changed the course of history and redefined the United States military.

To commemorate the 75th Anniversary of World War II, the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute released a presentation capturing some of the key contributions and sacrifices made by service members and those who served on the home front during that time. 

African Americans played an immeasurable role in the Armed Forces during World War II, serving bravely and with distinction from the initial attack on Pearl Harbor to the last days of the Pacific campaign.

Over 2.5 million African American men registered for the draft, and Black women volunteered in large numbers. They served with distinction, made valuable contributions to the war effort, and earned well-deserved praise and commendations for their struggles and sacrifices while serving in the Army, Army Air Forces, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, National Guard and War Department. Read below to learn more about their World War II contributions.

452nd Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion

The 452nd was an all African American mobile anti-aircraft artillery unit of the U.S. Army. Comprising fewer than 1,000 soldiers, including support staff, it was credited with having destroyed 88 German warplanes. The 452nd fought in nearly every major Allied land campaign in the European Theater of Operations, including Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes-Alsace, the Rhineland and Central Europe. The battalion participated in the Battle of the Bulge and was an intricate part of Gen. George Patton's famous rescue of Bastogne. On March 22, 1944, during one 24-hour period, the 452nd destroyed ten enemy planes while defending a bridge crossing of the Rhine River near Oppenheim.

Women’s Army Corps 6888 Central Postal Directory Battalion

The “Six Triple Eight” was an all-Black battalion of 824 enlisted women and 31 female officers. The battalion had a specific mission: to sort and clear a two-year backlog of mail for Americans stationed in Europe. Between the Army, Navy, Army Air Forces, Red Cross and uniformed civilian specialists, that amounted to seven million people awaiting their mail. The battalion’s motto was “No Mail, Low Morale.”

The battalion was commanded by Lt. Col. Charity Adams Earley – the first African American woman to serve as an officer in the Women’s Army Corps. By the end of the war, Adams was the highest ranking African-American woman in the military. Divided into three, separate, 8-hour shifts, the women worked around the clock, seven days a week. They kept track of seven million identification cards with serial numbers to distinguish between soldiers with the same names. They investigated incomplete addresses and returned mail addressed to soldiers who had been killed. However, these women did far more than distribute letters and packages. As the largest contingent of Black women to ever serve overseas, they dispelled stereotypes and represented a change in racial and gender roles in the military.

U.S. Coast Guard in World War II

In 1943, the U.S. Coast Guard undertook the federal government’s first official experiments in desegregation by sending African American officer candidates through its Coast Guard Academy-based Reserve Officer Training Program. By late 1943, they had assigned 50 Black commissioned officers and enlisted men to the Coast Guard-manned USS Sea Cloud.

The Coast Guard’s groundbreaking initiative set the standard for integrating the other U.S. sea services. By 1945, the Coast Guard had appointed three Black officers as ship commanders. In addition, five African American women enlisted to become U.S. Coast Guard Women’s Reserve members; they were the first Black females to don a Coast Guard uniform. African American WW II heroes received numerous honors and awards including the Bronze Star Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Navy Commendation Medal, Silver Lifesaving Medal and Purple Heart Medal. In addition, the Coast Guard recognized five African Americans who served in WWII as honored namesakes for future Coast Guard cutters. By the end of the war 5,000 African Americans had served in the Coast Guard with one of every five reaching petty officer or warrant officer levels.

Wereth 11

On Dec. 16, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, the Germans launched a furious offensive aimed at punching a hole in Allied lines. They concentrated their efforts on a wooded area near the Germany-Belgium border that was defended by an American division untested by combat. Supporting the 106th Division was the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion, an all-Black unit. Unlike the inexperienced outfit it supported, the battalion consisted of combat veterans. The 106th Division was overrun in what was one of the worst American defeats of the war. The unit was decimated. Eleven members of the 333rd escaped. For hours, they trudged through snow, carrying only two weapons. Exhausted and hungry, the men stumbled upon the tiny Belgian town of Wereth waving a white flag. Mathias Langer invited the men into his home. The men hadn’t finished eating when German troops arrived. On Dec. 17, 1944, the eleven soldiers of the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion were executed by SS troops after the artillerymen had surrendered.

The United States remains forever indebted to WWII veterans, who demonstrated selfless service and sacrifice in defense of global peace and security.