“You niggers are wondering how you are going to be treated after the war. Well, I’ll tell you, you are going to be treated exactly like you are before the war; this s a white man’s country and we expect to rule it.”
-White New Orleans city official, speaking to returning war veterans and African-Americans raising money for the war effort
“As an individual, the Negro is docile, tractable, lighthearted, carefree and good-natured. If unjustly treated, he is likely to become surly and stubborn. He is careless, shiftless, irresponsible and secretive. He is immoral, untruthful, and his sense of right doing relatively inferior. Crimes and convictions involving moral turpitude are nearly five to one compared to convictions of whites on similar charges.”
-Army War College Report (1936)
“Men, you are the first Negro tankers to ever fight in the American Army. I would never had asked for you if you weren’t good. I have nothing but the best in my army. I don’t care what color you are, as long as you go up there and kill those Kraut sonsabitches. Everyone has their eyes on you and is expecting great things from you. Most of all, your race is looking forward to your success. Don’t let them down, and damn you, don’t let me down.”
-General George Patton, to the 761st, a segregated black tank battalion, before going into battle. However, that same afternoon, Patton wrote in his diary:
“The 761st gave a good impression, but I have no faith in the inherent fighting ability of the race.”
My Dear Readers,
In my last blog The Perfect Storm: Power, Privilege, & Fear of Black Skin, I defined the phrase “sleight of hand” as the deceitful craftiness of a cleverly executed trick where the movements of the trickster are barely noticeable. Within that context, I defined the trickster as the dominant group hiding in the shadows in silence while their anger, rage, and distrust is being misdirected towards African Americans via their assigned agents: the police.
2019 marks a significant time in my life. In early spring, I returned to France and retraced the steps of African American troops fighting in WWI. This summer, I went to the home of my ancestors, visiting Ghana, West Africa and stood at the “Door of No Return” at Elmira Castle, through which millions of kidnapped Africans disappeared, either becoming slaves in the New World, or dying on the way.
I write now from Berlin, Germany, where I have been researching the contributions made by African American troops during WWII. Psychological trauma arising from isolation, segregation, and abandonment are common themes that I have found in the experiences of African Americans fighting in segregated units on behalf of democratic principles denied to them at home.
During WWI, African American soldiers were not allowed to wear American uniforms or fight under the American flag. Instead, they had to fight under the French flag, and all of their supplies, weaponry, and uniforms were provided by the French government.
American General John J. Pershing wrote in his memoirs that he “lent” the two African American divisions to the French and simply forgot about them until after the war. However, Colonel William Hayward, the White commander of the 369th Harlem Hellfighters black regiment, states differently:
“Our great American general singly put the black orphan in a basket, set it on the doorstep of the French, pulled the bell, and went away.”
The two segregated combat divisions had to rely on the French for ground support, artillery barrages and air coverage. They served with distinction, suffering a 35% casualty rate. The 369th represented only 1% of the American forces in France, but held 20% of the front lines. These soldiers were among the first of Allied troops to cross over into Germany. Well respected by the French military, they received 180 individual awards of the highest French decoration, the Croix de Guerre.
Although the French gave its highest award for gallantry to African American soldiers on numerous occasions, no African American WWI soldiers were awarded the highest American award, the Congressional Medal of Honor. Instead, African American soldiers were forbidden to participate in the victory parade in Paris, and they were quickly shipped home to be forgotten.
It was not until the administration of President George H.W. Bush, 72 years later, that racial bias against African American soldiers who served during WWI was even acknowledged. An African American soldier, Corporal Freddie Stowers, was posthumously honored during the Bush Administration with the Congressional Medal of Honor.
During WWII, the American government, having learned from the mistake of forcing African Americans to serve under a foreign flag, sought to maintain the concept of segregation within the military by assigning them as “attached units” to major white military units. This allowed senior leaders to restrict the actions and activities of segregated units as well as to control or suppress the stories of their performance in war.
The Psychological Impact of Valor
The Congressional Medal of Honor is presented to Americans serving in the armed forces. This award, created during the Civil War, is the highest military decoration that can be awarded. The recipient must have distinguished themselves at the risk of their own life above and beyond the call of duty in action against an enemy of the United States or an opposing foreign force. Due to the nature of the medal, it is commonly presented posthumously.
By the end of WWII, 464 Congressional Medals of Honor had been awarded to Americans serving in armed forces. Of these, none were presented to African Americans. You can see the “sleight of hand” in the underlying message that is simultaneously sent to and informed by the dominant group’s stereotypical beliefs about African Americans:
- They did not serve in combat roles or if they did, they did not contribute in combat.
- They were not trusted by whites to fight in combat roles.
- They were either cowards or psychologically unfit to be trusted in combat roles.
Sleight of Hand Trick-The Denial of Heroes
Despite the information regarding the combat readiness and performance of African American troops serving under the French military during WWI, the American military during WWII took the following view:
- African Americans were inferior in intelligence and unsuited for military service.
- African Americans were emotionally unstable and vulnerable to cowardice and therefore unsuited for combat duty.
- If African Americans were to be utilized for military service, they should be placed in labor, support or service positions.
The US government, the military, the mainstream media of the day, and the entertainment industry all avoided, ignored, and denied the truth regarding the combat contributions of African Americans. There have been numerous news stories and movies that have featured stories about the American landings at Normandy, France and the heroics of American combat forces during the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium. Despite the fact that segregated African American units also fought in these major engagements, there is minimal or no mention of their contributions.
The only movie released about the segregated African American WWII units was Red Ball Express, released in 1952. The movie tells the story of an African American segregated unit delivering much needed supplies to support Patton’s quickly moving Third Army racing towards Germany. The movie is told through the eyes of a white officer (Jeff Chandler) with minor supporting roles given to black actors.
The story of the real Red Ball Express is an important one, as it tells of the contributions of African Americans during a critical time of the war. However, here is a sample of the “sleight of hand trick” at work. This unit operated 5,958 vehicles carrying 12,500 tons of supplies per day for 83 days. As important as it was, the movie reinforces the stereotype that the only contributions of African Americans in the war was in labor, support or service positions, disregarding African Americans serving in segregated combat units.
So what is known about African-Americans serving in segregated combat units?
There were many segregated African American combat units serving in the Europe and the Pacific during WWII. In addition to the Tuskegee Airmen, others include:
- The USS Mason—A US Navy destroyer that whose crew achieved the distinction of escorting six major conveys across the Atlantic without losing a single ship.
- The 4th Marine Division (Black Leathernecks)-a Marine Corps unit that suffered severe casualties fighting the Japanese on Saipan, earning a Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation
- The 761st Tank Battalion—a US Army battalion quoted by its commanding general George Patton as having “no faith in the inherent fighting ability of the race.” The 761st Tank Battalion was in continuous combat from October 31, 1944 to May 6, 1945. During that time they captured or destroyed 331 machine gun nests, 58 pillboxes and 461 armored vehicles. In addition, they killed 6,246 enemy soldiers and captured 15,818 prisoners. They liberated thirty towns and villages and two branch concentration camps.
The 761st Tank Battalion suffered a casualty rate of 50%. Members of the battalion received the following decorations:
- 296 Purple Hearts
- 8 battlefield commissions
- 11 Silver Stars
- 70 Bronze Stars
The Silencing & Denial of Heroism
The commanding officer of the 761st Tank Battalion requested that the unit and one of its members who was killed in battle be awarded the country’s highest honors, the Distinguished Unit citation and the Congressional Medal of Honor. General Patton, commander of the Third Army, and General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied commander who would later become the 34th President of the United States, denied both requests.
It was not until 32 years later, during the administration of Jimmy Carter, that the 761st Tank Battalion received the Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation for Extraordinary Heroism. It was 53 years later during the administration of Bill Clinton that Staff Sergeant Rubin Robinson Rivers of the 761st was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism and sacrificing his life to save his comrades.
In Service of Democracy: The Blindness of the Dominant Group
More than one million African American men served in segregated units during WWII. Serving with distinction did not prevent them from being exposed to the racism and psychological trauma they faced when returning home. Lieutenant Christopher Stureky, having won a battlefield commission and Silver Star during the war, shares the following experience:
“I stopped by an inexpensive store in uniform with combat ribbons and battle stars in full display. When I tried to order a hamburger, the white girl behind the counter said, “We don’t serve niggers in here.”
Following the war, African American veterans experienced numerous acts of violence stateside:
- Mobs in the South beat African American veterans who were still in uniform.
- In 1946 black veterans were lynched. One was shot and killed returning from voting.
- In rural Georgia, two veterans and their wives were dragged from their cars by a White mob and shot to death. Their bodies were found to contain more than 60 bullets.
- A WWII veteran was attacked by policemen in South Carolina and became blind as a result.
- African American veterans were denied entrance into veteran support organizations including the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans.
- African-American veterans were denied access to GI home loans, educational institutions and postwar job training opportunities.
Concluding Words-Dr. Kane
It is often stated that history is written by the victors. In the case of African Americans, they are victims and it is left up to the dominant group, who hides in the shadows, supported by the military, print media and cinema makers to hide stories of their heroism and misdirect generations of African-Americans to believe those lies.
This Sleight of Hand Trick as this relates to African American veterans of WWII continues to unfold to this day. In 2020, I will return to Belgium to explore the story of the murders of 11 African American soldiers captured during the Battle of the Bulge. This war crime was well known by American white military commanders but was not made public until recently. Even today, the story of The Lost Eleven remains unknown to the majority of the African American community.
The Sleight of Hand Trick when done successfully can have traumatic and psychological long-term impacts. As shown during WWI and WWII it was used to reinforce racial oppression and the forced subordination of African Americans while seeking to hold power, exercise privilege and exploit the fear of those who skin is dark, and is easily identified, increasing instances of psychological distress and physical harm.
To the many African-American men who have come and gone before us, I say thank you. To the men of today, the struggle against racism, oppression and discriminatory treatment continues. Despite all adversity and all that has been thrown at us, we are still standing. Death awaits us all. However, while we are here, we can either stand as men or live on our knees. If we chose to stand as men, our FAITH will see us through.
-Dr. Micheal Kane
Until the next crossroads….. The Journey continues ..