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Pearle Mack Jr. grew up in a fairly integrated tract of potato farms in Topeka, Kansas. Like many Americans at the time, he was shocked by the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in 1941 and wanted to do something to help his country. He came across racism for the first time when he tried to enlist in the United States Army and was placed in the segregated army of World War II with negligible leadership from black officers. He was one of many black soldiers who made a life in the armed forces and set out to prove that he could serve as well as any white soldier and deserved equal status with whites on the warfront and in the noncombatant society from which he came.
African Americans played a significant role in World War II. The African Americans who contributed to this storied war rejected biases from their society by surpassing many people’s expectations with the high standards to which they served their duty. The Tuskegee Airmen combatted racial discrimination and overcame limited opportunities by becoming one of the most highly regarded combat units of World War II. The Red Ball Express proved that they were fit for combat and were worthy of serving for the Allied troops by playing a leading role in the defeat of the Nazis. The injustice African Americans received when they returned from the war motivated them to fight for change leading to the Civil Rights Movement. The outstanding efforts of African American soldiers in World War II broke ground for racial integration in the United States military. The efforts made by these soldiers to prove themselves did not go unnoticed by American historians.
Colonel Eldridge Williams, who served in the military with the Tuskegee Airmen from August 1941 to November 1963, said a white doctor’s false diagnosis of an eye condition kept him from accomplishing his dream of being a pilot, though he became a navigator. ‘I think the story that has not been told is stories like mine in which the home battle that was waged… shall we say, helped open the door so that the unit could enter combat and demonstrate its capabilities and be successful,’ he said.
Colonel Herbert Carter said he joined the airmen because flying airplanes would stop him from being “cannon fodder” if he were drafted into World War II and that “it was better than being a private in the ranks”. He said the airmen should be noted for how they blasted the impression that blacks could not fly planes in war as false. Former Tuskegee University President Benjamin Payton said the airmen resembled the struggle of black Americans to be fully included in American society.
‘They retained their hope and faith in America despite the way it treated them,’ he said.
‘We dared not fail because people would say, ‘We told you you couldn’t do it,” said airman Charles Dryden.
‘Unlike most of their colleagues, these great airmen also fought an enemy of prejudice at home,’ said Senator Jeff Sessions.
When World War II launched itself into society, civil rights groups and the black press compelled the United States Army Air Corps, a precursor of the Air Force, to admit black aviators. A lawsuit filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People against the Pentagon persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to construct the program. The first aviation cadet class known as “The Tuskegee Experiment,” began with 13 students at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Alabama, about 40 miles east of Montgomery, in July 1941. Tuskegee University was chosen to host the training because it had a private airfield and provided aviation courses. Black people were not allowed to fly in the military at the time and the ‘experiment’ was to see whether they could pilot airplanes and handle heavy machinery. The airmen went on more than 15,000 combat trips throughout Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa, primarily to guard American bombers from hostile fire, without losing a bomber over the next four years. Nearly 1,000 pilots were trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field before its 1946 closing, after which the men from the all-black units were issued to an air base in Ohio. The airmen were sometimes known as the Red Tails because they painted the tails of their planes red. Carter said the airmen should be noted for how they conquered an environment that said ‘they didn’t have the ability, dexterity, physiology and psychology to operate something as complicated as aircrafts or tanks’. The black airmen’s response was ‘train me and let me demonstrate I can,’ Carter said.
‘We said the antidote to racism was excellence and performance and that is what we did’ said Carter.
The Red Ball Express was a predominantly African American truck convoy that performed as an indispensable supply route for American troops in Europe (Gass 2017). Red Ball is a traditional term used on railroads meaning “priority freight” (Wright 2005, 8). A long-haul supply system maintained by a provisional truck brigade was implemented after a lack of foresight and planning by Allied logisticians. The Red Ball Express was overseen by the Communications Zone Motor Transport Service under Colonel Loren Ayers. The Advance Section, Communications Zone Motor Transport Brigade, under Colonel Clarence Richmond, was responsible for scrounging and operating the trucks. The route initiated from the forward supply depots at Saint Lo and continued to a staging area in the La Coupe-Chartres area outside of Paris. Knowing the roads were unsuitable to weather heavy two-way traffic, the suppliers organized a one-way loop road, which was restricted to Red Ball traffic. The northern and shorter half of the loop was for the loaded vehicles, and the southern half was for the returning, empty vehicles. The Motor Transport Brigade limited the Red Ball Express of all but their most necessary trucks. The Red Ball Express began operations on August 25, 1944 with 3,358 trucks formulated into 67 companies. The Red Ball drivers delivered 4,482 tons that day causing the Motor Transport Brigade to double the number of trucks soon it gave to the unit. The Express reached its peak performance four days later with 132 companies, nearly 6,000 trucks, carrying 12,342 tons. Drivers traded places operating vehicles to keep the mission operating continuously.
The sense of urgency required by the mission spread throughout all the positions involved. This was read ministered by the considerable media coverage given to the Red Ball Express. Appreciating a level of media attention rarely granted to combat service support, the Red Ball units were painted as skilled drivers, speeding tirelessly on to deliver their cargo and the drivers wanted to live up to their image (Barnett 1993, 37). A list of regulations was presented to every driver, in an effort to keep command and conduct and implement safety measures such as mandatory breaks and speed limits. These regulations were almost uniformly avoided. Red Ball Express drivers hurried along; skipping breaks, meals, and sleep to meet their goal. These actions were diplomatically accepted by the leadership (Barnett 1993, 38). It was a vital mission which obliged every effort possible. The Red Ball Express delivered a total of 89,900 tons of supplies by September 5. The unit followed the Allied armies when Generals George Patton and Courtney Hodges turned their forces in different directions beginning at Paris. The Red Ball Express was demobilized on November 16, 1944 after 81 days of operation and having delivered a total of 412,913 tons of supplies. The zealous troops provided the First and Third Armies with 5,098 tons of supplies per day to strengthen the Allies in their defeat of the Axis. The Red Ball Express justified that modern logistical equipment and techniques could be beneficial by reinforcing offensive troops which would leave their lines of supply behind without them. The unit momentously bailed out operation planners in dire need of support after they destroyed railroads in France that the Allies could have used as assets when moving across France.
The presence of black troops in The United States military caused a white backlash of African Americans on the home front with mob violence. After World War II, northern cities became more segregated as blacks moved into urban areas and whites left for the suburbs. Areas such as the Levit towns in Long Island, New York, and Bucks County, Pennsylvania restrained occupancy for whites. Carter speaks of the chronic adjustment of being regarded as a soldier on base, then having that virtue snatched away once off-base, where they were ‘just another Negro in Alabama in the eyes of the civilian population’. Larrie Foster is a former soldier who captured a Japanese flag by capturing a Japanese colonel on the island of Moratai who surrendered without a fight. He felt disappointed when he did not receive a parade in his honor in his South Carolina home of Chesterfield (Horan 1994).
‘I don’t feel like we got a fair shake. Nobody knew about the exploits of the 93rd,’ he said.
‘This was one of the problems we black soldiers faced,’ retired school Principal Raymond Rorie said of segregation. ‘We were protecting our country when we didn’t have freedom ourselves’ (Horan 1994).
‘It was very upsetting to realize you have given precious time of your life for supposed freedom (in a country) that was still segregated,’ said former school Principal Gerson Stroud.
African Americans in the South relied on conventional tactics of patient negotiation with whites along with the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People triggering actions in the courts. White stubbornness to retain segregation led African Americans to commence direct action protest. They hoped non-violent, Christian-based protest would change white people’s minds about segregation. President Harry Truman passed an order in 1948 to desegregate the country’s armed forces after the black aviators helped allied forces win the war which eventually led to a racially mixed military. The Brown v. Board of Education decision to deem school segregation unconstitutional helped to bring about the Civil Rights Movement for African Americans. The Supreme Court deemed segregation on Alabama’s buses unconstitutional after blacks refused to ride buses in Alabama, curtailing the state bus industry’s profits. The Supreme Court ordered desegregation of the University of Mississippi in 1962. President Lyndon B. Johnson did not give up on producing political and economic gains for African Americans. With his determination, he passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These laws revolutionized as the Civil Rights Act cut off federal funds for schools and workplaces that discriminated. The Voting Rights Act implemented the direct federal registration of voters in the South. The Civil Rights Movement created openings for African Americans to serve in the military.
The Tuskegee Airmen claim that they have never lost a bomber in service, though, the credibility of this claim is doubted by some historians. The Red Ball Express is sometimes criticized for overworking their workers leading to increased accident rates. It can be argued that black service had little to do with the Civil Rights Movement. But the service of the first black officers rests in the minds of many American historians and should forever be cherished by African Americans all over the nation.
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