For this Reading Room, I’m focusing on a truly remarkable book published in 2022.
“Half American: the Epic Story of African Americans fighting World War II at Home and Abroad,” by Dartmouth history professor Matthew Delmont recounts a largely untold tale of Black experiences in that conflict.
Although I am old enough to remember the war quite vividly-indeed I was in high school when it began and had just graduated when it ended- the history Prof. Delmont relates is a revelation to me. He chose the title “Half American” because that is how Black soldiers who volunteered or were drafted into the service described themselves: they could fight in the war but both at home and abroad, they were treated with condescension and downright oppression, not as full Americans.
Professor Delmont alternates chapters between accounts of Black soldiers’ experiences both in training camps in the U.S. and service overseas. Other chapters detail the hostility Black workers, both male and female, faced when they worked in war plants. In fact, Blacks had to fight for the opportunity to apply for work and when the factory doors were finally opened to them, the jobs were menial and low paying.
It’s hard to believe that Black workers with critically needed skills were relegated to the lowest paid jobs in defense factories because white workers refused to work side by side with them. Key factories that were turning out badly needed war materiel were literally shuttered sometimes for days because white plant owners and workers could not tolerate the presence of Black workers. Emotions boiled over with resulting race riots in cities like Detroit in the summer of 1944.
Equally disturbing are the accounts related by Prof. Delmont of the ill treatment Black servicemen (and women) received in training camps, often in the south. Even the mere sight of a Black serviceman in uniform would be enough to outrage the local population in small southern towns where many training facilities were located.
An especially fascinating part of this book relates the “unsung” heroism of
Black quartermaster troops who drove the trucks that supplied the troops overseas with food, fuel, and ammunition. After D-Day and the invasion of Europe, the “Red Ball Express,” as it was called, moved the tons of supplies needed to support the troops as they made their way from the landing beaches through France. Medgar Evers was one such soldier who contributed to the Red Ball Express as a cargo checker. While the 19 year old Evers was stationed in France, he became friends with a French family. He said “it was the first time in his life that white people had treated him like a full human being.” Evers thought of not returning to his home in Mississippi but of course we know that he did. His wartime experiences strengthened his resolve to fight white supremacy.
Notable in Prof. Delmont’s telling is the obstinacy of white commanders on all levels to credit Black men with the ability to become good soldiers. As we know, the Navy only accepted
Blacks for mess duty, never for a higher level of service. The Tuskegee pilots are famed as the first Black flying men but did you know that they had to fight for several years to actually be deployed? When finally they were given a chance, they succeeded and proved all the white officers wrong.
The book’s final chapter “Homecoming” is the hardest one to read. When the war ended in 1945 Black servicemen returned home but not to the adulation of the country at large. As the author points out, Black veterans returned to a country that disrespected their service and was openly hostile to them. Returning to normalcy meant a return to long-entrenched segregationist practices and denial of basic citizenship rights. Worse, there were heartbreaking instances of servicemen who were murdered in their hometowns. “White Only” signs appeared at American Legion and VFW posts as the question of racial integration was left for local posts to decide.
Most of us are aware that Blacks were largely denied the benefits of the GI Bill, thus foreclosing the opportunity to pursue education or to own a home.
Prof. Delmont ‘s research into this aspect of World War II is prodigious. Each chapter is richly end-noted and for me, detailed notes are important as a key to further reading.
Delmont is the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of History at Dartmouth College. A native of Minnesota, he earned his B.A. from Harvard and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Brown University.