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Ethnic minorities in the US armed forces during World War II

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Ethnic minorities in the US armed forces during World War II

Ethnic minorities served in the US armed forces during World War II. All citizens were equally subject to the draft. All minorities were given the same rate of pay. The 16 million men and women in the services included over 1 million blacks, along with 10,000 to 20,000 Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, American Indians, and Filipinos. About 50,000 Puerto served as well as about 250,000 to 500,000 other Hispanics. Group totals for European ethnic groups were not tabulated. They were released from service in 1945-46 on equal terms, and were eligible for the G.I. Bill and other veterans benefits on a basis of equality. Many veterans, having learned organizational skills, and become more alert to the nationwide situation of their group, became active in civil rights activities after the war.



Hispanic Americans, also referred to as Latinos, served in all elements of the American armed forces in the war. They fought in every major American battle in the war. Between 250,000 and 500,000 Hispanic Americans served in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II, out of a total of 16,000,000. Most were of Mexican or Puerto Rican descent. They constituted 2.3% to 4.7% of the total who served. The exact number is unknown as, at the time, Hispanics were not tabulated separately, but were generally included in the general white population census count. Separate statistics were kept for African Americans and Asian Americans.

Possible reasons for ethnic minority participation

The participation of ethnic minorities in the US armed forces during World War II highlighted an inconsistency in American ideology at the time. The United States invaded Europe to fight against Hitler’s Nazi regime and its idea that there is an Aryan master or superior race, while perpetuating racism at home, some minorities believed. These soldiers and sailors were aware of this perceived double standard, and thus began the Double V campaign for a "Double Victory": a victory against Fascism abroad, and a victory against racism at home. The black soldiers fought for equal citizenship and better job opportunities. W.E.B. Du Bois declared that in order to win World War II, we must also win the “War for Racial Equality” at home.

As the enlistment statistics below demonstrate, some men were drafted, others enlisted voluntarily. Ethnic minorities gave many patriotic reasons for wanting to participate in the War effort. For many, it was an exciting role and essential to identify with one's pride and courage. For some, fighting in the war was a way to prove their patriotism and honor their love for their country. Those who fight for this reason considered themselves Americans, independently of race, and thus felt obligated or proud to fight for their country. Others took a strategic approach, serving in the U.S. armed forces with the belief that once they returned as veterans the U.S. would have to do away with racial discrimination and segregation. Others still recognized the opportunity to achieve financial security for their families; jobs in the armed forces could provide them with steady incomes when they were often excluded from jobs in the defense industries and trade unions at home. Women were not drafted, but they enlisted with the same motivations as the men. Japanese Americans who are US citizens volunteered in large numbers, especially in Hawaii. The Cuban-American community, based in Florida, saw military services and opportunity for adventure, patriotism and financial aid to their family.

Alleged racial discrimination

Whatever their reasons for joining, they all faced further discrimination in the U.S. armed forces. At the start of the War, all branches of the U.S. military were segregated. President Harry S. Truman ordered the end of military segregation with his Executive Order 9981 in 1948, but racial discrimination and segregation continued in the U.S. armed forces through the Korean War.

African American soldiers and sailors were banned from fighting on the front lines, and were assigned menial tasks in place of positions in combat. However, some African Americans escaped this fate. In some cases of emergency or shortage, African Americans were brought to the front lines like during the Invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. One mess-attendant Dorie Miller during the Attack on Pearl Harbor left his assigned station to fire at the attacking planes. Some special African American units, such as the Tuskegee Airmen, also fought in combat.

Many African-Americans wrote or otherwise described the great disparities in treatment between themselves and white soldiers. Some of these disparities included receiving fewer provisions and poorer quality gear, and struggling with gross disorganization in command and instruction. In letters to his girlfriend back home, one African American soldier named Jim Dansby described, “the colored here in camp seem to be neglected to a certain extent. We are poorly organized,” and “I am pretty much disgusted. I don’t think they’re treating us right.” Additionally, there were often racial tensions between different ethnic minority groups within the armed forces. Beyond these, African Americans and other ethnic minority servicemen had to undergo their training in communities run by Jim Crow laws, enforced by local police. Dansby also described events of racial violence in the town where he trained at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, and the effect such events had upon his psyche: “Honey I am telling you I’ll be glad when I get away from this place. A soldier got killed in town last nite, also the nite before. The one that was killed the nite before was found by the railroad tracks with his head cut and arm almost cut off. These soldiers down here are really bad…so anything liable to happen.”

After the conclusion of the War, African Americans were also prohibited from receiving many military awards and honors, though some were eventually recognized up to fifty years after serving.

Statistical information

The following passage from pages 187-190 of Selective Service and Victory: The 4th Report of the Director of Selective Service (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1948) represents the best statistical information available to the United States Army Center of Military History to answer questions about the participation of various minority groups. Note which of these statistics cover those minorities drafted into the armed forces and which include personnel who voluntarily enlisted. Statistics are difficult to compile since contemporary classifications and the Army's interest in data rarely match modern interests.

Minority groups

Another special problem of great importance in Selective Service operations was the mobilization of black ("Negro") registrants and other minority groups of this nature. The main difficulty here was securing the induction of men who were found (1) to be available by the System and (2) to be qualified by the armed forces physical examination. There were, of course, other problems as evidenced by the following treatment of the matter for the period extending from July 1, 1944 through December 31, 1945.

One million African-American inductions

Blacks were an important source of manpower for the armed forces in World War II as is shown by the fact that a total of 1,056,841 Negro registrants were inducted into the armed forces through Selective Service as of December 31, 1945. Of these,

  1. 885,945 went into the Army,
  2. 153,224 into the Navy,
  3. 16,005 into the Marine Corps, and
  4. 1,667 into the Coast Guard.

These Negro inductees made up:

  1. 10.9 percent of all registrants inducted into the Army (8,108,531),
  2. 10.0 percent of all inductions into the Navy (1,526,250),
  3. 8.5 percent of all Marine Corps inductions (188,709) and
  4. 10.9 percent of all Coast Guard inductions (15,235).

Thus Negroes, who constituted approximately 11.0 percent of all registrants liable for service, furnished approximately this proportion of the inductees in all branches of the service except During the period July 1, 1944-December 31, 1945, 141,294 Negroes were inducted, comprising 9.6 percent of all inductions (1,469,808) therein. Of this number:

  1. 103,360 went into the Army, which was 9.1 percent of all Army inductions (1,132,962).
  2. The Navy received 36,616 Negroes, or 11.6 percent of its inductees (316,215).
  3. The 1,309 Negroes going into the Marine Corps were 6.4 percent of Marine Corps inductions (20,563).
  4. Only 9 Negroes were inducted into the Coast Guard, but this was 13.2 percent of the inductees for this branch of service (68).

The somewhat lower proportion of Negro inductions during this period was principally due to the proportionately lower calls made upon Selective Service for Negro registrants. The Negro call for 18 months was only 135,600, or 8.3 percent of the total call (1,639,100).

Inductions of other minority groups

Inductions into the Army of Selective Service registrants from other racial and nationality groups up to December 31, 1945, included:

  1. 13,311 Chinese,
  2. 20,080 Japanese,
  3. 1,320 Hawaiians,
  4. 44,000 American Indians,
  5. 11,506 Filipinos, and
  6. 51,438 Puerto Ricans.

The 13,311 Chinese Americans Who were drafted comprised about 22% of all adult Chinese men. An additional several thousand volunteered for service. One in four served in the Air Force.

Counting enlistments and those in the Enlisted Reserve Corps, a total of 24,085 Japanese Americans had either enlisted or been inducted into the Army by December 31, 1945. Similar statistics are not available for the naval services. Also by June 30, 1945, a total of 125,880 aliens of various nationalities had enlisted or been inducted into the Army and Navy. The increased proportion of inductions of Japanese-Americans during the two 6-months periods from July 1, 1944, to June 30, 1945 is indicated in the first table. Beginning January 14, 1944, registrants who were natural-born United States citizens of Japanese extraction or parentage were subject to induction in the Army after the War Department had determined in each case that the registrant was acceptable.

African American enlistments

From December 1942 until VJ-day there were relatively few enlistments into the armed forces as restrictions against the direct recruiting of men in the age group acceptable for service (18-37) were in effect. There were, however, 483,605 other enlistments into the Army and Navy during the period July 1, 1944, to June 30, 1945, but only 1.3 percent were African Americans. Although African Americans constitute approximately 11 percent of the population, aged 18 through 37, only 0.8 percent of Army enlistees and 1.4 percent of Navy enlistees during the period July 1, 1944, to June 30, 1945, were of that race. The reasons why relatively few Negroes enlisted during World War II were numerous. The principal one, however, was the severe restrictions placed against African American enlistments by the armed forces, which, in some periods, amounted to complete prohibition.

Army inductions by race, July 1, 1944-December 31, 1945 United States and Territories

Accumulative to June 30, 1944 July–December 1944 January–June 1945 July–December 1945 Accumulative to December 31, 1945 All Races Number 7,041,087 393,392 518,127 272,747 8,225,353 Percent 100 100 100 100 100 White Number 6,139,589 348,060 457,460 236,675 7,181,784 Percent 87.2 88.5 88.3 86.7 87.3 Negro Number 797,444 30,882 46,123 27,447 901,896 Percent 11.3 7.8 8.9 10.1 11.0 Japanese Number 11,260 3,483 2,933 2,404 20,080 Percent 0.2 0.9 0.6 0.9 0.1 Puerto Rican Number 32,344 8,109 8,005 2,980 51,438 Percent 0.5 2.1 1.5 1.1 0.6 Others Number 60,450 2,858 3,606 3,241 70,155 Percent 0.8 0.7 0.7 1.2 0.9


Ethnic minorities in the US armed forces during World War II Wikipedia