The National WWII Museum offers a variety of opportunities to travel in the footsteps of those who fought. This blog is part of a series devoted to an April 2015 trip which brought Museum staff and volunteers, to the scenes of the Battle of the Bulge. One of the largest and costliest battles the US Army would fight, the Bulge was Hitler’s last desperate attempt to stop the Allied drive in western Europe in the cold winter months of December 1944 and January 1945. Nearly one million soldiers were engaged during the six-week battle, resulting in 67,000 American and more than 100,000 German casualties.
Eleven of the 67,000 casualties were African American soldiers, members of the segregated 333rd Field Artillery Battalion (FAB) who were murdered by the 1st SS Division against the rules of the Geneva Conventions for the treatment of prisoners of war. Seven of the Wereth 11 are buried at Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery which our group visited on Day 1 and which is the subject of the first blog post in this series.
Wereth, Belgium. Photo Courtesy of Alan Raphael. Photos Courtesy of Alan Raphael
Museum volunteers & staff in Wereth. Photo Courtesy of Alan Raphael.
Memorial in Wereth. Photo Courtesy of Alan Raphael.
Memorial in Wereth. Photo Courtesy of Alan Raphael.
Memorial in Wereth. Photo Courtesy of Alan Raphael.
Memorial in Wereth. Photo Courtesy of Alan Raphael.
On December 17, 1944– the second day of fighting during the Battle of the Bulge– most of the 333rd FAB was overrun by the Germans (along with the 106th Infantry Division who they were supporting) and were taken prisoner. Eleven managed to escape capture and after walking through heavy snow for miles with the hope of making it back to American lines sought shelter at a farmhouse in Wereth, Belgium. The family brought them inside and offered hot food, but this shelter lasted only a brief moment, as it is thought that they had been exposed to the SS. They were marched into a field where they were brutally beaten and finally, killed. Their corpses would remain in the field, covered in ice and snow, until early February. This war crime would be part of a series of war crimes perpetuated on prisoners of war and on civilians known as the Malmedy Massacre, which counted nearly 500 victims.
The Museum will highlight African American service and sacrifice in our upcoming Special Exhibit, Fighting for the Right to Fight: African American Experiences in WWII. Stay tuned for more in the series on the April tour of Museum staff and volunteers to the Ardennes region. For more information about the tours offered by the Museum, see The National WWII Museum Tours.
P-51 pilots shot down more than 4,950 enemy aircraft during World War II. With its combination of range, firepower, speed and maneuverability, the P-51 proved its worth as it escorted bombers, strafed targets on the ground and provided the Allies with all-purpose air support. The British Royal Air Force as well as the US Army Air Forces used the Mustang and many top aces flew the plane.
The pairing of the legendary Merlin engine and the P-51 Mustang eventually resulted in the P-51D, which provided the Army Air Forces with a high-altitude, long-range fighter that could escort heavy bombers to Berlin and back. More than 8,000 of this model were produced. Between 1941 and 1946, roughly 1,000 African American pilots were trained at a segregated air base in Tuskegee, Alabama. The most famous of the Tuskegee Airmen served in the 332nd Fighter Group, also known as the “Red Tails” for the distinctive markings of their planes. The Museum’s P-51 replica is painted in the markings of one of the aircraft flown by the Tuskegee squadron. An authentic P-51D is under restoration.
The acquisition of the Museum’s P-51 has been generously supported by the Ricketts Family. Todd Ricketts is a member of the Museum’s Board of Trustees, Chicago businessman and owner of the Chicago Cubs baseball team.
“My desk sits facing yours across the floor, Yet your fair head is stiffly held aloof From my own darker one, though ‘neath our roof With one accord we do a job. For war Has linked us as no pleading could before.”
–Excerpt from “Civil Service” by Constance C. Nichols, The Crisis, April 1945.
While fighting for democracy abroad during WWII, African Americans and other Americans of color were waging a war against racism at home. This was called the campaign for “Double Victory,” and evidence of it can be found across a wide array of primary resources at The National WWII Museum, ranging from poetry to paintings, personal stories, yearbooks, photographs, and beyond.
For those teachers who are looking for materials to highlight African American experiences in WWII for Black History Month in February or throughout the year, the Museum has an assortment of lesson plans and other interdisciplinary classroom ideas for you. For example, the Creative Voices lesson plan referenced in the quote above features two poems by African American women poets that were featured in the magazine, The Crisis. This lesson can easily be used in an English Language Arts class or in a history class to reinforce Common Core critical reading standards, as students are challenged to look for deeper meaning in the poems and to understand the historical context in which they were written. A new Museum lesson plan, The Stories a Painting Can Tell You, uses a historical photograph of African American soldiers during WWII and a contemporary painting by New Orleans artist Willie Birch to teach student visual thinking and analysis skills. Lesson extensions connect teachers and students with a selection of seven oral history interviews with Black WWII veterans from The Digital Collections of The National WWII Museum, a Museum fact sheet, and other resources.
Group of recently appointed African American officers. Eleven of these men were appointed to the temporary rank of Ensign D-V(S), and one to Warrant Officer, USNR. February 1944.
February is an important month in remembering the path to freedom and equality for African Americans. While the world was in turmoil with war in the 1940s, significant progress was made in the passage for equal rights for African Americans from the Home Front to the battlefields that further set the path towards the 1950s and 60s Civil Rights Movement. It was the fight for Double Victory, the battle for freedom against the Axis powers abroad and for equality at home, that inspired African Americans to achieve excellence and persevere during their participation in the war effort. Join us throughout the month of February both here at the Museum and online in revisiting the African American experience during World War II and celebrating the lives that still sacrificed and defended a country that often fought against them.
“Fighting Hitler and Jim Crow: The Black Labor Movement During WWII” by Gemma Birnbaum
Wednesday, February 4, 2015
Mortimer Favrot Orientation Center
In honor of Black History Month, join Assistant Director of Education for Curriculum Gemma Birnbaum to learn more about the men and women on the Home Front who worked to industrialize the war abroad while fighting against racism at home. While unprecedented numbers of African American men and women found careers in war production, inequalities in opportunities, pay, and career mobility plagued the Arsenal of Democracy. See how ordinary workers in extraordinary circumstances became leaders in the fight for civil rights.
Panel: “African Americans in Military History” featuring Dr. Allan Millett, Dr. John Morrow and Dr. Adrian Lewis. A partner program with University of New Orleans. Thursday, February 26, 2015 4:00 pm Panel – Arizona/Missouri Room 5:30 pm Reception and Book Signing – US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center
Join us for this panel discussion featuring Dr Allan Millet, Ambrose Professor of History and Director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans, Dr Adrian Lewis, Professor of 20th Century Warfare at the University of Kansas, and Dr John H Morrow, Jr, Professor of Modern Europe and warfare and society at the University of Georgia. This program presented in partnership with the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at UNO.
Special Presentation: “African Americans in WWII” Thursday, February 26, 2015 6:30 pm Presentation | 7:30 pm Book Signing US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center
Join us for a special presentation as Dr. John Morrow of the University of Georgia discusses how the experiences of WWI influenced both government policies and African American military service in WWII. Dr. Morrow will also discuss the long-lasting effects of African American service in WWII and what it means for our nation and its military today. RSVP Now
Discover more about African Americans serving in WWII:
Learn their stories:
In 1941, fewer than 4,000 African Americans were serving in the military. By 1945, more than 1.2 million African Americans would be serving in uniform on the Home Front, in Europe and in the Pacific. Dive into more stories of the African American Experience during World War II in The National WWII Museum’s online collections documenting their wartime lives.
An MP directs Red Ball Express drivers to
stay on the ‘Ball.’ September 5th, 1944
Gift of Julian Dean, 2010.523.350
Hand drawn map showing one of the original
Red Ball Express routes around Chartres, France
Massive Red Ball Express convoys passing
through a regulating point
70 years ago today, within an environment of institutional prejudices and against a stubborn German foe, the most famous American service unit of World War II – the Red Ball Express – was born. Throughout most of the War, the predominant assignments given to African-American servicemen was within the Quartermaster and Transportation Corps. Nevertheless, although many African-American soldiers found themselves segregated from white units and relegated to non-combat roles,this did not keep them, or the over 75% African American drivers of the Red Ball Express, out of the fight.
The Red Ball Express – its name taken from a railroad term meaning express freight – was a massive, round-the-clock convoy of supply-trucks, organized in north-western France as an immediate response to the problem of keeping the forward-area elements of the American First and Third Army supplied with petroleum, oil and lubricants (also known as POL supplies). Following the late July 1944 break-out in Normandy, American forces found themselves outpacing the reach of their supply lines. In an effort to solve this crisis – described by war correspondent Ernie Pyle as “a tactician’s hell and a quartermaster’s purgatory” – and bridge the gap between the soldiers at the front and the supply dumps at the Normandy beach-heads, the Red Ball Express was born.
On August 25, 1944, the Red Ball Express highway – two long-distance, one-way ‘loop highway’ routes – was opened at the port town of Cherbourg. Similar to the human circulatory system, the Red Ball highway’s northern route was for delivering supplies and the southern route was for returning convoys, with both routes open only to military traffic. A shortage of trucks and drivers for the Red Ball Express routes saw any non-essential vehicles pressed into service and many ‘volunteers’ – some of whom had never driven any type of automobile before – thrown behind the wheel and transformed overnight into drivers. One Red Ball recruit recalled that ‘Red Ball trucks broke, but they didn’t brake.’ On average, over 900 ‘deuce-and-a-half’ trucks were rolling on the Red Ball Highway at any one time, carrying thousands of tons of supplies forward, fueling the American advance.
Though only in existence for three months, from between August 25th and November 16th, 1944, the importance of the Red Ball Express and the heroic efforts of its drivers was clearly understood by Allied leadership in this, the world’s first “100 percent internal combustion engine war.” Over the course of 83 days, the Red Ball Express and its drivers delivered over 500,000 tons of supplies vital to the American war effort and the liberation of Europe. The Red Ball Express also served as indisputable proof of the quality of African-American soldiers. In an October, 1944 message to the troops, General Eisenhower was not at all faint in his praise for the Red Ball Express’ drivers.
TO: The Officers and Men of the Red Ball Highway
1. In any war, there are two tremendous tasks. That of the combat troops is to fight the enemy. That of the supply troops is to furnish all the material to insure victory. The faster and farther the combat troops advance against the foe, the greater becomes the battle of supply.
2. Supplies are reaching the continent in increasing streams. But the battle to get those supplies to the front becomes daily of mounting importance.
3. The Red Ball Line is the lifeline between combat and supply. To it falls the tremendous task of getting vital supplies from ports and depots to the combat troops, when and where such supplies are needed, material without which the armies might fail.
4. To you drivers and mechanics and your officers, who keep the Red Ball vehicles constantly moving, I wish to express my deep appreciation. You are doing an excellent job.
5. But the struggle is not yet won. So the Red Ball Line must continue the battle it is waging so well, with the knowledge that each truckload which goes through to the combat forces cannot help but bring victory closer.
At the start of World War II, there were less than 4,000 African Americans serving in the United States military. By 1945, however, there were more than 1.2 African Americans contributing to the war effort on the Home Front and in the European and Pacific Theaters. The personal stories behind these figures present teachers with a dynamic opportunity to incorporate African American histories and perspectives into the classroom.
One of the most compelling ways to teach about the participation of African Americans in WWII is through the use of oral histories. The Museum’s new Digital Collections website at http://ww2online.org is an excellent source for teachers and students who are looking for primary sources about the WWII experience. The Digital Collections site currently contains 150 oral histories and more than 5,000 photographs from the Museum’s collection. Among these are interviews with former Tuskegee Airmen John Leahr, William Holloman III and Charles McGee, along with men from other branches of the military like Joseph Hairston (Army), Wallace Baptiste (Navy), and Eugene Tarrant (Navy). Together, these oral histories provide a compelling look at the state of race relations in the United States before, during, and after WWII, and demonstrate the strength of individuals to persevere against discrimination.
Tuskegee Airmen. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Another great resource for primary and secondary sources on this topic is the Museum’s Focus On African Americans in WWII feature. This page showcases original photographs and film footage of African Americans contributing to the war effort on the Home Front and on the battlefront in Europe and the Pacific. It highlights the contributions of the Tuskegee Airmen , contains suggested lesson plans and book lists for the classroom and features an interview with Medal of Honor recipient Vernon Baker.
An interesting primary source analysis activity for African American History Month can be constructed for the classroom by asking students to compare and contrast the oral histories of Vernon Baker and other African American veterans from the Digital Collections site. You can start by using the suggested primary sources questions below and build upon or change the activity based on the amount of classroom time you have, student interest, and other available historical materials at your disposal.
Suggested Oral History Questions:
1. Where was the interviewee born?
2. What was their life like before the start of WWII and what opportunities were available to them?
2. How did they enter the military? What branch of the military did they serve in and why?
3. Describe their military service. What are some examples of discrimination that they encountered during the war ? How did the interviewee respond to or challenge these situations?
4. What was their life like after the war?
5. What impact do they think that African American participation in the war had upon changing racial attitudes and opportunities in America for themselves and others?
6. Compare your person’s oral history with another veteran’s WWII story. What similarities and differences exist between these two experiences?
7. How does studying oral histories enhance your understanding of WWII?
Picture of First Lt. Vernon Baker. Baker was one of only seven African Americans to receive the Medal of Honor for their WWII service.
May 27, 2013, marks the 70th anniversary of Executive Order #9346.If you don’t know this EO, you are not alone.While it is often overlooked by World War II historians, the Order is very important in civil rights history and reflects President Franklin Roosevelt’s concern over the morale of African Americans and their role in defense mobilization.
President Roosevelt issued EO #9346 to reconstitute and expand the power of the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC).This wartime agency was initially established in June 1941 after civil rights and labor leaders threatened to march on the White House to protest lack of training and employment opportunities for African Americans in U.S. defense industries. Executive Order #8802 issued June 25, 1941 established the FEPC as a commission to encourage defense industries to train and hire African Americans, but it really had no legal enforcement.Facing a backlash from conservatives and industry leaders in 1942, Roosevelt placed the FEPC under control of the War Manpower Commission, effectively taking away its independence and any strong agenda. The dire labor shortage of 1943, however, presented Roosevelt with a rationale for giving the FEPC more power.
EO #9346 issued in May 1943 gave the FEPC a renewed independence, and greatly enlarged its ability to promote fair hiring practices.The order created twelve new regional offices that were to implement operating agreements with all twelve War Manpower Commission offices.Field staff in each of these regions worked with local labor and civil rights leaders to document and resolve cases of discrimination in local war industries. Although the fair hiring campaign was technically voluntary, the FEPC staff used negotiations, pressure and appealed to the patriotism of business leaders to enforce fair employment from the summer of 1943 through the fall of 1945.
A segregated work gang at the Pennsylvania Shipyards in Beaumont, Texas. The FEPC documented cases of discrimination in US defense industries and appealed to defense companies to offer employment and training for African American workers. Photo by John Vachon. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
An Expanded FEPC
The expanded FEPC had a significant impact nationally in getting business to train, upgrade and hire African Americans. The FEPC’s efforts at the Consolidated-Vultee aircraft plant in New Orleans are one of its greatest achievements nationally.In this case, the FEPC pushed for greater employment opportunities at the plant on the New Orleans lakefront that manufactured PBY Catalina airplanes, used in multiple-roles and the most numerous of its kind during the war.The FEPC staff, local labor leaders and the New Orleans Urban League negotiated with War Manpower Commission and Consolidated-Vultee industrial relations personnel to successfully implement a training and hiring plan.
Throughout the last two years of the war, the Consolidated-Vultee plant in New Orleans worked with the FEPC in training and integrating black workers. In 1944 alone, the proportion of African American workers at the plant jumped from 2 to 18 percent, and job titles increased by 27 percent.Although entry wages were only fifty to sixty cents per hour, the opening of semi-skilled and skilled positions represented a gain for black New Orleanians, most of whom were women virtually shut out of most skilled trades in defense industries.
The hiring legacy of Higgins Industries is more well-known and celebrated than Consolidated-Vultee.Andrew Jackson Higgins was a man well-ahead of his time in his hiring philosophy.In 1942, Eleanor Roosevelt cited Higgins’ commitment to training and hiring black and white workers in New Orleans on a 50-50 basis.In recent years, Higgins has been praised for employing skilled black and Asian workers. However, the very conservative AFL trade union insured that Higgins Industries would only hire skilled black carpenters, and not in any metal trades, which the union reserved for white workers.So whereas Higgins had great vision for the potential for modern hiring practices, AFL leaders insured that segregation on the shop floor would be maintained with the exception of wood-working.
The record of American defense industries’ hiring practices during World War II is a story that presents both of examples of civil rights success and resistance from the status quo. As such, the history is like many other aspects of the war that are complex and sometimes not pretty.The United States was still a largely segregated society during the war, and today we praise the field staff of the FEPC and business leaders like Andrew Jackson Higgins that had the vision to promote equality and fairness in the workplace
Women riveting at the Consolidated-Vultee Plant in Nashville, August 1942. The Consolidated-Vultee Plant on the New Orleans lakefront increased its African American workforce during the war after careful negotiations with the Fair Employment Practice Committee during the summer of 1943. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The Legacy of EO #9346
The legacy of Executive Order #9346 is great, and its impact should not be overlooked. The expansion of the FEPC helped to build a strong network of civil rights leaders who were committed to insuring a more equal society well into the post-war period.Even though the FEPC was dismantled in 1945, these networks of FEPC staff, civil rights and labor activists, church leaders and military veterans served as a the foundation for modern civil rights leadership.The FEPC also set a precedent for the passage of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission established under President John F. Kennedy to insure that non-whites and women had legal basis for fighting wage and hiring discrimination at a time when both were still prevalent.
Ultimately, EO #9346 represented a commitment to equality that makes the United States a great nation.Roosevelt upheld the Four Freedoms as an example of what was at stake in fighting this international conflict.When the all-out war mobilization effort guaranteed everyone a job from 1943-1945, EO #9346 attempted to insure that non-whites had a stake in building the arsenal of democracy. As we celebrate the accomplishments of America during World War II, let us not forget EO #9346 and the nation’s dedication to an equal society.
Negro Training Defense Center, Southern University, 1941. The FEPC helped initiate training programs in defense industries like this one here at Southern University. Courtesy of the National Archives
Syracuse University basketball and football star, Wilmeth Sidat-Singh (center), was often referred to in the press as Hindu (a term at the time used to describe someone of Indian heritage). Singh, however, was born to African American parents. After his father died, his mother remarried a man from the West Indies who adopted young Wilmeth Webb.
While he never claimed to be something he wasn’t (and often tried to clear up the error in the press to no avail), this popular misconception allowed Sidat-Singh to travel and play with teammates to a schools that did not allow African Americans to compete in sports. An article finally explaining his true ethnicity cost him the opportunity to play in a game soon after in Maryland. The star halfback, known as the Syracuse Walking Dream, sat on the sidelines as the Orangemen lost the game, powerless to assist his teammates.
After college, there were no opportunities for an African American in professional sports, so Sidat-Singh played for two barnstorming teams, the Syracuse Reds and the Harlem Renaissance.
In 1943, he answered the call to serve his country and became a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. On May 9, 1943, his engine failed during a training mission over Lake Huron and Sidat-Singh drowned. He was 25 years old.
Fritz Pollard, an All-America halfback with Brown University, led his team to the Rose Bowl following the 1915 season. Pollard went on to play in the NFL (one of 2 African American players in the league when it was founded in 1920) and become pro football's first African American head coach.
Although the end of WWII brought a new sense of social consciousness, segregation and discrimination remained in much of the United States. However, employment opportunities did begin to open up for African American in some sectors. Sports was a visible example. In 1946, pro football reintegrated, ending its 12-year “color barrier.”
Marion Motley and Bill Willis celebrate after helping the Cleveland Browns win the 1946 All-American Football Conference Championship.
Two African Americans, Frederick “Fritz” Pollard and Robert “Rube” Marshall, played in the NFL when the league was founded in 1920. During the next 14 seasons, only 13 African Americans total would appear on league rosters.
In 1946, the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams and the Cleveland Browns of the rival All-America Football Conference each signed two black players. The Rams signed former UCLA halfback, Kenny Washington and end, Woody Strode. The Browns signed Nevada fullback, Marion Motley and Ohio State middle guard, Bill Willis. Washington and Strode played semipro football prior to signing with the Rams and age and injury limited their NFL careers. Motley and Willis went on to become superstars and were eventually elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Dr. Charles R. Drew, surgeon and researcher, developed techniques for preserving plasma, the liquid portion of blood. The first African American to receive a Doctor of Science degree, Drew proved that plasma could be stored significantly longer than whole blood. He supervised the “Blood for Britain” program which met the desperate need for blood to treat those wounded during the Blitz. To encourage donation, Drew first devised the use of bloodmobiles, trucks with refrigerators serving as donation centers.
During WWII, the use of blood plasma was an essential component of treating wounded soldiers. Red blood cells, absent from plasma, contain substances called antigens which determine blood type. Because these antigens are missing, the need to match the blood type of the donor to the recipient is unnecessary. In addition, dried plasma can be stored for long periods of time without refrigeration and transported across great distances. Medics on the battlefield simply reconstituted the dried plasma by adding water before transfusion.
On the heels of his successful “Blood for Britain” campaign, Drew was asked to direct New York’s American Red Cross blood bank, tasked with the massive blood drive for the US military. Outraged by the policy to separate donated blood according to the race of the donor, a practice he denounced as unfounded by science, Drew resigned from the project. Howard University appointed him professor of surgery, and in 1943, he was asked to serve on the American Board of Surgery, the first African American to do so. Drew died tragically in an automobile accident while traveling to the annual free clinic in Tuskegee, Alabama. Despite his untimely death at only 45 years of age, Dr. Charles Drew is credited with significant advances to the field of blood transfusion, his techniques saving countless lives around the world.
Dr. Charles Drew in lab with microscope, ca.1940-1941. Photo, Scurlock Studio Records.
Italy. On the stretcher is a seriously wounded soldier who fell in the beachhead struggle. A medical aid man is giving him blood plasma, fighting to keep him alive while the driver moved the jeep slowly and carefully on the way to a rear medical station. 27 May 1944. 2002.337.580
158th Regimental Combat Team casualty receives plasma at front lines. 1945. 2008.354.380.
The National WWII Museum tells the story of the American Experience in the war that changed the world - why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today - so that all generations will understand the price of freedom and be inspired by what they learn.