Pictured on 8 February 1943, the crew of the SS Booker T. Washington with Captain Hugh Mulzac in the foreground (in glasses).
On 8 February 1943, the SS Booker T. Washington—first Liberty ship to be named after an African American—completed her maiden voyage to England. Captain Hugh Mulzac became the first African American to command a merchant ship and an integrated crew during WWII. Launched 29 September 1942 by singer Marian Anderson, SS Booker T. Washington would make 22 round-trip voyages between 1942-47, carrying 18,000 troops to Europe and the Pacific.
Beginning with the attack on Pearl Harbor, and worsened by the attempted bombing of Santa Barbara and the successful bombing of Fort Stevens, wartime hysteria and fear of an enemy invasion knew no bounds. These attacks led the War Department to consider all of the nation’s vulnerable points, and at the top of that list was the then-territory of Alaska. Overnight, the territory gained value to both Americans and the Japanese alike. Just 750 miles away from Attu was a Japanese naval base, making the threat of the region being invaded and taken, and subsequently—perhaps—the rest of North American—a not-so-unrealistic fear.
The idea of a route connecting mainland United States to Alaska was not a new idea. In fact, it had been proposed in the ‘20s. But it wasn’t until February 1942 that the construction was approved by Roosevelt, only after working out an agreement with the Canadian government as well. Before the Alcan Highway (also called the Alaska Highway or the Alaska-Canadian Highway), the only way to supply US troops stationed in Alaska was by sea or air. If shipping lanes on the northwest coast were successfully interrupted by the enemy, or even by some unlucky circumstance for that matter, Alaska could easily fall. It was seen as a national defense problem. Construction work began in March, and was hastened with Japanese actions in the Alaskan islands of Kiska and Attu in June 1942.
Once completed, the Alcan Highway was a 1500-mile route between Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Fairbanks, Alaska. It was built by the skillful hands of 7 Army Corps of Engineer regiments totaling more than 10,000 men, nearly 35% of whom were African Americans excluded from combat roles. Once arriving in the more-often-than-not icy terrain, these troops often had to relearn simple tasks that were made nearly impossible by the ice, snow, and miserable conditions of the region.
Though the Alcan Highway completed on this day 70 years ago, it wasn’t officially opened until 20 November 1942. Though its construction was a necessary and impressive feat, driving the snow-covered highway was nearly as difficult as building the route had been. Construction troops often had to shovel out the road, even in temperatures dozens of degrees below zero. Accidents and flipped vehicles were a common sight. Tow cars worked 24 hours a day rescuing stranded vehicles and pulling them out of ditches. Quartermaster troops were stationed at every 100-mile mark to aid in servicing vehicles, though they were not always well-enough equipped to address the problem.
After the route’s completion, civilian contractors continued work on the route to make it more permanent and better able to sustain the intense weather of the Alaska-Canadian wilderness. The route was opened to the public in 1948, after being made safe enough. Today, the entire route is paved.
Images from a unit history of an engineer regiment that worked on the Alcan Highway. Gift of Ben Cohen, 2011.051.
"A heavy log for a corduroy road bed at the J-35 mile mark is carried by seven husky Company C men. After a job like this, chow and sleep were always welcome."
Comfort was in short supply for men working the Alcan. Here a Private bathes in an improvised tub.
Building a box culvert in knee-deep mud and water. The platoons flipped coins for jobs like this, and these boys lost.
Men wait for the inevitable time when ice flows will sweep the bridge from its moorings.
The 1936 Winter Olympics were also held in Germany. Here figure skaters Maxie Herber and Ernst Baier compete. Frank B. Arian, MD Collection, 2009.451.335
The Games of the XXX Olympiad officially begin with the Opening Ceremony today. The world’s eyes will be on London as athletes parade in the colors of their countries. As is customary, athletes from Greece will enter first, and England, as host country, will enter last.
With opening of these Games, it can be a time to pause and reflect on the “lost” Olympics of 1940 and 1944. The athletes who hoped to compete in these games lost their chance to demonstrate their skills at the highest level. The last Games to take place before the War, the Games of the XI Olympiad in 1936, also known as the Nazi Olympics, were a sign of the troubling times that the world was to endure.
The 1936 Olympic Games is a confusing study. The most hospitable and dramatic Games up to that point were hosted by one of the cruelest regimes in history. Awarded to Germany in 1931, the Games of the XI Olympiad became a propaganda spectacle for the Nazi Party. With the full financial and organizing force of the Nazi government behind the planning, the 1936 Games transformed the Olympics from an underfunded amateur competition into a spectacle that nations could look toward for both an economic and public relations boost.
German Olympic Committee officials Carl Diem and Theodor Lewald undertook the massive responsibility of planning Games that would outdo the 1932 Games in Los Angeles and meet the Nazi Party’s standard for large, organized events. During the preparations, the Nazi Party removed Lewald, who had Jewish ancestry, from his official post as Olympic Committee President and demoted him to advisor. Despite the change, the remaining members of the German Olympic Committee were determined to outdo all previous Olympic hosts in size, accommodations, and pageantry.
A medal that was awarded to civilians and foreigners who assisted with the planning of the Games. The National WWII Museum, Inc., 1994.001.0252
One of the most defining innovations of the 1936 Olympics was the Olympic Torch Relay. Never before in either the ancient or modern Olympics had a torch been lit in Athens and carried to the Games. With cooperation from Greece and every nation along the route, the first Olympic torch arrived in Berlin for the opening of the Games via a young male runner chosen by Hitler himself for embodying the Aryan ideal. The Games were also the first to be televised with closed circuit feeds present throughout the Olympic Village. Acclaimed filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl revolutionized sport documentaries with Olympia.
The Games are also famous for the accomplishments of American sprinter Jesse Owens. Owens, an African American, won four gold medals in the Track and Field events, prompting spectators around the world to declare that he disproved Hitler’s notions of Aryan superiority. Reporters at the time declared that Hitler had snubbed Owens by refusing to shake his hand. The previous day, Hitler had been warned about acknowledging athletes publicly. The president of the International Olympic Committee informed Hitler that he could not publicly congratulate only German winners. He must acknowledge all winners or none. Hitler, not wanting to cause a very visible international incident at the Games, decided to remain a spectator while in public view. Behind the scenes, however, he would congratulate all German medal winners.
Leading up to the Games, newspapers around the world had printed stories of the harsh treatment of Jews in Germany, and many attendees expected the worst. However, the picture of Germany seen by athletes and spectators was one of hospitality, order, and patriotism. In order to project the image a progressive, orderly nation, the Nazis ordered the removal of all public anti-Semitic signs and publications. The open persecution of Jewish citizens was effectively put on hold in all areas that could be accessible to outsiders. Some reporters and Olympic officials hoped that this signaled a softer approach to racial issues in Germany, but it was short lived. Members of the International Olympic Committee were confident that hosting the Games had positively influenced Germany and would make them more cooperative in international affairs. After the Olympics ended, the Nazis were even more emboldened and took further steps to marginalize and persecute Jews, political dissenters, and other “undesirables.” In fact, Hitler was planning to make the Olympics his own, permanently stage the Games in Nuremburg beginning in 1944.
This post by Louisiana History Day Coordinator Nathan Huegen
Today marks the 70th anniversary of Bernard W. Robinson becoming the first African American Naval officer, commissioned in the US Naval Reserve. Robinson attended Harvard Medical School and became a prominent radiologist after the war. Dedicated to the care of veterans, Robinson served in the Veterans Administration Hospitals system for the remainder of his career, interrupted only by his re-enlistment in the Navy from 1953-55. Robinson passed away suddenly in his Allen Park, Michigan home on August 23rd, 1972.
Robinson’s commission marks one of many firsts for African Americans during WWII, despite unfavorable odds. African Americans were not only fighting for victory abroad, but also victory at home against racial prejudice. On the Home Front and the battlefronts, blacks encountered restrictions solely based on the color of their skin. The military was segregated and African Americans struggled to find jobs in defense factories. If they did manage to secure work, it was usually at a much lower pay than their white counterparts.
Robinson’s experiences mirror other successes, acts of courage, and achievements of African Americans throughout the war. The Tuskegee Airmen became the first black pilots of the war, with a stellar flying record. The Montford Point Marines, who served in the Marshall Islands, Saipan, Guam, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, became the first African American Marines in the Corps’ 167 year history. The all-black 761st Tank Battalion spent 183 days in continuous combat, far surpassing the average of 17 days in continuous service.
Recognizing the accomplishments and sacrifices of returning black veterans, Harry Truman desegregated the military in 1948. Proving their skill and leadership on the battlefield, former servicemen like Ralph Abernathy, Whitney Young and Medger Evers began to fight for the second part of the Double Victory campaign – Victory at Home- as they returned to the United States at the war’s conclusion.
April is National Poetry Month! First introduced by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, National Poetry Month is a way to increase both awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States. The National WWII Museum is commemorating National Poetry Month with a lesson plan called Creative Voices: Interpreting African American Poetry in World War II.
During World War II, approximately 2.5 million African-American men registered for the draft, and black women volunteered in large numbers. While serving in the armed forces, they experienced continuing discrimination and segregation. Despite these impediments, many African-American men and women served with distinction and made valuable contributions to the war effort.
On the Home Front, black Americans also did their part to support the war. They worked in war industries and in government wartime agencies, sold war bonds, voluntarily conserved goods needed for the war, performed civil defense duties, encouraged troops by touring camps as entertainers, risked their lives on the front lines to report the war and performed many other vital services.
African Americans were ready to work and fight for their country, but at the same time they demanded an end to the discrimination against them. African American writers and poets expressed their patriotism and willingness to serve their country as well as their frustration and bitterness about the discriminatory treatment their country often gave them. Using pens as their weapons, these creative men and women left a primary record of their innermost thoughts and feelings, often echoing the mindset of the larger African American community.
In celebration of Women’s History Month, The National WWII Museum is focusing on milestones in women’s contributions to the war effort. For black women in particular, the war was fought for “Double V” — victory over the enemy overseas, and victory over prejudice at home. On this day in 1945, Phyllis Mae Dailey was inducted into the United States Navy Nurse Corps. Dailey (second from right in the photograph above) was the first African American sworn in as a Navy nurse on 8 March 1945, following changes in Navy recruitment and admittance procedures that had previously excluded black women from joining the Nurse Corps.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a well known proponent for the change, and had also put pressure on the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), and SPARS (the women’s component of the Coast Guard) — all subsets of the Navy — to do the same. The SPARS would finally be integrated in October 1944, and the WAVES in December 1944. As a matter of reference, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (later fully incorporated and called the Women’s Army Corps) accepted African Americans beginning in January 1941, but capped the number who could serve to around 10% of the corps.
Under pressure from several directions, the Navy ended exclusion based on race in January 1945. Due to the Navy Nurse Corps being one of the last units to accept African Americans, it had the smallest representation of black women. By August 1945, when the war ended, there were just four active duty African American nurses in the Navy Nurse Corps, versus more than 6,000 that had served with the Women’s Army Corps during the war.
Within an environment of institutional prejudices and against a stubborn German foe, the legacy of the most famous American service unit of World War II, the Red Ball Express, was forged. For most of World War II, service units were the predominant assignments given to African-American soldiers. Although many African-American soldiers found themselves segregated from white units and relegated to non-combat roles in the Quartermaster and Transportation Corps, this did not keep them, or the over 75% African American drivers of the Red Ball Express, out of the fight.
An MP directs Red Ball Express drivers to
stay on the ‘Ball.’ September 5th, 1944
Gift of Julian Dean, 2010.523.350
In World War II, the ability of a nation to supply its armed forces with the materiel needed to fight proved just as significant to victory as the performance of its military on the battlefront. For this reason, World War II is often described as the world’s first “100 percent internal combustion engine war.” Tanks, trucks, planes and ships all consumed fuel at rapid rates and in voraciously large amounts. Without a steady supply of petroleum, oil and lubricants, an army’s advance would stall and its soldiers would suffer from the lack of food, ammunition and mechanized support.
The first Mardi Gras Day after the Pearl Harbor attack was on Tuesday, February 17th, 1942. Official parades and Carnival balls were cancelled due to the war (and would continue to be through 1945), although many of the floats had been already constructed and parties planned. Despite the suspension of official activities, krewes and societies met at residences and clubs to celebrate Fat Tuesday. This scene from Mardi Gras 1942 reflects revelry and good times amidst a nation at war. Members of the African American community in New Orleans celebrated with a unique tradition in which women masqueraded as little girls or baby dolls. Although the exact origin of this phenomenon is disputed, the tradition dates to at least Mid-18th Century New Orleans. Although the “Baby Doll” tradition fell by the wayside for decades in the postwar years, women have begun in recent years to don the silken dresses and bonnets and once again parade through the streets on Mardi Gras Day.
For more scenes of Mardi Gras during World War II, check out our Wartime Carnival set on Flickr.
A screencap from an oral history conducted with Lt. Vernon Baker (Ret.), Medal of Honor recipient.
The month of February is chock-full of days of remembrance, celebration, and commemoration. Every day at the Museum we’re tracing the pivotal 70th anniversaries of the war. Valentine’s Day was yesterday, President’s Day is next week, and for locals, the peak Mardi Gras season is upon us.
February is also a time to recognize the history and achievements of African Americans. In honor of Black History Month, the education department is presenting an electronic field trip, “Fighting for a Double Victory: African Americans in WWII,” TOMORROW to students and teachers across the country. So far, we’ve had 150+ teachers with over 6,000 students in 31 states register to tune in to this FREE webinar. The program will feature compelling oral histories from the museum’s collection and songs by renowned blues and folk musician, Josh White.
While doing research for our Black History Month programming, we came across this photo from the National Archives. During World War II, the 630th Ordnance was based in Australia, and along the way, interacted with some of the local wildlife. Here they are with the koala that was adopted by Pfc. Sammy Hurt. Holding the koala is Bishop John Andrew Gregg, leader of the African Methodist Church in North Central United States and Envoy of President Roosevelt.
In 1943, Bishop Gregg visited black troops who were fighting overseas. His goal was to be a face for the President back home, checking on the physical and mental condition of these soldiers. After his tour of Australia, he extensively toured the European Theater, traveling more than 100,000 miles total.
Bishop Gregg and members of the 630th Ordnance Company in North Queensland. July 21, 1943. From the National Archives.
Check back for more stories featuring African American leaders and troops, and join us for the following special Black History Month programs: (more…)
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.