Think back to the most famous depictions from World War II: Whether it’s the Rosie the Riveter posters or the movie Saving Private Ryan, inspired by the D-Day invasion, the heroes celebrated in history books and Hollywood tend not to be very diverse.
One reason for that is “plain old racism,” argues Matthew F. Delmont, author of a new book Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad, an encyclopedia of Black Americans’ contributions to World War II, out Oct. 18. Military planners, Black newspapers, and Black families promoted Black Americans’ heroic work during the Second World War, but “there was an intentional effort in the years after the war to write Black troops out of the story,” Delmont says.
Many Black Americans were denied the type of frontline combat roles that Hollywood loves to feature in movies and TV shows. They were blocked from the roles that received medals for bravery. Instead, Black soldiers often served in logistics, helping to ferry supplies to Allied troops across Europe.
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“After researching the book, I think it’s really the stories of the truck drivers in the Red Ball Express, or the engineers who did work clearing Korean jungles and building runways—all of this unglamorous behind-the-scenes work—that was really crucial to the war effort,” says Delmont. “I came away from writing the book with the real conviction that the Allies couldn’t have won the war without Black Americans and the roles that they played. And that’s not something I knew going into doing the research.”
Here, Delmont highlights five Black war heroes he thinks Americans should know.
Edward A. Carter (1916-1963)
Carter was raised in India and China and was fluent in Hindi, Mandarin and German. He was one of about 80 Black Americans who volunteered for the Spanish Civil War to fight against fascist General Franco, serving in an integrated unit at a time when the U.S. Army units were segregated. Despite his language skills and combat experience abroad, the U.S. Army made him a cook in a quartermaster truck company, becoming one of many Black Americans who were “assigned to roles that weren’t really suited to their skill set,” as Delmont puts it.
Black Americans were blocked from combat roles, but near the end of the war, the U.S. needed more troops in combat and asked Black Americans to volunteer. Carter did and served in the 12th Armored Division, earning a Medal of Honor, posthumously, for fighting in Germany—one of seven Black Americans to receive the award for service in World War II.
Charity Adams (1918-2002)
Adams, a member of the Women’s Army Corps, served as the leader of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. These women delivered mail from the home front to troops in the European theater, processing an average of 65,000 pieces of mail per shift. “By making sure all the mail got delivered, she really helped to keep up morale for troops in the European Theater,” says Delmont.
The 6888th was also the largest unit of Black women to serve overseas during the war, and Adams saw her duties as a way to show white Americans what Black women could do. “What we had was a large group of adult Negro women who had been victimized, in one way or another, by racial bias,” Adams later said. “This was one opportunity for us to stand together for a common cause.”
Medgar Evers (1925-1963)
Evers was 19 when he joined up with the Red Ball Express, a group of Black truck drivers who transported supplies across Europe after the Allied landing in France on D-Day—”really essential to the Allies’ war effort,” as Delmont puts it
Evers’ World War II military service helped spur a political awakening. When he returned to the U.S., he led Black veterans to register to vote in Decatur, Miss., in 1946, and white townspeople with guns turned them away. “His experience really dramatically highlights that ‘double victory’ campaign,” says Delmont, “the way that Black Americans are both fighting to win the war militarily, fighting against fascism, but also trying to fight against racism at home.”
Dovey Johnson Roundtree (1914-2018)
Roundtree was a Women’s Army Corps member who used the GI Bill to attend law school at Howard University School of Law. Then she started a law firm in Washington D.C. and won a landmark civil rights case, Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company in 1955, which helped to secure a ban on racial segregation in interstate bus travel.
“Evers and Roundtree are part of a generation of Black veterans who use their service as a way to launch their involvement with the civil rights movement,” says Delmont. “They’re making sure that the United States is a place where freedom and democracy will be true for all people, and they come back and fight for that.”
Julius Ellsberry (1921-1941)
Ellsberry, who was from Birmingham, Alabama, volunteered for the Navy when he turned 18. During the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941, he helped to rescue several shipmates before he was killed when the Japanese bombed his battleship the U.S.S. Oklahoma. Just days prior, he wrote his mother to tell her he wouldn’t be home for Christmas and mailed home a money order to buy presents for the family.
“Throughout Black Birmingham in 1941, they had his picture up everywhere, with the note to remember Pearl Harbor,” says Delmont. The Birmingham World editor Emory O. Jackson likened Ellsberry to Crispus Attucks, the Black man who was the first American killed in the American Revolution. “No man, not even an admiral, can give more to his country than his life,” as Jackson put it.
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