Imbedded in US history is a rich tradition of combat bravery, heroism, and patriotism exhibited by African Americans. In fact, the heroic contributions of AAs predate the USA, itself. Many AAs fought for the colonies in pre-Revolutionary War skirmishes against the British, and an AA named Crispus Attucks had the dubious distinction of becoming the first fatality of the War when he was killed in the “Boston Massacre” in 1770. Below is a brief outline of the combat history of AAs and Japanese Americans in each war.
AAs fought on both sides both as freedmen and slaves. According to renowned Revolutionary War historian, Gary Nash, approximately 9,000 AAs fought for the Patriots in the Continental Army and Navy. For example, despite official prohibition by the Continental Congress both George Washington and Francis Marion, aka “The Swamp Fox,” relied on them heavily, even in combat. It is estimated that, at times, as much as half of Marion’s forces consisted of freed AAs. Noted historian and author Ray Raphael adds that many slaves also fought for the British. Many, if not most of them, were no doubt motivated by Emancipation Proclamations issued by the military leaders of British forces in some of the colonies, notably Virginia and New York. Although some served in combat, most, particularly on the British side, served as orderlies, mechanics, laborers and in other support capacities.
War of 1812
There were no legal restrictions with respect to the enlistment of AAs in the Navy for the very practical reason of manpower shortage. For example, in the pivotal Battle of Lake Erie approximately 25% of the American personnel were AAs. In addition, Andrew Jackson’s forces in the famous Battle of New Orleans, which, was actually won after the War was officially over, were supplemented by the Louisiana Battalion of Free Men of Color and a unit of AA soldiers from Santo Domingo.
Again, the Louisiana Battalion of Free Men of Color was an active participant. Additionally, many AAs served as servants of or slaves to Army and Naval officers.
Nearly 200,000 AAs participated. Approximately 163 units, consisting of both freedmen and runaway slaves, fought for the Union. The Confederacy utilized fewer amounts of both freedmen and slaves for labor and other support tasks.
These conflicts occurred primarily between 1863 and the early 20th Century. AAs were very active participants. In 1866, the Army formed two regiments of all AA cavalry and four of infantry. These were the first peacetime all-AA regiments. For the most part they were under the command of white officers, although occasionally, there was an AA in command, such as Henry Flipper. Their primary roles were support-related, such as building and maintaining roads and guarding the US mail. These units were nicknamed “Buffalo Soldiers” by the Native American tribes in the area, and the moniker “stuck.”
Spanish American War
The most notable battle in which the Buffalo Soldiers fought in this war was the Battle of San Juan Hill in July 1898, made famous by the participation of Theodore Roosevelt and his “Rough Riders.” TR’s “Rough Riders” got most of the publicity and notoriety for the famous victory, but, in reality, it was the “Buffalo Soldiers” who had done most of the heavy fighting.
Approximately, 350,000 AAs served. Again, most of them were utilized in support roles. Perhaps, the most notable unit was known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” which served with great distinction on the Western Front for several months, one of the longest tenured units to serve on the Front. The “Hellfighters” were a new unit, organized in 1916 in NY. The unit consisted entirely of AA enlisted men with both AA and white officers. The unit earned over 100 medals, both French and American. Two members became the first Americans to earn the very distinguished French Croix de Guerre (Cross of War).
AAs enlisted in copious amounts, however, regardless, were still not treated well or fairly. Segregation was very much alive and well in the Armed Forces. Approximately, 125,000 AAs served overseas primarily as truck drivers, stevedores, mess cooks, and in other support capacities.
One of the most notable units was the Tuskegee Airmen under the command of Benjamin Davis, Jr. The derivation of the name was based on the fact that all of the approximately 1,000 pilots in the unit had been educated at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama and also trained in the area. These pilots were widely considered to be among the finest pilots in the Armed Services. During the War, they served with great distinction primarily in North Africa and Italy, earning a considerable number of medals. Afterwards, following integration, many of them became officers and instructors. Three of them became generals. Mr. Davis became the first AA general in the US Air Force. He was following in the footsteps of his father, Benjamin Davis, Sr., who had become the first AA general in the US Army in 1940. Quite the family. The unit has been the subject of countless books, movies and tv programs.
Another notable AA was Mr. Doris Miller. Mr. Miller was a mess attendant in the Navy stationed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. During the Japanese surprise attack he voluntarily manned an anti-aircraft gun against the Japanese with great distinction despite having had no prior training on the weapon. As a result of his extreme bravery he became the first AA to earn the Naval Cross.
In 1944 thirteen AAs, aka “The Golden Thirteen,” became the Navy’s first AAs to be commissioned as officers. One of them, Mr. Samuel Gravely, Jr., went on to become the first AA Admiral. Also, in 1944, the Allies were suffering heavy losses of combat soldiers during the pivotal Battle of the Bulge, and there was a severe shortage of replacements. As a result, General Eisenhower made the executive decision to integrate AAs into some white combat units. As always, AAs fought with great distinction. No doubt, the success of this de facto integration influenced President Harry Truman’s decision to order the integration of the Armed Forces, which he did in July 1948 by Executive Order. In turn, many believe that the integration of the Armed Forces influenced American Society as a whole toward overall integration of AAs.
This account would not be complete without mentioning the contributions of Americans of Japanese descent during WWII. Most of you are cognizant of the fact that because of the fear and hysteria following the attack on Pearl Harbor (not to mention racism and prejudice toward Asians in many quarters), Japanese living on the Pacific Coast of the US were placed in Internment Camps, where they suffered many deprivations and indignities. (I have blogged about this previously.)
Despite this, many of them, being patriots, volunteered to fight for the US. These JAs, aka “Nisei,” were second generation American citizens. They were assigned to segregated units under the command of white officers. They were active mostly in Italy, Southern France and Germany. One of these units, the 442nd Regiment, became the most highly decorated unit in the entire war. They were very brave and aggressive, and suffered very heavy casualties, earning the moniker “the Purple Heart Battalion.” It is estimated that many of the original 4,000 men had to be replaced over three times. The unit’s motto was “Go for broke!”
One of the unit’s most famous achievements was the rescue of a Texas-based unit that was hopelessly pinned down by superior German forces. This became a legend known as the “rescue of the lost battalion.” Thus, a unit comprised of “disgraced” persons, who had been considered “disloyal” and “untrustworthy,” if not out and out spies, ended up becoming heroes.
AAs and other persecuted minorities have a rich history of heroism on behalf of America in times of conflict. They have earned more than their fair share of medals and awards. Due to time and space, I have only recounted a fraction of their contributions. How ironic that these persecuted minorities, time and again, have, nevertheless, risen above these circumstances to achieve greatness. Only in America!