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African American Volunteer Infantry Replacements

By Provided by the US Army Center of Military History



In early December 1944, shortages of infantry rifle replacements in theEuropean theater increased sharply. The theater had been experiencingshortfalls of riflemen since July 1944, and its Ground Force ReplacementCommand engaged in a training program to convert enlisted men from other armsand services into the infantry. The December 16, 1944, German counteroffensivein the Ardennes, however, exacerbated this need for riflemen still further. Theonly untapped source of manpower and readily available was African Americanservice units then serving in the European Theater of Operations . Lieutenant General John C. H. Lee, General Eisenhower’s deputy commander, ETO,provided a perfect solution when he suggested using the African Americanservicemen in the theater as volunteer infantry replacements. Since AfricanAmerican soldiers were already in the ETO in service units, and seeminglyunderutilized, Lee theorized that these men were a solution to the Armymanpower dilemma. Lieutenant General Lee invited “a limited number ofcolored troops who have had infantry training” to accept “theprivilege of joining our veteran units at the front… “allowing the menthe opportunity to “fight shoulder to shoulder to bring about victory.” {{more}} Because the issue of integrating African American and white units as equals incombat was still a sensitive one among senior officers and many civilians whoremained committed to maintaining a segregated military, General Eisenhowersought to obscure the issue. Although fully aware that the need was for AfricanAmerican soldiers, Eisenhower insisted that Lee call for volunteers of bothraces, emphasizing the opportunity to fight rather than promise racialintegration. Lee insisted publicly that in the event that the number of suitableNegro Volunteers exceeds the replacement needs of Negro combat units, these menwill be suitably incorporated in other organizations. On the day after Christmas 1944, the call to volunteer as riflemen went out.Since white units had already been tapped, the response came from the audiencefor which the call was originally intended–African Americans soldiers. Withintwo months, almost 5,000 African American soldiers had signed up. Alarmedbecause so many of the men were volunteering for infantry duty and fearingtheir exodus would disrupt service duties, the theater limited the number ofvolunteers to 2,500. Early in January 1945, the volunteers assembled for six weeks of standardinfantry conversion training. After training, the African American infantrymenwere organized into fifty three platoons, each under a white platoon leader andsergeant, and were dispatched to the field, two to fight with armoreddivisions–the 12th and the 14th Armored Divisions in the Seventh Army; and therest to work with infantry divisions-including the lst, 2nd, 8th, 9th, 69th,78th, 99th, 104th Infantry Divisions, First Army. Each platoon totaled somesixty men, about 50 per cent over normal strength to provide a ready source ofreplacements for battle casualties. Because they were African American, theyhad to provide their own replacements. No other source of trained infantryexisted. In the First Army the American platoons were usually assigned on the basis ofthree per division. The division receiving the platoons normally placed oneplatoon in each regiment. At the company level, the African American platoonaugmented the standard organization of three rifle platoons and one heavyweapons platoon. In the Seventh Army, the platoons were organized intoprovisional companies and attached to infantry battalions in armored divisions.General B.O. Davis, the first African American general officer in the RegularArmy, warned the Seventh Army commander, Lieutenant General Alexander M. Patch,that the men were not being used properly. In fact, the performance of theprovisional companies failed to match the performance of the platoonsintegrated into white companies. Morale in the provisional companies was alsolower. At the end of the war the theater commander made clear to the AfricanAmerican volunteers that integration was over. Although a large group was sentto the 69th Infantry Division to be returned home, most were reassigned toAfrican American combat or service units in the army of occupation. The experiment with integration of platoons was carefully scrutinized. In Mayand July 1945, the Research Branch of the Information and Education Division ofEisenhower’s theater headquarters surveyed white company-grade officers andplatoon sergeants to discover what they thought of the combat performance ofAfrican American rifle platoons. Interviewers visited seven infantry divisionsand asked the same question of 250 men–all the available company officers anda sample of platoon sergeants in twenty-four companies that had had AfricanAmerican platoons. In addition, a questionnaire, not to be signed, wassubmitted to approximately 1,700 white enlisted men in other field forces forthe purpose of discovering their attitudes toward the use of African Americanriflemen. No African Americans were interviewed. More than 80 percent of the white officers and noncommissioned officers whowere interviewed reported that African American soldiers had performed”very well” in combat; 69 percent of the officers and 83 percent ofthe noncommissioned officers saw no reason why African American infantrymenshould not perform as well as white infantrymen if both had the same trainingand experience. Most reported getting along very well” with the AfricanAmerican volunteers; the heavier the combat shared, the closer and better therelationships. Nearly all the officers questioned admitted that the camaraderiebetween white and African American troops was far better than they hadexpected. Most enlisted men reported that they had at first disliked and evenbeen apprehensive at the prospect of having African American troops in theircompanies, but three-quarters of them had changed their minds after servingwith African Americans in combat, and their mistrust was replaced with respect.Of the officers and noncommissioned officers, 77 percent had more favorablefeelings toward African American after serving in close proximity to them; theothers reported no change in attitude. A majority of officers approved the ideaof organizing African American in platoons to serve in white companies; thepractice, they said, would stimulate the spirit of competition between races,avoid friction with prejudiced whites, eliminate discrimination, and promoteinterracial understanding. General Brehon B. Somervell, commanding general of the Army Service Forces,questioned the advisability of releasing the report. He believed that the smallsample of men used was insignificant and conclusions based on this sample wereinconclusive. Furthermore, Somervell argued that releasing the report mightencourage the NAACP to pressure the Army for similar experiments involvingtroops in training in the United States and even those engaged in fighting inthe Pacific theaters. Such unwanted pressure, he believed, would hamper the wareffort. But his real concern was the political implications of integration.Many members of Congress, newspaper editors, and others who had given strongsupport to the War Department were, he contended, “vigorouslyopposed” to integration under any conditions. Their powerful oppositionmight, in turn, adversely affect public support for a postwar program ofuniversal military training. General Omar N. Bradley, the senior American field commander in Europe took adifferent approach. Writing for the theater headquarters and drawing uponsources that included the personal observations of some officers, GeneralBradley discounted the significance of the experience. Most of the AfricanAmerican platoons, he said, had participated mainly in mopping-up operations orcombat against a disorganized enemy. Nor could the soldiers involved in theexperiment be considered typical, in Bradley’s opinion. They were volunteers ofabove average intelligence according to their commanders. Finally, Bradleycontended that, while no racial trouble emerged during combat, the mutualfriendship fostered by fighting a common enemy was, on occasion, threatenedwhen the two races were closely associated in rest and recreational areas.Nevertheless, he agreed that the performance of platoons was satisfactoryenough to warrant continuing the experiment but recommended the use of drafteeswith average qualifications. At the same time, he moved away from furtherintegration by suggesting that the experiment be expanded to include employmentof entire rifle companies in white regiments to avoid some of the socialdifficulties encountered in rest areas. General George C. Marshall, the Chief of Staff, agreed with both Somervell andBradley. Although Marshall thought that the possibility of integrating AfricanAmerican units into white should be “followed up,” he believed thatthe survey should not be made public because “the conditions under whichthe [African American] platoons were organized were most unusual.” Additionally,Marshall believed that too many of the circumstances of the experiment werespecial–the voluntary recruitment of men for front line duty, the relativelyhigh number of noncommissioned officers among the volunteers, and the fact thatthe volunteers were slightly older and scored higher in achievement tests thanthe average African American soldier. Moreover, throughout the experiment somedegree of segregation, with all its attendant psychological and morale problemshad been maintained. Nevertheless, the platoon experience was illuminating in several respects. Thefact that so late [arguably at the height] in the war thousands of AfricanAmericans volunteered to trade the relative safety of the rear for duty at thefront spoke volumes about African American patriotism. It said much about theAfrican American’s unrelenting passion for equality. The experiment alsosuccessfully attacked one of the traditionalists’ shibboleths, that closeassociation of the races in Army units would cause social dissension. More importantly,the use of the African American volunteers in infantry units represented asuccessful and intelligent use of manpower –regardless of color– in wartime.The complete lesson, that of using men in integrated units to the fullestpotential, was one that was not articulated until, July 26, 1948 when PresidentHarry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, calling on the armedforces to provide equal treatment and opportunity for all servicemen.

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