Ethnic minorities in the US armed forces during World War II

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Reasons for Ethnic Minority Participation[edit]

The participation of ethnic minorities in the US armed forces during World War II highlighted an inconsistency in American ideology at the time. The United States invaded Europe to fight against Hitler’s Fascist Nazi Regime and their idea that there is an Aryan master or superior race, while perpetuating racism at home. Minority soldiers and sailors were extremely aware of this double standard, and thus began a campaign for a “Double Victory”: a victory against Fascism in Europe and Asia, and a victory against racism in the States. W.E.B. Du Bois declared that in order to successfully win WWII abroad, we must also win the “War for Racial Equality” at home.[1]

As the enlistment statistics below demonstrate, some ethnic minorities were drafted, others enlisted voluntarily, and some who tried to enlist were prohibited on the basis of race. Ethnic minorities gave many reasons for wanting to participate in the War effort, a somewhat surprising desire given rampant mistreatment of minorities by the U.S. government and the white American majority. For some, fighting in the War was a way to prove their patriotism and honor their love for their country—despite how it mistreated them. Those who fight for this reason considered themselves Americans, independent of race, and thus felt obligated or proud to fight for their country. Others took a strategic approach, serving in the U.S. armed forces with the belief that once they returned as veterans the U.S. would have to do away with racial discrimination and segregation. Others still recognized the opportunity to achieve financial security for their families; jobs in the armed forces could provide them with steady incomes when they were often excluded from jobs in the defense industries and trade unions at home.

Racial Discrimination[edit]

Whatever their reasons for joining, they all faced further discrimination in the U.S. armed forces. At the start of the War, all branches of the U.S. military were segregated. President Harry S. Truman ordered the end of military segregation with his Executive Order 9981 in 1948, but racial discrimination and segregation continued in the U.S. armed forces through the Korean War.

African American soldiers and sailors were banned from fighting on the front lines, and were assigned menial tasks in place of positions in combat. However, some African Americans escaped this fate. In some cases of emergency or shortage, African Americans were brought to the front lines like during the Invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. One mess-attendant Dorie Miller during the Attack on Pearl Harbor left his assigned station to fire at the attacking planes. Some special African American units, such as the Tuskegee Airmen, also fought in combat.

Many African-Americans wrote or otherwise described the great disparities in treatment between themselves and white soldiers. Some of these disparities included receiving fewer provisions and poorer quality gear, and struggling with gross disorganization in command and instruction. In letters to his girlfriend back home, one African American soldier named Jim Dansby described, “the colored here in camp seem to be neglected to a certain extent. We are poorly organized,”[2] and “I am pretty much disgusted. I don’t think they’re treating us right.”[3] Additionally, there were often racial tensions between different ethnic minority groups within the armed forces. Beyond these, African Americans and other ethnic minority servicemen had to undergo their training in communities run by Jim Crow laws, enforced by active chapters of the Ku Klux Klan. Dansby also described events of racial violence in the town where he trained at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, and the effect such events had upon his psyche: “Honey I am telling you I’ll be glad when I get away from this place. A soldier got killed in town last nite, also the nite before. The one that was killed the nite before was found by the railroad tracks with his head cut and arm almost cut off. These soldiers down here are really bad…so anything liable to happen.”[4]

After the conclusion of the War, African Americans were also prohibited from receiving many military awards and honors, though some were eventually recognized up to fifty years after serving.

Statistical Information[edit]

The following passage from pages 187-190 of Selective Service and Victory: The 4th Report of the Director of Selective Service (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1948) represents the best statistical information available to the United States Army Center of Military History to answer questions about the participation of various minority groups in the armed forces of the United States during the Second World War. Note carefully which of these statistics cover those minorities drafted into the armed forces and which include personnel who voluntarily enlisted. Statistics are extremely difficult to compile since contemporary classifications and the Army's interest in data rarely match modern interests.

Minority Groups[edit]

Another special problem of great importance in Selective Service operations was the mobilization of Negro registrants and other minority groups of this nature. The main difficulty here was securing the induction of men who were found (1) to be available by the System and (2) to be qualified by the armed forces physical examination. There were, of course, other problems as evidenced by the following treatment of the matter for the period extending from July 1, 1944 through December 31, 1945.

One Million Negro Inductions

Negroes were an important source of manpower for the armed forces in World War II as is shown by the fact that a total of 1,056,841 Negro registrants were inducted into the armed forces through Selective Service as of December 31, 1945. Of these,

  1. 885,945 went into the Army,
  2. 153,224 into the Navy,
  3. 16,005 into the Marine Corps, and
  4. 1,667 into the Coast Guard.

These Negro inductees made up:

  1. 10.9 percent of all registrants inducted into the Army (8,108,531),
  2. 10.0 percent of all inductions into the Navy (1,526,250),
  3. 8.5 percent of all Marine Corps inductions (188,709) and
  4. 10.9 percent of all Coast Guard inductions (15,235).

Thus Negroes, who constituted approximately 11.0 percent of all registrants liable for service, furnished approximately this proportion of the inductees in all branches of the service except During the period July 1, 1944-December 31, 1945, 141,294 Negroes were inducted, comprising 9.6 percent of all inductions (1,469,808) therein. Of this number:

  1. 103,360 went into the Army, which was 9.1 percent of all Army inductions (1,132,962).
  2. The Navy received 36,616 Negroes, or 11.6 percent of its inductees (316,215).
  3. The 1,309 Negroes going into the Marine Corps were 6.4 percent of Marine Corps inductions (20,563).
  4. Only 9 Negroes were inducted into the Coast Guard, but this was 13.2 percent of the inductees for this branch of service (68).

The somewhat lower proportion of Negro inductions during this period was principally due to the proportionately lower calls made upon Selective Service for Negro registrants. The Negro call for 18 months was only 135,600, or 8.3 percent of the total call (1,639,100).

Inductions of Other Minority Groups[edit]

Inductions into the Army of Selective Service registrants from other racial and nationality groups up to December 31, 1945, included:

  1. 13,311 Chinese,
  2. 20,080 Japanese,
  3. 1,320 Hawaiians,
  4. 19,567 American Indians,
  5. 11,506 Filipinos, and
  6. 51,438 Puerto Ricans.

Counting enlistments and those in the Enlisted Reserve Corps, a total of 24,085 Japanese Americans had either enlisted or been inducted into the Army by December 31, 1945. Similar statistics are not available for the naval services. Also by June 30, 1945, a total of 125,880 aliens of various nationalities had enlisted or been inducted into the Army and Navy. The increased proportion of inductions of Japanese-Americans during the two 6-months periods from July 1, 1944, to June 30, 1945 is indicated in the first table. Beginning January 14, 1944, registrants who were natural-born United States citizens of Japanese extraction or parentage were subject to induction in the Army after the War Department had determined in each case that the registrant was acceptable.

African American Enlistments[edit]

From December 1942 until VJ-day there were relatively few enlistments into the armed forces as restrictions against the direct recruiting of men in the age group acceptable for service (18-37) were in effect. There were, however, 483,605 other enlistments into the Army and Navy during the period July 1, 1944, to June 30, 1945, but only 1.3 percent were African Americans. Although African Americans constitute approximately 11 percent of the population, aged 18 through 37, only 0.8 percent of Army enlistees and 1.4 percent of Navy enlistees during the period July 1, 1944, to June 30, 1945, were of that race. The reasons why relatively few Negroes enlisted during World War II were numerous. The principal one, however, was the severe restrictions placed against African American enlistments by the armed forces, which, in some periods, amounted to complete prohibition."

Army inductions by race, July 1, 1944-December 31, 1945 United States and Territories[edit]

Accumulative to June 30, 1944      July–December 1944      January–June 1945       July–December 1945      Accumulative to December 31, 1945
All Races       Number  7,041,087       393,392         518,127         272,747         8,225,353
                Percent 100             100             100             100             100
White           Number  6,139,589       348,060         457,460         236,675         7,181,784
                Percent 87.2            88.5            88.3            86.7            87.3
Negro           Number  797,444         30,882          46,123          27,447          901,896
                Percent 11.3            7.8             8.9             10.1            11.0
Japanese        Number  11,260          3,483           2,933           2,404           20,080
                Percent 0.2             0.9             0.6             0.9             0.1
Puerto Rican    Number  32,344          8,109           8,005           2,980           51,438
                Percent 0.5             2.1             1.5             1.1             0.6
Others          Number  60,450          2,858           3,606           3,241           70,155
                Percent 0.8             0.7             0.7             1.2             0.9

Enlistments by race and service, July 1, 1944 to June 30, 1945[edit]

Branch of Service
        Total           White           Negro
        Number  (%)     Number  (%)     Number  (%)
TOTAL   483,605 100     477,285 98.7    6,320   1.3
Army     90,707 100      89,952 99.2      755   0.8
Navy    392,898 100     387,333 98.6    5,565   1.4


  1. ^ Takaki, Ronald T. "Introduction: A Different Memory." Introduction. Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II. N.p.: First Back Bay, 2001. 7. Print.
  2. ^ Letter from soldier Jim Dansby to his girlfriend Gertha Sykes. November 6, 1942. Gertha Sykes Collins Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary.
  3. ^ Letter from soldier Jim Dansby to his girlfriend Gertha Sykes. January 22, 1943. Gertha Sykes Collins Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary.
  4. ^ Letter from soldier Jim Dansby to his girlfriend Gertha Sykes. November 6, 1942. Gertha Sykes Collins Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary.


 This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Army Center of Military History document "Selective Service and Victory: The 4th Report of the Director of Selective Service".

  • James, C. L. R. Fighting Racism in World War II: From the Pages of The Militant. Ed. Fred Stanton. New York: Pathfinder, 2011. Print.
  • Takaki, Ronald T. Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II. N.p.: First Back Bay, 2001. Print.
  • Zinn, Howard. "A People's War?" A People's History of the United States. New York: Harper Collins, 2005. 407-442. Print.

Further reading[edit]