November 11, 2021
A War Within a War
Honoring African American Veterans
The 369th Infantry, known as the 'Harlem Hellfighters,' march in a parade upon their return at the end of World War I, New York City, February 18, 1919
Today is Veteran’s Day, born of Armistice Day that marked the conclusion of World War I on the Western Front on November 11, 1918. In 1919, a year after the war ended, President Woodrow Wilson marked the first Armistice anniversary with a special address: “The victory of arms foretells the enduring conquests which can be made in peace when nations act justly… To us in America the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride… and with gratitude… because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice.” However, as African American studies professor Wilfred D. Samuels (1947 - 2020) so poignantly points out, after the parades had welcomed soldiers home like heroes: “Lynchings increased… And part of the reason for the increase was… the perceived arrogance, of the returning black military men who had fought… ‘To make the world safe for democracy.’ …they were gonna come back home and make certain that they were not denied the same privileges that they had fought for… [But] they couldn't get jobs. Housing was a problem. Education was a problem… there was a lot of anger festering.”[1]
Left: African American soldiers receiving honors from the French Government, 1919
Right: An African American WWI veteran (left) facing a State Militiaman (right) during the Chicago
race riots, August 1919
In his interview, Dr. Felton James Earls shared a personal World War I memory of his maternal grandfather: “He [Clarence Lefebvre] was recruited into this group of black soldiers, went to France, fought effectively and bravely, as the stories go… the battalion… he was with, got a medal of honor [National Order of the Legion of Honour] from the government of France… and for many of the years that my mother [Ethelyn Lefebvre] is growing up, she's aware of how proud he is of the accomplishment, but… it's worthless to his being able to find steady work and provide for the family.”[2] These problems came to a head months before President Wilson’s remarks with the “Red Summer” of 1919, when over twenty race riots erupt across the country.
Left: Ralph Waldo Tyler, c. 1919
Right: African American soldiers in the American Expeditionary Force, France, c. 1918
When World War I broke out in 1917, the first African American soldiers to see combat were with the Allied forces fighting under the French flag because the segregated U.S. Armed Forces turned away many black enlistees or relegated them to menial roles. Engineering executive Ralph Tyler told of his great-grandfather and namesake’s role in exposing these paradoxical racial injustices: “During World War I there was a move afoot in the United States to find out what the black soldiers were doing… the [U.S.] Department of War realized they needed to get the word out because there were actually riots during World War I in the United States… Booker T. Washington wrote to both the secretary of war and the president that he had just the person who could report… Ralph Tyler. And… he had three sons fighting in the war… And he reported a lot more than was ever reported back here… because the filtering department… in the Department of War didn't want information to get out about how African American troops… were heroic people in their own right in fighting this war… [And] they were treated by the people in France and other countries… completely different… And he wrote one day… that, unfortunately, this freedom will be short-lived because… the same liberties they had fought for in Europe, they wouldn't have when they return home.”[3] By the signing of the Armistice with Germany in 1918—the basis of Veteran’s Day—over 200,000 African Americans had served with the American Expeditionary Force (comprised also of French, British, Canadian, and Australian troops) on the Western Front while 170,000 remained in the U.S.
Left: Members of the 761st Tank Battalion, c. 1940s
Right: The 452nd Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion, c. 1940s
By World War II’s outbreak less than thirty years later, not much had changed. U.S. Senator Edward Brooke (1919 - 2015), the first African American elected senator by popular vote and the first to be seated since Reconstruction, served in the 366th Massachusetts Infantry during World War II. He recalled: “We lived in segregation, and we were discriminated against when we went to that war… I'm proud to say that did not hinder our patriotism… we were Americans. We were there to fight… for our freedom and for the freedom of others across the world. We believed in that. And then to be subjected to the discriminatory policies in combat as we were in our domestic life was a hard pill to swallow… we knew what our mission was. And, unfortunately, our government, our country did not want to give us the respect that we deserved.”[4] Over 1.5 million African Americans served in the U.S. military during the Second World War, including many African American women. While most African Americans served in non-combat roles, there was a disproportionate share that received “blue ticket” discharges that were neither honorable nor dishonorable but prohibited recipients from cashing in on veteran’s benefits such as the G.I. Bill.
Left: Major Walter Sanderson, Jr. in his World War II uniform before being deployed to Korea, c. late 1940s
Right: Judge William Cousins, Jr. and his future wife Hiroko, who he met while stationed in Japan during the Korean War, c.1952
In July of 1948, President Harry S. Truman desegregated the U.S. Armed Forces; and by 1954 the last all-black unit was disbanded during the Korean War. Over 600,000 African Americans served in the armed forces during the Korean War. Major Walter Sanderson, Jr. (1921 - 2017), who received a Purple Heart and two Bronze Star Medals for service in World War II and the Korean War, remembered this period: “I was re-called to active duty… in 1951 and sent to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, the home of the 101st Airborne Division. They were quite surprised… to see me because there were very few non-white combat service type officers in the military… I was assigned to… conduct training in map reading, starting and patrolling, and related subjects for… people who were... to go to Korea… I was the first non-white officer to be in that position. The only other non-white officer personnel around was the chaplain and the people in the non-combat agencies.”[5] Judge William Cousins, Jr. (1927 – 2018), former Circuit Court Judge of Cook County, also spoke of his experience: “I was then sent to… Korea where I… [was an] infantry officer… you're having a lot of turnover there… people are moving up because people are being moved out. They institute a policy… in some units of systematically shafting black officers… And so I sent a letter through to Washington [D.C.] complaining about the systematic shafting of blacks in Korea… I was pulled out of the unit… and was assigned to what I considered to be a lesser situation, and which would really impede my being able to progress and advance.”[6]
Left: Unnamed base in Vietnam, 1971
Right: Sergeant Brenda Good (right), a human relations instructor, guides a mandatory seminar with Marines intended to 'develop understanding and tolerance of each other’s background and
point of view,' c. 1970s
Integrated units during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and later the Black Power Movement, experienced animosity in the subsequent Vietnam War. African Americans, who were previously kept from combat, were now being disproportionately drafted and sent to the deadly frontlines in Vietnam. Comprising 11% of the U.S. population in 1967, they represented 16.3% of draftees, 23% of combat troops, and 14% of combat deaths. Lieutenant General Frank E. Petersen, Jr. (1932 - 2015), the first African American general in the U.S. Marine Corps, detailed: “There was a social revolution taking place within the United States military… the draft issue had created an influx of people from all walks of life… coupled with the civil rights revolution, there was a great deal of animosity between blacks and whites, especially in the ground combat units… I viewed it as a war within a war in that you had the fight against the enemy, but also there were fights amongst the troops… for the first time the U.S. military began to take a hard look at education in terms of race relations.”[7]
Lieutenant Colonel Harry B. Johnson (far left) and the surviving members of his platoon following a battle in Phan Rang, Vietnam, 1966
Lieutenant Colonel Harry B. Johnson, former Chief of Army Corrections, reflected on being drafted to go to Vietnam: “I had a member of my family has fought in every war this country's ever been in… I could go back as far as the Civil War… it's been a tradition in my family. We've all fought and sacrificed. And yet I went to Vietnam thinking I had something to prove… that blacks could fight, that blacks… were tough enough, smart enough to be able to lead men into combat. We've been doing it since the beginning of time. I didn't have anything to prove, but at the time I felt I did.”[8]
Members of 369th Infantry arrive back home to New York City, 1919
Educator Daryl Cumber Dance echoed this: “There are so many accounts of the bravery of black soldiers… war after war after war. And I think it's interesting, this effort to prove oneself… ‘maybe if we do it here, the country will recognize and appreciate our bravery.’”[9] As we celebrate Veteran’s Day let’s valiantly remember those who fought and continue to fight a “war within a war.”
[1] Wilfred D. Samuels (The HistoryMakers A2008.055), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 17, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 5, Wilfred D. Samuels talks about Claude McKay's poem, 'If We Must Die'.
[2] Dr. Felton James Earls (The HistoryMakers A2005.259), interviewed by Robert Hayden, December 9, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 2, Felton James Earls describes his maternal grandfather.
[3] Ralph Tyler (The HistoryMakers A2006.047), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 22, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 8, Ralph Tyler describes his grandfather's experiences of World War I.
[4] The Honorable Edward Brooke (The HistoryMakers A2003.233), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 23, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 1, Edward Brooke reflects on the historical service of blacks in the military.
[5] Maj. Walter Sanderson, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2012.068), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 9, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 2, Major Walter Sanderson, Jr. describes being re-called into active duty in 1951.
[6] The Honorable William Cousins, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2003.009), interviewed by Larry Crowe, January 16, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 4, William Cousins recounts his military service in Korea.
[7] Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2007.052), interviewed by Larry Crowe, February 7, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 1, Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. describes race relations among soldiers in the Vietnam War.
[8] Lt. Col. Harry B. Johnson (The HistoryMakers A2003.223), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 17, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 7, Harry B. Johnson explains the pitfalls of feeling the need to prove oneself during war.
[9] Daryl Cumber Dance (The HistoryMakers A2016.100), interviewed by Larry Crowe, December 7, 2016, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 7, Daryl Cumber Dance talks about the role of African Americans in the Civil War.