Members of the all-Black aviation squadron known as the Tuskegee Airmen line up Jan. 23, 1942.

Members of the all-Black aviation squadron known as the Tuskegee Airmen line up Jan. 23, 1942. / Associated Press

Updated November 8, 2022 at 10:56 AM ET

Films and stories about World War II create a narrative of Americans united against a common enemy, but historian Matthew Delmont says the truth of the U.S. war effort is more complicated.

Though more than one million Black Americans served in WWII, their military uniforms couldn't protect them from systematic racism. Military segregation was maintained throughout the war, which meant separate barracks and recreation facilities, both at home and abroad.

"There was no strategic or tactical reason to do it," Delmont says. "The only reason the military maintained this racial segregation during the war was to appease white racial prejudice."

Black servicemen traveling to the Jim Crow South for training would pull down the shades on their train cars so that white townspeople wouldn't throw rocks at the windows. Racial epithets and threats of violence were part of daily life on Southern military bases, and off base, African Americans were restricted to the "Black" sections of town.

"If they stepped even a foot outside of that, they were threatened or attacked by white police or sheriffs," Delmont says.

Delmont says that Black troops sent to Europe during the war often found that they were treated better there than they were at home. After the war, Black veterans were largely left out of the benefits created by the G.I. Bill of 1944.

Delmont's new book, Half American, chronicles Black Americans' quest to serve in World War II — and how their experiences in the war ultimately fueled the civil rights movement.

"Black veterans ... fought for the country and many of them identified as being deeply, deeply patriotic," Delmont says. "But for them, that meant that you also had to demand that America be a country worth fighting and dying for."

Interview highlights

On Nazi prisoners of war being treated better than Black American soldiers

It's one of the most common stories that Black veterans would tell. ... These white Americans were treating the Germans infinitely better than they ever treated their fellow Black troops. They're allowing them to eat in the same dining facilities, go to the same movie theaters, sit in the same parts of the train cars. And for Black Americans, it it reveals that in many ways Nazi racial policies and American racial policies were just two sides of the same coin. And that really leads them to question the sincerity of what their fellow white soldiers have been fighting for. That if they were going to be this chummy and this friendly with actual Nazis who had been at war with them just months earlier, it really led them to question real commitments to freedom and democracy at home.

On draft boards being controlled at the local level — which meant that many Black Americans were prevented from joining the military, even after the bombing of Pearl Harbor

When you turn things over to the local level, it meant you were relying on the the local prejudices that existed in all parts of the country, not only in the South, but in different parts of the Northeast, Midwest and West. When Black volunteers or draftees went into these draft boards, they were often turned away and told that there was no place for them in the military. That was true both before Pearl Harbor and, even more troublingly, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. There were dozens of stories of Black Americans going to their local recruiting branches and being turned away. They got in line with hundreds of other Americans because they wanted to join the military to help defend the country ... and they were just left dumbstruck ... asking, "What's wrong with our service? What's wrong with our our patriotism that we can't defend our country?"

On the Navy's mistreatment of Black servicemen

Among all the branches, the treatment of Black men in the Navy was among the worst. ... They were assigned to these roles as attendants, where they essentially waited on and served white officers within the culture of the Navy. These were seen as extraordinarily subservient roles, and that's how the mess attendants were typically treated aboard ships. ...

Part of the rationale that the Navy had for assigning Black troops these roles was that they thought this was the only way to make sure that the ship's racial politics did not become upset, and that they didn't think these Black men had what it took to be in combat roles on these Navy ships. But, of course, when you're on a ship or a submarine and you're at war, and Japanese or German submarines start firing torpedoes at your ship, you're in combat even if you're a mess attendant. And so some of the most inspiring stories that come out of this are that Black men who were in these mess attendant roles actually take on really important roles in combat. ... And so it's a strange paradox within the Navy that the Navy insists that Black "mess men" don't have the ability to perform in combat. Yet consistently there are evidence and records in Black newspapers and elsewhere that describe Black mess men doing exactly that — performing heroically when given the opportunity.

On the challenges faced by the Tuskegee Airmen, a unit of Black military pilots

They had to train for nearly two years before they had a chance to deploy to the Mediterranean in the spring of 1943. So whereas white pilots are training for six weeks, eight weeks before they deploy, it's nearly two years of consistent training in Alabama before the Tuskegee pilots have the same opportunity. Part of what takes them so long is first they need to build up enough numbers to have a full fighter squadron. But then they still face resistance from white commanders within the Army Air Corps who are not convinced that Black pilots can do the job. ... When you follow the story of the Tuskegee Airmen on a month-by-month basis, it's amazing what they had to overcome just to get the opportunity to serve in combat. ...

When the Tuskegee Airmen or the [all Black] 92nd Infantry, for example, encountered any setbacks, the media — the white media — was all too ready to criticize them in print, in ways that you just didn't see for white servicemen. But eventually, by proving it in performance, Tuskegee Airmen are finally able to swing both the military and the media to their side.

On the important roles Black troops played in D-Day

In the weeks and months after [D-Day], the Allies had to transport huge numbers of men and huge amounts of material across the channel and then through France to keep up with the armies as they were pushing into Germany. By and large, it was Black troops that did that work to move those supplies. There were Black port troops across the channel who loaded the ships that move the goods across the channel into Normandy and other ports in France. And then it was Black units like the one [civil rights leader] Medgar Evers was in that unloaded those ships and then loaded them onto trucks. The truck drivers who move those goods were part of a truck convoy called the Red Ball Express, 75% of whom were Black truck drivers. These truck drivers were absolutely crucial to the war effort because they moved 400,000 tons of ammunition, food and other supplies all across France in the European theater. Without that effort, it would have been impossible for Allied troops to move, shoot or eat.

And so when you take a step back and think about D-Day, not just as a single day, but as the much larger invasion that took months. And think not just about the troops that stormed the beaches, but what it took to supply those troops. Almost everything they got moved in European theater, passed through the hands of at least one Black American. And when you take that perspective, it's really clear that Black Americans played a vital role in helping American allies win the war.

On the mistreatment of Black veterans returning from WWII

One of the hardest parts about writing this book was reading these accounts of Black veterans and the kind of disrespect they were shown when they returned to the country. They frequently described getting off ships and ... as soon as they left the ship, the white troops were pointed one way and Negro troops are going the other way. And often [officials] would use racial epithets to point Black troops in that direction. They described having no parades to greet them when they got back and being routed through only the Black section of town, being almost treated as though they were convicts when they returned to the country.

And then there were numerous examples of violence against Black veterans. At least a dozen Black veterans were killed or attacked, some while still wearing their military uniforms, in part because the white communities they often returned to were were threatened by Black veterans in their service. They recognized that these veterans were going to come back and be leaders in the civil rights movement. In that context, the military uniform and the service of Black veterans was viewed as extremely dangerous, and it led to extremely hostile treatment for a lot of veterans when they returned home.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.