America’s World War II military was a force of unalloyed good. While saving the world from Nazism, it also managed to unify a famously fractious American people. At least that’s the story many Americans have long told themselves…
But the reality is starkly different. The military built not one color line, but a complex tangle of them, separating white Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans in various configurations—effectively institutionalizing racism and white supremacy throughout the military to devastating effect. The segregation impeded America’s war effort; undermined the nation’s rhetoric of the Four Freedoms; further naturalized the concept of race; deepened many whites’ investments in white supremacy; and further fractured the American people.
Yet freedom struggles arose in response to the color lines, and succeeded in democratizing portions of the wartime military and setting the stage for postwar desegregation and the subsequent Civil Rights movements. From the women who were the first Black WAVES to a decorated Japanese American soldier and his friendship with a white comrade, the following slideshow is just a portion of the sweeping, yet personal, stories of resistance to racism within America’s World War II military.
William Baldwin was the first African American recruit to the US Navy's General Service in June 1942. For years, the navy restricted Black men to the Messman Branch, where they shined shoes, washed dishes, prepared meals, and ironed clothes. That policy changed with Baldwin’s enlistment, but only after years of mounting Black protest. William Baldwin, June 2, 1942. Navy Secretary Frank Knox is to Baldwin’s right. Courtesy National Archives, 208-NP-8B-2.