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.
Ben Kuroki managed to join the US Army Air Forces despite its blanket ban on Japanese Americans during World War II. As a decorated gunner, he participated in dozens of missions over North Africa, Europe, and the Pacific, earning three Distinguished Flying Crosses and receiving glowing attention across the country. He experienced the brotherhood of battle: “Under fire, a man’s ancestry, what he did before the war, or even present rank, don’t matter at all.” But he also faced discrimination from fellow airmen throughout the war. While training in Texas with his brother, all 120 barracks mates refused to talk to them for weeks. When he arrived on Tinian Island, in the southwest Pacific, in March 1945, an officer warned him: “Anything that even looks like a Jap, the guards shoot first and ask questions later.” Kuroki remembered thinking: “It was going to be really lovely all right. Come back from a fifteen-hour mission all pooped and beat-up trying to forget the fear—then sweat out getting shot by your own men. Not one war; two.” Ben Kuroki in June 1944, after his deployment in Europe and before his deployment to Asia. Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, WRA no. I-240.