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Divisions: A New History of Racism and Resistance in America's World War II Military

Resisting racism within America’s WWII military: stories from the frontline

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.

Charles Togo Ama registration card

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Charles Togo Ama was the son of an African American mother and Japanese father, who left the family when Ama was young. As a result, Ama apparently knew little about Japan, “grew up as a part of the Negro race,” “consider[ed] himself a Negro,” and eventually graduated from historically Black Morehouse College. A month later, he enlisted in the army as a “Negro” and was assigned to a “colored” Weather Detachment at Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama. In early 1943, however, he was transferred to Camp Shelby, because the Army Air Forces began barring Japanese Americans. It is not clear whether, at Camp Shelby, he joined the recently organized Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team stationed there, but the timing strongly suggests that he did. In a battle of competing one-drop rules, sometimes so-called Japanese blood won out. Charles Togo Ama’s Draft Registration Card. Courtesy Ancestry.com.

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