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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.

Company E 141st Infantry Regiment

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Company E, 141st Infantry Regiment, pictured here at Camp Bowie in Texas, in October 1941, was a rarity in the World War II US Army: it was composed entirely of Mexican American recruits, at least initially. Unlike African Americans and to a lesser extent Japanese Americans, Mexican Americans, with one or two short-lived exceptions, served in so-called white outfits. Even Company E eventually included non-Mexican Americans and was always attached to the “white” 141st Infantry Regiment, which was attached to the “white” 36th Infantry Division. All these outfits saw extensive combat in Europe, taking part in the liberation of Rome in June 1944. The Mexican American Company E, 141st Infantry Regiment at Camp Bowie in Texas in October 1941. Courtesy of Alex J. Carrillo Jr.

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