African Americans in the Pacific in World War IIMedal of Honor Citation
More than 2.5 million African Americans registered for military service in World War II. Nearly 1.2 million African Americans served in World War II. While serving in the Army, Army Air Forces, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, African Americans experienced discrimination and segregation but met the challenge and persevered. Despite experiencing discrimination, these men and women served their country with distinction, made valuable contributions to the war effort, and earned high praises and commendations for their struggles and sacrifices.
None received the Medal of Honor during or after WWII. In the late 1990s, the Army conducted a three-year long review of the records of 10 World War II black heroes to determine if they met the standards for the Medal of Honor. Of these, seven names were submitted to Congress and the President.
At a crowded White House ceremony on 13 January 1997, President William J. Clinton bestowed the Medal of Honor on these seven African American veterans of World War II. Only one of the newest recipients, 77-year-old Vernon J. Baker, a platoon leader with the 92nd Infantry Division was still alive to receive his award. The others had died during the war or in the decades since and were represented by next of kin.
The honorees, as might be expected, mainly served with combat arms units – infantrymen, tankers, forward observers, and the like – with one notable exception. Private George Watson, of Birmingham, Alabama, was a Quartermaster soldier. He was also the only one of the seven to earn his medal while serving in the Pacific Theater.
Private Watson joined the Army in September 1942, completed his initial entry training at Fort Benning, GA, and was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 29th Quartermaster Regiment, bound for the Pacific Theater when he met his untimely demise. His unit was onboard the Dutch Steamer USAT Jacob near Porloch Harbor, New Guinea, on 8 March 1943, when suddenly they came under devastating attack by Japanese bombers.
Private Watson, a member of the 29th Quartermaster Regiment, was on board a ship hit by Japanese bombers off the coast of New Guinea on 8 March 1943. When the ship had to be abandoned, instead of seeking to save himself, he stayed in the water for a prolonged time courageously helping others. Weakened by his exertions, he was eventually dragged down by the sinking ship and was drowned.
SERVICE IN THE PACIFIC
The largest number of black military personnel joined the Army—nearly 75% of all African Americans enlisted. Black soldiers were in segregated units within the Army. Although most served in support and labor units, some served in combat units. Some of these units, when not used as labor, saw combat in mopping-up operations. The 93rd Infantry Division served in the Northern Solomons, the Bismarck Archipelago and New Guinea. The 24th Infantry Regiment served in the Northern Solomons and Western Pacific. The 372nd Infantry Regiment garrisoned Hawaii and the 364th Infantry Regiment was on garrison duty in Alaska and the Aleutians. Battalion sized combat units in the Pacific included one Coast Artillery battalion and thirteen anti-aircraft battalions.
The story of Leonard Dowden:
While on Jolo on 17 July 1945, a patrol from the 368th was ambushed by a Japanese force three times its size. When the firefight began, Sergeant Leonard E. Dowden moved his squad to within 30 yards of the enemy. He then crawled forward alone to assault a machine-gun position with grenades, despite being gravely wounded. He would be killed by a burst of fire as he was about to throw a grenade. The patrol was able to fight off the enemy attack with only 18 casualties. For the extraordinary heroism that cost him his life, Staff Sergeant Dowden received the Distinguished Service Cross. Originally from New Orleans, Louisiana, Staff Sergeant Dowden was the only member of the 93rd Infantry Division to earn the DSC during the war.
In China-Burma-India many African Americans served in Aviation Engineer units building airfields and in Construction units building the Burma and Ledo Roads. Many of the transportation units moving supplies on those roads were also African-American.
In the Pacific, African Americans served mainly as support personnel based on shore. Some served as Mess Stewards aboard ship and many of them volunteers to man guns while at General Quarters. Seven thousand also served in the Seabees. Several of the Seabee units saw combat on islands that were not yet secured.
The story of Doris Miller:
On December 7, 1941, during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Mess Attendant Doris "Dorie" Miller came to the aid of his shipmates on the U.S.S. West Virginia, helping to move the injured out of harm's way, including the mortally wounded captain. Though untrained in its use, Miller also manned an antiaircraft machine gun, downing several Japanese planes before being ordered to abandon the sinking ship. Miller's courage and devotion to duty at Pearl Harbor earned him the Navy Cross, the first ever awarded to an African American sailor. This honor is even greater in light of the fact African Americans were only allowed to serve in the messman's branch of the Navy at the time. Though later killed in action in 1943, Miller's legacy of bravery in the face of great danger and discrimination lives on.
The Marine Corps
The Marine Corps ended its 167-year ban on enlisting African Americans and finally enlisted its first black Marines in 1942. Records showed that nearly 17,000 African American Marines served in World War II but were mostly assigned to service units such as depot and ammunition companies. Although not combat units, they were often ashore before the fighting ended and saw combat. On Peleliu, Black Marines from service units volunteered to fight because the infantry had taken so many casualties.
Two African American combat units were formed by the Marine Corps. These were the 51st and 52nd Defense Battalions. They served on various islands as garrisons in the Pacific.
The Coast Guard
African Americans in the Coast Guard performed much the same duties as those in the Navy.
African American women also joined the military during World War II. They served in the Women's Army Corps and the WAVES, a women's division of the Navy. Even though an extreme shortage of nurses in World War II forced the federal government to seriously consider drafting white nurses, defense officials remained reluctant to recruit black nurses throughout the war. Allowing black nurses to care for whites was considered a violation of social norms. Nevertheless, the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, led by Mabel Staupers, and rights groups like the NAACP, loudly protested racial policies in the Army Nurse Corps and the military in general. These groups achieved some success. In the Pacific, African American nurses served in hospitals designated to care for Black troops.
At The Museum
At the National Museum of the Pacific War's George H. W. Bush Gallery contributions of African Americans are on display in the following exhibit areas: Pearl Harbor, Bataan and Corregidor, Solomon Islands, Tarawa, Arsenal of Democracy, Texans Pitch In, China-Burma-India, America Needs You, Undersea War, Okinawa and The Price of Freedom.