African Americans who served in the military during World War II often spoke of fighting a double V victory, victory against the Nazis overseas and victory against the racism and oppression in America. While there is much scholarship on this subject, the focus tends to be on southern military camps. African American soldiers are lumped together in one large mass of similar experiences, largely ignoring the diverse background that African American military personnel came from. This narrative is important, but scholars fail to view the black experience as individual and dynamic.
By focusing on a military base in Massachusetts, I argue that northern military camps were hotspots of civil rights unrest, that the military both promoted and held back civil rights, and that African American military personnel during World War II included more than poor, male southerners conscripted into the army. The following stories provide a compelling look at how African Americans in northern military camps fought for civil rights and found new identities. From an African American male soldier who grew up in a white neighborhood in Cambridge, MA and learned about black culture in a segregated army to an investigation of a court-martial of female African American nurses at Fort Devens, these stories debunk myths of the African American military personnel during World War II as poor, southern, uneducated, male conscripts, and speak of how a segregated army shaped their identity and united many African Americans to fighting civil rights in both military and civilian society.
Fort Devens BackgroundAs America prepared for World War I, the U.S. Army looked to set up temporary camps in 1917 to enlist, train and deploy soldiers. Due to its close proximity to the railways in Ayer, Massachusetts, the Army saw this area as an ideal location. Read More.
In a matter of ten weeks, the small town of Ayer, with approximately 2,500 people, mostly white, became a center of people of many different national origins and races. People of different European descent and people of other races descended upon Central Massachusetts and created a diverse environment on a 5,000 square mile piece of land while the surrounding communities maintained their homogenous society. Some embraced these differences, others did not.
The majority of the soldiers at Camp Devens came from New England. The lowest number of soldiers was in September 1917 with 21,324 all white and the highest was June 1918 with 42, 219 white and 4,367 non-white and 1,463 officers (statistics for race not given in the officer category as most, if not all, officers were white). Movement in and out of the camps was constant but the majority of soldiers came from New England, Florida, New York and transfers from other camps. 1 The first African American soldiers arrived in April 1918.2 The U.S. government called on African Americans to serve during World War I. At Camp Devens, the African American soldiers served in the 366th infantry as quartermasters. Only twenty five percent of all African American soldiers during World War I served in combat units and the 93rd Division was given to France to fight under their leaders. The 92nd Division was formed in the U.S. but the soldiers were spread around the nation and did not train together in large groups in order to keep the threat of, or better yet Southern fears of, African American soldiers attacking fellow Americans. 3
The government kept a watchful eye on African American soldiers during World War I to prevent subversion and any dangers they saw towards America. Shortly before African American soldiers arrived at Camp Devens, intelligence officers (IO) were instructed to see if "agitators" from the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and like organizations were trying to gather the African American soldiers and fight for equal rights. This led to a ban on the African American newspaper, Crisis. Shortly before the war ended, the NAACP investigated complaints that the young southern white officers were treating African American soldiers poorly, verbally and physically abusing them, and using them as manual laborers instead of being trained in a military capacity. An investigation was ordered but the IO denied any problems within the camp and said the black soldiers were happy because they were better clothed and fed on camp than they were at home. 4 The IO also went on to say that "blacks were naturally muscular and better suited for unskilled labor." 5 The government hid under the camouflage of war patriotism. The military made sure that African Americans did not have a voice during World War I.
While on the outside, the hope and togetherness of World War I seemed to be strong and promising, underneath the same sentiments existed that would only make matters worse as racial tensions rose in the coming decades, especially during World War II.
Once the war was over, Camp Devens was put on caretaker status went home until it became permanent military base in the 1930s. And during World War II, African Americans serving at Fort Devens made sure their voices were heard.