The global conflict between the Axis and the Allies was the costliest—in terms of both life and money—the world had ever seen. By the time it was formally concluded on September 2, 1945, over a million African Americans had served in the U.S. military in the struggle against Germany, Japan, and Italy.
A number of African American units were honored with Distinguished Unit Citations for their service during the war, including the 614th Tank Destroyer Battalion and the 969th Field Artillery Battalion.
The Tuskegee Airmen
Pressure from the NAACP and the African American press caused the War Department to form the African American 99th Pursuit Squadron. On July 19, 1941, the U.S. Army opened its first flight training facility for African Americans at the Tuskegee (Alabama) Army Air Field.
The following March, the first of the Tuskegee Airmen graduated. In all, Tuskegee trained 992 pilots, of whom 450 flew missions in North Africa. The Airmen destroyed 261 enemy aircraft, and won over 850 medals.
FDR Cuts a Deal
Under heavy pressure from African American civil rights leaders threatening a march on Washington, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 in June of 1941. The order barred discrimination on racial or religious grounds in government programs and industrial programs. FDR's action did not end racial segregation in the military or anywhere else … but it did make possible the first African American Marine Corps unit the following year.
As a result of the executive order, roughly 19,000 African Americans served in World War II as Marines. They were trained at Camp Montford Point in Lejeune, North Carolina, and came to be known as the Montford Point Marines. Many were honored for bravery in combat.