Brendan Koerner, author of Now the Hell Will Start, spoke with boing boing last week. Here part of his discussion with Joe L. on the treatment of black soldiers during WWII:
JL: Did most black soldiers in WWII get shipped off for work duty and not combat?
BK: Exactly. We hear about the showpiece units, like the Tuskegee Airmen but the vast majority of black soldiers were used as laborers. The War Department bought into the dodgy racial science of the day and believed that black soldiers were biologically unfit for combat. There were all these scientists who'd analyzed cadavers and concluded that black soldiers lacked the necessary heel-bone length to march long distances. Crazy.
JL: And is this something that would have been known to the black soliders at the time? That they were thought to be sub-human? Or at least sub-par for combat?
BK: It was a huge topic in the black press at the time. There were scientists at Howard and other black universities who argued against this faulty science to no avail. The black press also advocated a campaign called the "Double V" for "Victory at home and abroad."
The idea was, if black soldiers fought valiantly they would earn civil rights back in the U.S. So may blacks wanted the right to fight, rather than just toil behind the frontlines.
Koerner also spoke about why the US tried to build a road through the Burmese jungle during WWII in the first place:
JL: Part of what surprised me...and I think it's related to the misuse of black soldiers and their talent in a way is how utterly pointless the Ledo Road ended up being. It's just heartbreaking. Not just for Perry, but for thousands of these soldiers.
BK: Yeah, it was a project with a noble intention, definitely. I think it's a classic case of what happens when you put decisionmaking power in the hands of people without first-hand knowledge of conditons on the ground. The Army actually sent a major out to survey the jungle and he reported back that the project wouldn't work--or would take many years to complete. But the Army ignored him in part because FDR wanted to mollify the Chinese but also because the generals looked at their maps and said, "Road goes here!" And as the war progressed and airlifts became a more credible option they kept on building the Road because to back out at that point would have resulted in lost face for some very important folks.
The men in the field paid the (ultimate) price.