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African American War Heroes

African Americans have fought bravely in every major military action since colonial times. Often times black soldiers and sailors are forced to battle twin foes: the wartime enemy and racism both inside and outside of military service. Inside the military black soldiers have often been ordered to perform dangerous missions, while at other times being relegated to menial labor duties such as building roads, cooking, or burying the dead.

African Americans  were effectively barred from serving in any military branch besides the army until World War II.  After each war ended Black Americans continually had their military contributions minimized, yet they often clung to the belief that military service in wartime could lead to greater freedom and opportunity for all African Americans.

The Revolutionary War set precedents for black military service. Both Africans and African Americans fought on both sides of this war, often as a means for a black slave to win his freedom, or improve his standing in the community.  After the war ended, slaves that fought for the British were either returned to their master or evacuated to Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone. Black soldiers from the north who had fought bravely in such battles as Bunker Hill helped convince leaders in several states to abolish slavery in later years.

107th colored infantry part of the union army during the civil warUpon the outbreak of the Civil War at Fort Sumter, many freed African American men answered the call of the nation. Unfortunately, a 1792 Federal law barred African American from enlisting in the Army. It wasn't until 1682 that Congress all slaves from their confederate masters. This was followed by President Abraham Lincoln formally issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, executive orders which freed remaining slaves from the confederate south. African American Soldiers fought on both sides of the Civil War, but this can be considered a rare instance in that African American Soldiers on both sides won. These Soldiers had much to prove and they did so with valor and sacrifice beyond what many Soldiers could hope to never be forced to face.

During the Union's second assault on Fort Wagner in 1863, the 54th MVIR, one of the nation's first African American units, launched a brave, yet unsuccessful attacked on the heavily fortified confederate stronghold. Though the regiment failed to take the fort, the Soldiers of the 54th MSVIR proved their unshakable determination and dedication to duty to many of their critics. When the Civil War finally came to an end, 16 African American Soldiers had been awarded the Medal of Honor.

Following the Civil War, the Army disbanded volunteer “colored” regiments, and established six Regular Army regiments of black troops with white officers. In 1869, the infantry regiments were reorganized into the 24th and 25th Infantry. The two cavalry regiments, the 9th and 10th, were retained. These regiments were posted in the West and Southwest where they were heavily engaged in the Indian War. During the Spanish-American War, all four regiments saw service.

all black 369th infantry "Harlem Hell Fighters" World War I african american heroesWhen World War I broke out, there were four all-black regiments: the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry. The men in these units were considered heroes in their communities. Within one week of Wilson’s declaration of war, the War Department had to stop accepting black volunteers because the quotas for African Americans were filled.

With the creation of African American units also came the demand for African-American officers. The War Department thought the soldiers would be more likely to follow men of their own color, thereby reducing the risk of any sort of uprising. Most leaders of the African American community agreed, and it was decided that the Army would create a segregated, but supposedly equal, officer training camp. In May 1917, Fort Des Moines opened its doors to black officer-trainees. Approximately 1,250 men attended the camp in Des Moines, Iowa.

African Americans made up over one million of the more than 16 million U.S. men and women to serve in World War II. Some of these men served in infantry, artillery, and tank units. As General George S. Patton Jr. swept across France into Germany, in his Third Army were African American combat units. In 1945, there were approximately 240 field artillery battalions in Europe. Approximately eight of these battalions were composed of African Americans. The 999th Field Artillery was one of these African American battalions in Patton’s Third Army. They manned an eight-inch Howitzer that could fire at 200 lb. Projectile up to 10 miles. In combat, this battalion fired approximately 22,200 rounds.

Tuskegeeairmen was founded by Booker T. Washington,The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American military aviators in the United States armed forces. During World War II, African Americans in many U.S. states still were subject to racist, so-called Jim Crow laws. The American military was racially segregated, as was much of the federal government. The Tuskegee Airmen were subject to racial discrimination, both within and outside the army. Despite these adversities, they trained and flew with distinction. Although the 477th Bombardment Group "worked up" on North American B-25 Mitchell bombers, they never served in combat; the Tuskegee 332nd Fighter Group was the only operational unit, first sent overseas as part of Operation Torch, then in action in Sicily and Italy, before being deployed as bomber escorts in Europe where they were particularly successful in their missions.

The Vietnam War saw the highest proportion of blacks ever to serve in an American war. During the height of the U.S. involvement, 1965-69, blacks, who formed 11 percent of the American population, made up 12.6 percent of the soldiers in Vietnam. The majority of these were in the infantry, and although authorities differ on the figures, the percentage of black combat fatalities in that period was a staggering 14.9 percent, a proportion that subsequently declined. Volunteers and draftees included many frustrated blacks whose impatience with the war and the delays in racial progress in America led to race riots on a number of ships and military bases, beginning in 1968, and the services' response in creating interracial councils and racial sensitivity training.

The participation of Americans of African descent in the U.S. military has a long and distinguished history. But although African Americans have participated in all American wars, they have sometimes faced almost as bitter a hostility from their fellow Americans as from the enemy. Nevertheless, particularly since the 1970s, the U.S. military has made a serious effort at racial integration, and while much remains to be done, the military has achieved a degree of success in this area that surpasses most civilian institutions.

From the beginning of the United States to current times, Black Americans have served our country bravely. Today, African Americans compose around 17 percent of the US military. Click on the names below for a complete biography with photos of some of America's greatest Black War Heroes.


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761st Tank Battalion    First Lieutenant Vernon J. Baker   James Armistead     Rear Admiral Barry C. Black  
Major General Charles F. Bolden, Jr. Corporal Buddie Branch    Vice Admiral David L. Brewer III   Rear Admiral Erroll M. Brown  
 Staff Sergeant Edward A. Carter, Jr.  Brigadier General Roscoe C. Cartwright     Rear Admiral Osie V. Combs    
Four Star General Benjamin Davis   Major General Arnold Fields    Rear Admiral Lillian Fishburne    First Lieutenant John R. Fox 
Vice Admiral Samuel Gravely, Jr.   Major General James F. Hamlet   Harlem Hellfighters   4 Star General Daniel James Jr.  
Private First Class Willy F. James, Jr.    Corporal Harry Johns    Major Robert H. Lawrence, Jr.   
Staff Sergeant Aubrey L. McDade, Jr.    Vice-Admiral Ed Moore   Four Star General Lloyd W. Newton   
Captain Joseph N. Peterson   General Colin Powell    Captain Ronald A. Radcliffe   Admiral J. Paul Reason   
Four Star General Edward A. Rice Jr.    Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers  Clifford Chester Sims   Robert Smalls   
Major General Clifford L. Stanley    Tuskegee Airmen   Lieutenant Colonel Merryl (David) Tengesdal   
Captain Charles L. Thomas      Private George Watson    Major General Leo V. Williams, III     Colonel Charles Young
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