African Americans have served the U.S. military in every conflict our country has fought. While President Harry S. Truman’s order technically ended segregation in the military in 1948, Black service members continued to fight battles on two fronts – against the enemy overseas and against racism at home. This February, we share the inspiring stories of African American Veterans who showed tremendous courage and heroism during World War II.

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz pins a Navy Cross on Mess Attendant Second Class Miller during a ceremony aboard the USS Enterprise (CV-6) at Pearl Harbor, on May 27, 1942. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

Doris “Dorie” Miller

More than one million African American men and women served in every branch of the U.S. armed forces during World War II. Civil rights leader and author Booker T. Washington shared, “I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.” One such inspiring story of service is that of Doris “Dorie” Miller. He was assigned to the USS West Virginia as a Mess Attendant Third Class, one of the few ratings open to Black sailors at the time. During the attack on Pearl Harbor, Miller saved his mortally wounded captain and then manned a 50-caliber Browning antiaircraft machine gun. He fired at attacking Japanese planes until he was ordered to abandon ship. Miller shot down between four and six Japanese planes. For his efforts, he was awarded the Navy Cross, becoming the first African American to receive that citation.

First Lieutenant Vernon Baker

The 92nd Infantry Division was the only African American infantry division that participated in combat in Europe. It was part of the U.S. Fifth Army, fighting in the Italian Campaign. The division served from 1944 to the end of World War II. In the spring of 1945, First Lieutenant Vernon Baker, U.S. Army, was in command of Weapons Platoon, C Company, 1st Battalion, 370th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Infantry Division near Viareggio, Italy. On April 5, his unit was ordered to assault a German occupied mountain stronghold, Castle Aghinolfi. In doing so, Baker personally eliminated three enemy machineguns, an observation post, and a dugout. Nineteen of the 25 men in Baker’s platoon were killed due to heavy machine gun and mortar fire. On the second day of the assault, Baker volunteered to lead a battalion advance that secured the mountain. His leadership was an inspiration to those who served with him. On June 10, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and then upgraded to the Medal of Honor on January 13, 1997. Baker and six other Black Americans who served in World War II were awarded the Medal of Honor, but he was the only living recipient.

Vernon Baker, US Army, World War II Medal of Honor recipient. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army.
Harriett West Waddy was in the first class of WAAC Officer Candidate School at Fort Des Moines, Iowa. She served as the WAC Director’s advisor on African-American women and was the first African-American women promoted to the rank of major. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Women’s Museum.

Lieutenant Colonel Harriet West Waddy

Lieutenant Colonel Harriet West Waddy served her country in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) despite the blatant inequality that came with being both female and African American. Waddy saw her role in WAC as an opportunity to take an active role in changing the status of African American women in the military and was appointed an advisor to the Army on racial issues. We share more of her inspiring story in our blog, World War II Pioneer: Lieutenant Colonel Harriet West Waddy.

Black History Month is a time to recognize and celebrate the achievements, sacrifices and contributions made by African Americans. We recognize the fortitude and resilience Veterans of color have demonstrated during their military service and the military values they continue to uphold even in the face of obstacles and challenges. This month and every month, we honor them for their service and thank them for our freedoms.

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