In early December 1944, shortages of infantry rifle replacements in the European theater increased
sharply. The theater had been experiencing shortfalls of riflemen since July 1944, and its Ground Force Replacement Command engaged
in a training program to convert enlisted men from other arms and services into the infantry. The December 16, 1944, German
counteroffensive in the Ardennes, however, exacerbated this need for riflemen still further. The only untapped source of manpower
and readily available was African American service units then serving in the European Theater of Operations (ETO).
Lieutenant General John C. H. Lee, General Eisenhower's deputy commander, ETO, provided a perfect solution when he suggested using the African American servicemen in the theater as volunteer infantry replacements. Since African American soldiers were already in the ETO in service units, and seemingly under utilized, Lee theorized that these men were a solution to the Army manpower dilemma. Lieutenant General Lee invited "a limited number of colored troops who have had infantry training" to accept "the privilege of joining our veteran units at the front... "allowing the men the opportunity to "fight shoulder to shoulder to bring about victory."
Because the issue of integrating African American and white units as equals in combat was still a sensitive one among senior officers and many civilians who remained committed to maintaining a segregated military, General Eisenhower sought to obscure the issue. Although fully aware that the need was for African American soldiers, Eisenhower insisted that Lee call for volunteers of both races, emphasizing the opportunity to fight rather than promise racial integration. Lee insisted publicly that in the event that the number of suitable Negro Volunteers exceed the replacement needs of Negro combat units, these men will be suitably incorporated in other organizations.
On the day after Christmas 1944, the call to volunteer as riflemen went out. Since white units had already been tapped, the response came from the audience for which the call was originally intended--African Americans soldiers. Within two months, almost 5,000 African American soldiers had signed up. Alarmed because so many of the men were volunteering for infantry duty and fearing their exodus would disrupt service duties, the theater limited the number of volunteers to 2,500.
Early in January 1945, the volunteers assembled for six weeks of standard infantry conversion training. After training, the African American infantrymen were organized into fifty three platoons, each under a white platoon leader and sergeant, and were dispatched to the field, two to fight with armored divisions--the 12th and the 14th Armored Divisions in the Seventh Army; and the rest to work with infantry divisions-including the lst, 2nd, 8th, 9th, 69th, 78th, 99th, 104th Infantry Divisions, First Army. Each platoon totaled some sixty men, about 50 per cent over normal strength to provide a ready source of replacements for battle casualties. Because they were African American, they had to provide their own replacements. No other source of trained infantry existed.
In the First Army the American platoons were usually assigned on the basis of three per division. The division receiving the platoons normally placed one platoon in each regiment. At the company level, the African American platoon augmented the standard organization of three rifle platoons and one heavy weapons platoon. In the Seventh Army, the platoons were organized into provisional companies and attached to infantry battalions in armored divisions. General B.O. Davis, the first African American general officer in the Regular Army, warned the Seventh Army commander, Lieutenant General Alexander M. Patch, that the men were not being used properly. In fact, the performance of the provisional companies failed to match the performance of the platoons integrated into white companies. Morale in the provisional companies was also lower. At the end of the war the theater commander made clear to the African American volunteers that integration was over. Although a large group was sent to the 69th Infantry Division to be returned home, most were reassigned to African American combat or service units in the army of occupation.
The experiment with integration of platoons was carefully scrutinized. In May and July 1945, the Research Branch of the Information and Education Division of Eisenhower's theater headquarters surveyed white company-grade officers and platoon sergeants to discover what they thought of the combat performance of African American rifle platoons. Interviewers visited seven infantry divisions and asked the same question of 250 men--all the available company officers and a sample of platoon sergeants in twenty-four companies that had had African American platoons. In addition, a questionnaire, not to be signed, was submitted to approximately 1,700 white enlisted men in other field forces for the purpose of discovering their attitudes toward the use of African American riflemen. No African Americans were interviewed.
More than 80 percent of the white officers and noncommissioned officers who were interviewed reported that African American soldiers had performed "very well" in combat; 69 percent of the officers and 83 percent of the noncommissioned officers saw no reason why African American infantrymen should not perform as well as white infantrymen if both had the same training and experience. Most reported getting along very well" with the African American volunteers; the heavier the combat shared, the closer and better the relationships. Nearly all the officers questioned admitted that the camaraderie between white and African American troops was far better than they had expected. Most enlisted men reported that they had at first disliked and even been apprehensive at the prospect of having African American troops in their companies, but three-quarters of them had changed their minds after serving with African Americans in combat, and their mistrust was replaced with respect. Of the officers and noncommissioned officers, 77 percent had more favorable feelings toward African American after serving in close proximity to them, the others reported no change in attitude. A majority of officers approved the idea of organizing African American in platoons to serve in white companies; the practice, they said, would stimulate the spirit of competition between races, avoid friction with prejudiced whites, eliminate discrimination, and promote interracial understanding.
General Brehon B. Somervell, commanding general of the Army Service Forces, questioned the advisability of releasing the report. He believed that the small sample of men used was insignificant and conclusions based on this sample were inconclusive. Furthermore, Somervell argued that releasing the report might encourage the NAACP to pressure the Army for similar experiments involving troops in training in the United States and even those engaged in fighting in the Pacific theaters. Such unwanted pressure, he believed, would hamper the war effort. But his real concern was the political implications of integration. Many members of Congress, newspaper editors, and others who had given strong support to the War Department were, he contended, "vigorously opposed" to integration under any conditions. Their powerful opposition might, in turn, adversely affect public support for a postwar program of universal military training.
General Omar N. Bradley, the senior American field commander in Europe took a different approach. Writing for the theater headquarters and drawing upon sources that included the personal observations of some officers, General Bradley discounted the significance of the experience. Most of the African American platoons, he said, had participated mainly in mopping-up operations or combat against a disorganized enemy. Nor could the soldiers involved in the experiment be considered typical, in Bradley's opinion. They were volunteers of above average intelligence according to their commanders. Finally, Bradley contended that, while no racial trouble emerged during combat, the mutual friendship fostered by fighting a common enemy was, on occasion, threatened when the two races were closely associated in rest and recreational areas. Nevertheless, he agreed that the performance of platoons was satisfactory enough to warrant continuing the experiment but recommended the use of draftees with average qualifications. At the same time, he moved away from further integration by suggesting that the experiment be expanded to include employment of entire rifle companies in white regiments to avoid some of the social difficulties encountered in rest areas.
General George C. Marshall, the Chief of Staff, agreed with both Somervell and Bradley. Although Marshall thought that the possibility of integrating African American units into white should be "followed up," he believed that the survey should not be made public because "the conditions under which the [African American] platoons were organized were most unusual." Additionally, Marshall believed that too many of the circumstances of the experiment were special--the voluntary recruitment of men for front line duty, the relatively high number of noncommissioned officers among the volunteers, and the fact that the volunteers were slightly older and scored higher in achievement tests than the average African American soldier. Moreover, throughout the experiment some degree of segregation, with all its attendant psychological and morale problems had been maintained.
Nevertheless, the platoon experience was illuminating in several respects. The fact that so late [arguably at the height] in the war thousands of African Americans volunteered to trade the relative safety of the rear for duty at the front spoke volumes about African American patriotism. It said much about the African American's unrelenting passion for equality. The experiment also successfully attacked one of the traditionalists' shibboleths, that close association of the races in Army units would cause social dissension. More importantly, the use of the African American volunteers in infantry units represented a successful and intelligent use of manpower --regardless of color-- in wartime. The complete lesson, that of using men in integrated units to the fullest potential, was one that was not articulated until, July 26, 1948 when President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, calling on the armed forces to provide equal treatment and opportunity for all servicemen.
For further information on African American Volunteer Infanry Replacements, see Chapter XXII, Volunteer Infantry Replacements, The Employment of Negro Troops, by Ulysees Lee, U.S. Army in World War II series.