when it comes to popular Hollywood movies (I am not referring to Fury now, but there are many others), it’s a trend of source to depict the war from our current point of view. This often involves unhistorical elements, such as the common display of mixed (black and white) troops fighting together. Let’s have a look at what the position of black men in US Army really was.
During WW2, the US Army was racially segregated. Black men were called “negroes” and the word was not used as a racial slur, it was simply a term for blacks and they were formed into troops separated from the white majority of soldiers. They were led by black officers as well, although some command positions were occupied by white men due to the lack of properly trained black officers. The most notable examples were the 92nd and 93rd Infantry Division and 2nd Cavalry Division, but there were also independent black infantry regiments and tank batallions (such as the 761st Tank Batallion). There was even one black parachute infantry company (555th Parachute Infantry Company), but that unit was never deployed in combat and was used to fight forest fires in the north-western region of the USA. Practically the only black unit, involved in larger combat operations was the 92nd Infantry Division (Italian theater), although some smaller independent units were involved in fighting as well. A part of the 93rd Infantry Division was fighting small-scale battles in the Pacific. 2nd Cavalry Division on the other hand never had a contact with the enemy.
There were also black units with the USAAF, such as the 332nd Fighter Group, attached to the 15th USAAF in the Mediterranean region. This unit was activated on 13.10.1942 by combining the 100th, 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons, later on (1.5.1944) joined by the first black fighter unit of the USAAF ever, 99th Pursuit Squadron (which was activated on 13.3.1941 and was until that point operating independently or in cooperation with various white fighter units). Its members were trained in Tuskegee, Alabama and as such were often referred to as “Tuskegee Airmen”. It’s worth noting that this unit actually operated over wartime Czechoslovakia at the end of the war, adding to the local myth that “all the American fighter-bomber pilots are black men”, which originally started with sightings of American pilots flying low above ground looking “black” in their cockpits due to the masks they wore. Another black air unit was the 447th Composite Group, but that unit was never deployed actively.
The members of the black units were – according to the doctrine of “separate but equal” – having the same rights and duties as other soldiers, but due to the amount of prejudice in (not only) American armed forces, this was sometimes just a theory, as black men were treated differently than the whites, were not considered to be equal to the white troops and despite the US Army command attempts to remedy the situation, it was not solved well after the war. One of the specific symptoms of this approach were the attempts to transfer black soldiers to second line duties, specifically the Army Service Forces, that included supply troops, gunsmiths, repairmen, builders or drivers, as opposite to the fighting Army Ground Fores. Of 885 thousand black troopers in WW2, only roughly 25 percent served in combat units and even some of those combat units never left the USA. This was the result of the US society prejudice, but it also had objective reasons: black education level was generally low and many black troopers were objectively not prepared enough to fulfill requiring combad duties, especially when it came to commanding troops. Another factor was the assumed resistance to racial integration from the white troopers from southern states of the USA, where the attitude to black men was at that time very poor.
During the Ardennes operation, black volunteers from the Army Service Forces formed up ad-hoc rifle platoons and companies (“replacement rifle platoons/companies”), that were sent as reinforcements to the tired white units without any issues in cooperation. The success of this went as far as some officers proposing the estabilishment of mixed units, but this plan never went anywhere. This was due to the fact that while the US Army was trying to mitigate the results of the entire issue, there was no real plan to change the situation completely, because it was felt that additional pointless issues like that would interfere with the war effort. What was done however was that the officers at least made sure that the recreation options of both sides were comparable. In the end, a solution came only after the war by Harry S. Truman’s executive order no.9981 from 26.7.1948, that started full integration of black troops into the army. This effort was officially finished under Dwight D. Eisenhower (30.10.1954). Segregation was also applied in the US Navy, with – analogically to the army – the transfers of black sailors to menial duties such as stewards and cooks.
As conclusion, it’s worth noting that some of the black soldiers were fighting extremely bravely. On the other hand, especially in Korea, several black units were dishonorably disbanded for cowardice in battle. Generally, it can be said that the performance of black troops was mixed, but adequate. There is a sort of movie trope these days to display the black soldiers as “warriors” of superior skill, which however is just as wrong as the myth of black soldier inferiority and is only a mirror of the current existing relations within the (not only) American society and not of the past.