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Buffalo Soldiers' Assault on the Gothic Line - Sidebar: February '99 World War II Feature

Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: August 19, 1999 
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Slow Progress Toward Desegregation During WorldWar II

The performance of the 92nd Infantry Division sparked many debates, including some about the ethnicity of officers. Some of the military establishment felt that black troops performed better under black officers, but others believed that white officers were better-suited to command black soldiers.

Combat experience showed that troops performed best under good officers, regardless of their skin color. For the most part, the American military establishment considered the "experiment" of black combat troops a failure. The black press blamed segregation, while the Army's upper echelons cited racial inferiority, though not all white officers shared that opinion.

A look at the facts, however, suggests that both sides were wrong. The Buffalo Soldiers did indeed break through the Gothic Line. The setback in February 1945 had much to do with the German coastal guns, which survived repeated efforts to silence them.

The 92nd did have its share of problems. In some cases whole platoons were disarmed and arrested because of their performance, although many of the charges against the men were later dropped. It should be noted that, owing to the Army's inability to supply the number of replacements needed by the 92nd, troops who had formerly been absent without leave were sent to the black division from the East Coast processing center. Considering the 92nd's overall success during the Italian campaign, the unit's experience in World War II sounds far more like a success story than anything else.

Black Americans in uniform found themselves in a rather compromising situation during World War II. The black press, almost unanimously opposed to a segregated military, promoted the Double V campaign–a military victory for America overseas and a political victory for the black community at home. Judge William H. Hastie, the civilian aide to the secretary of war from 1940 to 1943, waged many political battles with the U.S. government on behalf of the black community. Hastie fought for the inclusion of blacks in combat units, the Medical Corps, the Army Nurse Corps and the Army Air Corps. He even struggled to abolish the unscientific practice of separating blood plasma according to race. Although Hastie was unable to make much headway in the fight against segregation during the war, he enjoyed many successes.

To its credit, the U.S. armed forces officially ended segregation in 1948–more than a decade and a half before the nation as a whole finally did the same.

During the Korean War, longstanding black units were disbanded and their troops transferred to integrated groups. At first, integration in Korea often meant that a regiment would have two white battalions with one black battalion in reserve. But as the fighting continued, that arrangement soon became impractical, and black GIs began replacing fallen white GIs at the front. Incidentally, blood plasma was finally "desegregated" on December 1, 1950.[ TOP ] [ Cover ]

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