An Uncensored Digital History of the Black GI in World War II

Today’s post is written by Edward J.K. Gitre, Ph.D, Assistant Professor of History at Virginia Tech and Director of The American Soldier in World War II Project.

“Colored soldiers is not treated worth a dam [sic] in Louisiana. They don’t have no rights and no say-so!… One of us colored soldiers got on the city bus in Alexandria and the white civilians beat him up on the bus—they say ‘no dam nigger had no business with a uniform on’; next thing he had no dam business on the bus… One night we went to Alexandria and white civilians ran behind our trucks and shot in the trucks. Three soldiers were killed and nothing was done about it… White M.P. shot and killed a Negro soldier in town Thanksgiving night and nothing was ever did [sic] about it. This colored soldier was a M.P. too.”  -an answer to question 78 from Army Survey 32

Question 78 of Survey 32, March 1943 (NAID 854569)

The World War II African American soldier supplying this information to the Army was stationed at the time at Camp Claiborne in central Louisiana. Alexandria was the closest town and lay about twenty to thirty miles to the northeast, adjacent the southern banks of the Red River. Local law enforcement officials relied on white military police from nearby Army installations—Claiborne was just one of several—to enforce with impunity the town’s rigid Jim Crow regulations, including segregation.

In January 1942, separate from the above incident, twenty-eight black troopers, a young woman bystander, and a police officer were all shot in a “riot” involving 60 white MPs, 20 city police officers, and 10 state troopers. “As in other cases, Saturday’s riot, one of the worst, had its roots in the undemocratic policy of the War department which places emphasis upon racial differences through the practices of segregation,” charged the Chicago Defender (“Probe Riot of Troops after 30 are injured,” 17 Jan. 1942, 1).

The black GI furnished his testimony of racial violence in central Louisiana not to a Chicago Defender reporter, to federal officials, or in an open courtroom, but reported his account in an anonymous social survey on race relations administered by the Army’s in-house social and behavioral scientists in March 1943, “Survey 32” (or more formally, “Attitudes of (or towards) Negroes (PS-32)”, NAID 854569). One questionnaire was furnished to a cross-section sample of 4,800 white men from 71 units at 10 installations, while another version was given to 7,434 black enlisted men from 61 units stationed at 18 Army installations, from Fort Lewis, Washington, to Tuskegee, Alabama, and up to Devens, Massachusetts.

Page from PS-32_ Technical documentation.224.1DP
Survey 32 Technical Documentation (NAID 854569)

Survey 32, and many dozens just like it, contain a goldmine of uncensored information about the experiences, opinions, behaviors, feelings, and backgrounds of individual American GIs who served in World War II. The Special Services’s Research Branch launched their first full-scale survey the very next day after Pearl Harbor, in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and over the course of the conflict administered scores more at points across the globe, from Bermuda, Iceland, India-Burma, and Italy, to the Middle East, Panama, and the Persian Gulf, as well as across the Pacific and into the combat zones of the European Theater of Operations.

In addition to collecting demographic information that was not already available in Army records, researchers asked soldiers about myriad facets of their military service and combat experience. They asked about their training, leave policies, job assignments, medical care, and their commanding officers, as well as about the columns they read in Yank magazine and how often they read, what radio programs they listened to, how often they visited a USO facility, what recreation gear they preferred (boxing gloves or basketballs?), how often they had sexual relations and if they used a “pro kit,” what they liked in their ration kits (eggs, stew, gum), how they felt about the War and America’s Allies, and in this and other surveys about current race relations.

These and many other questions were posed to approximately half a million service members by the small, perpetually understaffed outfit of social and behavioral scientists that ran the Army’s survey program. Their mission was to identify ways of improving the organization while also helping the nation’s 16 million “citizen-soldiers” adjust to life in the Army. At war’s end, Samuel Stouffer, the research director, transferred cabinets’ worth of IBM punch cards up to Harvard University, to be reanalyzed by him and former members of his staff. Eventually these cards were transferred to magnetic tape then to ASCII-formatted data files, which are available through Cornell’s Roper Center, which did the transfer, and through the National Archives Catalog for download in the series American Soldier in World War II Surveys, 1942-1945 (NAID 620483).

The testimony quoted at the top was captured by a “free-comment” question. Commonly used on surveys to solicit unstructured feedback, the prompt appeared at the top of a blank rule-lined page. “Use the space below to write any other comments you have about any part of this questionnaire,” Question 78 reads. More than 5,900 of the 12,245 white and black enlisted men took the opportunity the prompt provided to tell the Army exactly what they thought about their military experience. We know the number because just as Stouffer saved tens upon tens of thousands of IBM punch cards, the Army preserved 65,000-plus pages of anonymous handwritten commentaries by having them photographed in the autumn of 1947 onto microfilm rolls.

The history of the civil rights movement has been told chiefly through the eyes of African American community leaders and activists. We have also long known that many soldiers came home from World War II to help lead the charge, having been inspired by their service and by “Double V,” the NAACP’s and black press’s wartime campaign for racial equality: “victory over our enemies from without” and “victory over our enemies within.”

What we have not had a clear sense of is how far “Double V” traveled or how it may have shaped the everyday experiences of black mechanics, dishwashers, and clerks during the war. The ”free comments” written by service members in response to these Army social surveys promise to fill that gap in vibrant pointillist detail by offering a cross-sectional view of the entire population of black enlisted soldiers.

While comparing the results of white and black GIs, researchers noticed a striking commonality. “[P]hrases which white enlisted men used to express their dissatisfaction with the military system were in many instances exact duplicates of phrases which some of the more vocal Negro civilians have been using for years with reference to their treatment at the hands of white society,” the staff wrote in The American Soldier: Adjustment during Army Life (1949), in the first of four volumes published after the war detailing the research branch’s methods and results.

“When white soldiers wrote about authoritarian practices in the Army, ‘They treat us like dogs,’ or ‘This is supposed to be a democracy,’ or ‘Why don’t they treat us like men?, the phrases have a familiar ring to those acquainted with Negro protests” (p. 503). What also struck researchers as they pored over the free-comments was how frequently black enlisted men defined their situation in the Army in “racial terms.”

“Many complaints common to soldiers of both races acquired a special significance among Negro soldiers by being invested with the quality of racial discrimination,” the research team wrote. “Thus it became not merely a matter of lack of recreation facilities, poor food, slowness of promotions, and so on—all such specific points of dissatisfaction took on the potentiality of being regarded as instances of discrimination against Negroes” (p. 502). Commentary after handwritten commentary reflects a sharp and profound sense of racial solidarity among black service members that was fortified not only by their everyday encounters with racial inequality, intimidation, and violence in places like Alexandria, Louisiana, but so also in their refutation of official propaganda.

Question 78 of Survey 32, March 1943 (NAID 854569)

“Is Democracy suppose to be for the White or Colored? It cant possibly be the later. What are we, am I, really fighting for? If its what the newspapers claim, I cant appreciate it, nor the fact I’m segregated on a so-called Negro post, the street cars, theatres, restaurants in a so-called democratic country. There must be a hidden reason. Has Germany treated the Jews more harshly than the Southern and Northern ‘cracker’ treated the American Negro? Of course the answer is yes but they never claimed to be a true Democracy and we have. They have me in the army and there is very little I can do about, but at least please advance some more logical and truthful slogan than ‘Fighting for Democracy.’ How can one fight for something one knows little or nothing about? Something that is the privilege of the chosen few?”

The hypocrisy of high-minded slogans offended a common desire shared by both white and Black enlisted men that the Army recognize the skills and experience they had acquired as civilians and put them to good use to advance the war effort. “The Negro soldier would easily be one of the best and loyalist men in the army if given a half way chance. But the way this army is working you have no chance,” another black respondent wrote in response to Question 78. One week he was a wing assembler on B-17s, the next a hospital porter, a “job that a 70 year old man or woman could do.” “The co. commander says I will never see a gun.  Do you think I feel as if I was doing any thing in this war. Hell No.”

Question 78 of Survey 32, March 1943 (NAID 854569)

Uncensored reflections such as these have long been available for consultation at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. But until now, they were available only at NARA, in Opinion Surveys Relating to the Morale of US Army Personnel, 1947-1947 (NAID 2521127) – which is a single un-reproduced collection on 44 microfilm rolls. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, an interdisciplinary team of scholars based at Virginia Tech has partnered with the National Archives to make the Special Services Research Branch’s entire collection, including these commentaries, available to both the public and to scholars. Right now in fact you can visit the 1.7-million-member crowdsourcing platform Zooniverse and contribute to our effort to get all 65,000-plus pages transcribed. The team is also exploring other semi-automated techniques that combine machine-learning and human intelligence to unlock the rest of the survey data in those ASCII-formatted files, with an eye toward reuniting that data with the handwritten soldier commentaries.

Once completed, The American Soldier in World War II will offer the public the most authentic and comprehensive portrait of the largest and most variegated citizen-soldier army in the nation’s history.

Further Reading and Resources:

Records that are being used in the American Soldier in World War II Project come from:

  • Opinion Surveys Relating to the Morale of US Army Personnel, 8/19/1947-10/15/1947, A1 477A, RG 165 NAID 2521127
  • American Soldier in World War II Surveys, 1942-1945, RG 330 NAID 620483

The American Soldier in World War II transcription project is available on Zooniverse

Guglielmo, Thomas A. A Martial Freedom Movement: Black GI’s Political Struggles during World War II, Journal of American History, Volume 104, Issue 4, 1 March 2018, Pages 879–903

Stouffer, Samuel A. et al. Studies in Social Psychology in World War II, 4 vols. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1949-50)

This publication uses data generated via the platform, development of which is funded by generous support, including a Global Impact Award from Google, and by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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