The answer can be found by looking behind the front lines. Eighty percent of Black GIs in World War II were in the service forces. Throughout its history, the US military assigned the overwhelming majority of Black troops to service forces, where they often toiled in segregated pick and shovel brigades. This was the experience of most Black GIs for the first three years of World War II. However, the mechanization of the US Armed Forces, which put infantry and supplies on wheels to keep up with tanks and airplanes, created an unanticipated demand for larger and more skilled service forces. The US Army solved this manpower shortage by relying on Black GIs, and in the process, made Black GIs indispensable to keeping the American war machine running.
Starting in 1944, except for replacements in Black combat units, almost all Black GIs were assigned to service units. This included many Black GIs who had been in combat units previously. By July 1945, 93 percent of Black GIs were in service forces. How did these men help win World War II? As Black GIs had in earlier wars, they cooked food, dug ditches, gathered the dead, served White officers, and washed laundry. But, in World War II, they also built bridges, roads, and runaways. They repaired engines and radios.
Most significantly, because the effort involved the largest number of Black GIs, they transported bombs, bullets, food, gasoline, and water to soldiers on the front lines. Rather than documenting these efforts with charts and statistics, this article looks at the experiences of four Black GIs — two in the European theater and two in the Pacific theater — in the Quartermaster Corps, the Army’s chief logistics branch. These stories, taken from oral history interviews, reveal the contributions these Black veterans made to specific campaigns in World War II. In the process of learning how they helped win the war, it will become clear that Black GIs in the service forces often risked their lives to perform their duties and, sadly, felt their contributions were unappreciated.
Lawrence Young’s military career in World War II demonstrates that incorporating Black GIs throughout US service forces led to a breakthrough on the color front. On the most basic level, he avoided menial labor, the traditional place for Black soldiers in the US Army. He was drafted in September 1943, assigned to a Quartermaster Port Company, and sent to Southampton, England. Instead of being a stevedore who loaded ships by hand, he learned to load ships as a crane operator for the 99th Harbor Craft, which was part of the Seventh Army.
Young’s story also makes it clear how vital skilled Black crane operators were to preparations for the D-Day invasion. He said that, from the moment he landed in England until D-Day 18 months later, “we went to the docks and stayed until we were released 12 or 24 hours or whatever. We had to stay and continue 24 hours a day, loading and unloading.” The scale of the operation became clear when he described it. He said the loads weighed 30 tons or more at a time and included tanks, big trailers, gasoline, guns, food — “everything the war needed.” As the date of the invasion drew closer, Young said they began to load off the ships directly onto the landing crafts.
Young said the work was dangerous. He said, “The first night that I entered England, the air raid sound went off. We was living in bombed-out buildings, and I never heard an air raid siren in my life. I was scareder than I’d ever been in my life.” He recalled, “you couldn’t hardly see the sky because they had these huge big balloons over the area where we live; so the plane — the Germans couldn’t tell exactly what they hit . . .” He also saw German V-1 or “buzz bombs,” an early cruise missile, fly overhead. Although he never got caught by a German bomb, he did have an American crate fall and “mash” him against the side of a truck, fracturing his right hip and taking a chip out of his spine. The Port Company replaced him while he was in the hospital and rehabilitation center. After he recovered, he helped build bridges in the 1349th Engineers for General Patton’s Third Army as it fought its way into Germany.
Young had a sense of accomplishment from his work loading ships for D-Day: “I furnished the soldier who was shooting the gun, the ammunition. I load the gun, and he shot it . . . But if my duty was to do what they said, and they put me — if I’d have been put up there, I would have, but they put me here; so, I loaded the gun for the other man to shoot it.”
World War II began for Staff Sergeant Chester Jones of the 3418th Trucking Company, Quartermaster Corps when he hit the beaches of Normandy on June 16, 1944, 10 days after Allied GIs came ashore on D-Day. He said, “the evidence of their landing June 6 was still there: dead bodies floating in the water, laying along the shoreline, on the beach dead soldiers strewn everywhere.” Even after the beaches had been captured by the Allies, they were dangerous for Black Quartermasters. “When we drove our truck off our landing ship . . . the water was five feet deep or more in some places. . . I was lucky in that my vehicle made the beach and climbed with no trouble.”
The importance of the Black Quartermasters can be seen by how quickly they were sent into action. Once Jones’ group had set up camp four miles inland, he said, “Immediately the truckers took their vehicle to the nearby ammunition and gasoline depots, loaded up and headed to the front.” Delivering supplies was hazardous. Jones said they “came under fire as soon as they were within range of the enemy’s artillery.”
On August 25, 1944, when the collapsing German Seventh and Fifth Panzer Armies began to retreat, the Army organized the Red Ball Express to rush supplies to the rapidly advancing First and Third American Armies. Jones joined the Red Ball Express and found himself in good company; three out of four Red Ball drivers were Black GIs. Even though Jones did not drive to the front — his company picked up supplies at the beach and turned them over to another driver at a half-way point — the threat of bombing by German aircraft forced them to drive at night with black-out lights.
Drivers in the Red Ball Express did not avoid combat for several reasons. When Jones and his company delivered gasoline to Spa, they got caught behind the lines of the Battle of the Bulge. At Saint Vith, they rescued a group of Allied infantrymen the Germans had forced to retreat. He said things did not look good at first. “You have to remember one thing. Before they found the hole we escaped through, everything we were hearing was bad.” Jones and his company finally made it back to Bergilers, where combat officers met them and asked for volunteers to serve in the infantry.
The Battle of the Bulge had created a manpower crisis in December of 1944, with American forces losing men faster than they could be replaced. Lieutenant General John C.H. Lee, the commander of the Communications Zone of the European theater and descendant of the Confederate general, had convinced General Dwight Eisenhower to let Black GIs from service forces volunteer to fill the gap. Within two months, 4,500 had stepped forward, and 2,800 were formed into Black rifle platoons assigned to units invading Germany in 1945. Jones said, “It seems the Blacks had done a good job at the Bulge because no one thought of sending them back to the kitchen because they were still needed.”
After the Remagen Bridge crossover, Jones was assigned to the 961st Tank Ordnance, where he was able to use his training as a tank mechanic. Like Young, Jones took on more skilled assignments as the war continued, performing jobs that had been done before only by White GIs.
Sergeant Jeff Jones of the 518th Quartermaster (Truck) Battalion entered the war on the other side of the globe in the China-Burma-India theater of operations. Shortly after reaching Assam, a state in northeastern India south of the Himalayan Mountains, he volunteered to drive trucks on the Ledo Road. Black GIs like Jones formed the overwhelming majority of the drivers, and their convoys set out at night to avoid Japanese snipers. Their first mission was to drive ammunition and gasoline to the American airbase at Kunming, where Major General Claire Chenault and the 10th Air Force flew in defense of the airlift over the Himalayan mountains between India and China–nicknamed the Hump — that kept Chinese forces under Chiang Kai-shek supplied. Without this aerial supply operation, the Chinese might have been unable to continue fighting the Japanese, which would have released more than a million Japanese troops to fight the Allies in the Pacific.
Even as a seasoned driver, he still found the work challenging. Jones said the pace was grueling: “We drove 12 months a year, monsoon season and all.” He said driving in the mud during monsoon season “was worse than driving on ice.” Overloaded trucks added to the hazards. He said that “in the states, we would have been court-martialed for the loads we were carrying as we drove the Ledo Road at night.”
Jones said one thing that made him feel safer was the devotion and skill of the Black combat engineers, who kept the Ledo Road open. During the monsoon season, he said, “the road often was washed away in places or there would be a landslide. These engineers would go to work [on bulldozers] in the torrential downpour and get the road back to use as quickly as possible. They had to work on the road in the daytime, so they kept rifles in hand because of the snipers . . . they built and fought at the same time, and they got the job done.” He also noted the Black engineers were there when he arrived and were still at work when he and the rest of the 518th left. He said, “To my knowledge, none of them got furloughs.”
Like Jones, Corporal Charles Pittman admitted he did not quite know what he had gotten himself into when he volunteered to drive the Ledo Road. He said, “I was hauling airplane bombs on my truck and thought it all very exciting. It was.” As he headed out in the dark on his first run he said, “there was not much I could see because we were using blackout lights and my concentration was on the truck in front of me. I realized we were elevating by the shifting of gears I was doing in keeping with the guy ahead. What was really happening was we were climbing straight up for 6 miles.”
By the return trip, he had become more accustomed to the driving and began to look around at his surroundings. The sun rose as he began the descent back down the mountains.
“Then,” he said, “I saw where I was. Like looking down there was nothing. I started thinking about the night before, and all the time I didn’t know there was nothing on my right side but space for a helluva long distance down. I broke out in a cold sweat.”
Pittman became a seasoned driver, receiving five battle stars for night-driving in sniper-infiltrated areas, but he said there were still moments of intense fear. Later in his tour of duty, the Ledo Road was opened all the way to China. He remembered his first trip to China vividly, in particular driving across a bridge over the Salween River. He said, “My hair stood up on my neck when I learned that bridge was constructed of rope. Only one truck was allowed on it at once. Swaying back and forth between the mountains over a river that looked like a nightcrawler it was so far down, put a lot of doubt in your mind that this contraption was going to hold, but it did.” Pittman was proud of their skill: “Need I say we were damn good truck drivers. We weren’t called ‘F and F’ for nothing. It meant fighting and freighting; we delivered the goods wherever we were directed.”
Pittman’s boast captures the essence of the contribution Black GIs in service units made to victory — to do whatever it took to keep soldiers on the front line going, even if it meant being injured, crossing the front lines, or driving across a swaying rope bridge in the Himalayas. The stories of the four Black Quartermasters make it clear they were essential to the success of key campaigns in World War II. Lawrence Young and the other Black GIs in Port Companies prepared Allied forces for the D-Day invasion. Chester Jones and other Black GIs in the Red Ball Express made Patton’s rapid advance possible. Jeff Jones, Charles Pittman, and other Black drivers on the Ledo Road kept China in the war.
These young Black men were able to make a difference in the outcome of the war because of the expansion and transformation of US service forces during World War II. During the last two years of the war, Black GIs accepted the challenge of supporting the US Armed Forces around the globe and took on a wide range of new assignments. The Black Quartermasters in the European theater both learned multiple skills to support the Army.
Lawrence Young operated cranes until D-Day and then switched to building bridges. Chester Jones drove overloaded trucks high-speed at night before he switched to repairing tanks. In the China-Burma-India theater, Jeff Jones and Charles Pittman learned how to drive overloaded trucks up the sides of the tallest mountains in the world. And, as seen by the pride over their wartime service they displayed in their interviews, they knew they had made a difference.
The curious reader might ask whether these Black Quartermasters felt their contributions had been recognized. The short answer is no. The feeling of being overlooked started during the war. Jeff Jones felt slighted during the official opening of the completed Ledo Road. The Black drivers who delivered most of the supplies had been left out of the ceremony. He said, “there was one Black driver in a convoy of 50 trucks that passed across this new juncture. Usually, the ratio was just the opposite on the road.”
As the war ended, the Black Quartermasters hoped their military service would change their lives back in America as civilians. They were disappointed. Lawrence Young said he had expected to be welcomed when his ship docked in New York City, “as we had heard that they welcome soldiers when they get back, but there was nobody to welcome us.” Charles Pittman said, “Everyone was anxious to get home and felt things would not be the same after the particular hell we had been through. It turned out we were wrong.”
When an interviewer asked Young what he thought he was fighting for in World War II, he said, “I’m asking that today. What did I fight for? Because we had no rights, as you know. I think the worstest feeling I ever felt in my life was in 1963 with the March on Washington. Here I’m a veteran, fought for the country, and I’m out here begging to become a voter, and to get half jobs.”
Years later, a salesman came by Young’s home and tried to sell him a history of World War II. He said, “I looked through the book, and there was nothing in there about what African Americans did in World War II . . . I guess that was to keep us for getting any credit for anything we did, but without us, they wouldn’t have won.”
Although we cannot undo the shameful deprivation of civil rights these Black veterans experienced, we can undo the neglect of their stories and acknowledge the essential contributions they made to Allied victory in World War II.
Meet the Author
Douglas Bristol, Jr. an Associate Professor and Fellow of the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Southern Mississippi. The Smithsonian, Duke University, and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library have awarded him post-doctoral fellowships. He is a member of the Editorial Board for the Quarterly Journal of the Army War College, Parameters. He has published two books: Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom and Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexuality since World War II. His current book project is Behind the Front Lines: How Black GIs Helped Win World War II. His interviews have been included in the Christian Science Monitor and The New York Times along with the PBS documentary Boss: The Black Experience in Business.