Changing Roles for Women
The domestic war effort in the United States swept millions of women into the workforce.
Evaluate how the role of women in society changed during the war years
- Women in World War II took on a variety of roles. Some women embraced traditional positions as caretakers and homemakers. Others explored new opportunities, from which women had been previously excluded.
- Nearly 19 million American women held jobs during World War II, out of which around 6 million entered the labor force as new female workers.
- Women worked in the war industries, in factories, and on farms. They drove trucks, provided logistic support for soldiers, and entered professional areas of work that were previously the domain of men. They enlisted as nurses serving on the front lines, and there was a great increase in the number of women serving for the military. Women also joined the federal government and served in community organizations in massive numbers.
- Although many women took on male dominated trades during World War II, they were expected to return to housework after men returned from the war.
The overall percentage of women working fell from 36 percent to 28 percent in 1947.
- Around 350,000 American women served in the U.S. military during World War II.
- The wartime and postwar economic prosperity, as well as the return of many female workers to the domestic sphere, resulted in the dramatic increase of birth rates in the postwar period.
- Rosie the Riveter: A cultural icon of the United States representing the American women who worked in factories and shipyards during World War II, many of whom produced munitions and war supplies.
- United Service Organizations: A nonprofit organization that provides programs, services, and live entertainment to U.S. soldiers and their families. Since 1941, it has worked in partnership with the Department of Defense, relying heavily on private contributions and on funds, goods, and services from various corporate and individual donors.
- baby boom: Any period marked by a greatly increased fertility rate. This demographic phenomenon is usually ascribed within certain geographical bounds. In the United States, the post-World War II period was marked by this phenomenon.
Women in World War II took on a variety of roles. Some women embraced the traditional positions of caretakers and homemakers. Others explored new opportunities, from which women had been previously excluded. The global conflict on an unprecedented scale and the absolute urgency of mobilizing the entire population made the expansion of the role of women inevitable. In the United States, the hard skilled labor of women was symbolized by the concept of Rosie the Riveter, a female factory laborer performing what was previously considered men’s work.
Nearly 19 million American women held jobs during World War II, out of which around 6 million entered the labor force as new female workers. Government campaigns targeting women were addressed mostly to housewives, likely because already-employed women would move to the higher-paid “essential” jobs on their own, or perhaps because it was assumed that most potential new workers were housewives. One government advertisement asked women: “Can you use an electric mixer? If so, you can learn to operate a drill.” Propaganda was also directed at men, many of whom were unwilling to support women in the labor force and particularly in industrial jobs. Women worked in the war industries, building ships, aircraft, vehicles, and weaponry. They also worked in factories and on farms, drove trucks, provided logistic support for soldiers, and entered professional areas of work that were previously the domain of men. They enlisted as nurses serving on the front lines, and there was a great increase in the number of women serving for the military. Women also joined the federal government in massive numbers. Nearly a million so-called “government girls” were recruited for war work. In addition, women volunteers aided the war effort by planting victory gardens, canning produce, selling war bonds, donating blood, salvaging needed commodities, and sending care packages.
Although many women took on male-dominated trades during World War II, they were expected to return to housework once men returned from the war. In 1944, when victory seemed assured for the United States, government-sponsored propaganda changed by urging women to return to working in the home. Later, many women assumed traditional female-dominated jobs such as clerical or administration positions, despite women’s reluctance to reenter the lower-paying fields. At the end of the war, most of the munitions-making jobs ended. Many factories were closed; others were retooled for civilian production. In some jobs, women were replaced by returning veterans. However the number of women at work in 1946 was 87 percent of the number in 1944, leaving 13 percent who had lost or quit their jobs. The overall percentage of women working fell from 36 percent to 28 percent in 1947.
Civilians on the Homefront
Women staffed millions of jobs in community-service roles, such as in nursing, and with United Service Organizations and the Red Cross. Women also were encouraged to collect and turn in materials that were needed by the war effort, such as fats rendered during cooking. Children formed balls of aluminum foil they peeled from chewing gum wrappers, and also created rubber-band balls, which they contributed to the war effort. The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) mobilized 1,000 civilian women who flew stateside missions chiefly to ferry planes when male pilots were in short supply. They were the first women to fly American military aircraft. Accidents killed 38. The WASP was disbanded in 1944 when enough male veterans were available.
Women in the Military
More than 60,000 army nurses (military nurses were all women then) served stateside and overseas during World War II. They were kept far from combat. In 1943, Dr. Margaret Craighill became the first female doctor to become a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army Medical Corps.
The army established the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in 1942. WAACs served overseas in North Africa in 1942. The WAAC, however, never accomplished its goal of making available to, “the national defense the knowledge, skill, and special training of the women of the nation.” It was converted to the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in 1943, and recognized as an official part of the regular army. More than 150,000 women served in WACs, and thousands were sent to the European and Pacific theaters.
In 1945, the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion—the only all African-American, all-female battalion during World War II—worked in England and France, making it the first black female battalion to travel overseas. WWII black recruitment was limited to 10 percent for the WAAC/WAC—matching the percentage of African Americans in the U.S. population at the time. For the most part, army policy reflected segregation policy. Enlisted basic training was segregated for training, living, and dining. Enlisted specialists schools and officer-training living quarters were segregated, but training and dining were integrated. A total of 6,520 African-American women served during the war.
Asian-Pacific-American women first entered military service during World War II. The Women’s Army Corps (WAC) recruited 50 Japanese-American and Chinese-American women and sent them to the Military Intelligence Service Language School at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, for training as military translators. In 1943, the Women’s Army Corps recruited a unit of Chinese-American women to serve with the army air forces as “Air WACs.” Air WACs served in a large variety of jobs, including aerial photo interpretation, air traffic control, and weather forecasting.
The navy also recruited women into its Navy Women’s Reserve, called “Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service” (WAVES), starting in 1942. Before the war was over, 84,000 WAVES filled shore billets in a large variety of jobs in communications, intelligence, supply, medicine, and administration. The navy refused to accept Japanese-American women throughout World War II.
The U.S. Marine Corps created the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve in 1943. That year, the first female officer of the U.S. Marine Corps was commissioned, and the first detachment of female marines was sent to Hawaii for duty in 1945. Marine women served stateside as clerks, cooks, mechanics, and drivers, and in a variety of other positions. By the end of World War II, 85 percent of the enlisted personnel assigned to Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps were women.
In 1941, the first civilian women were hired by the coast guard to serve in secretarial and clerical positions. In 1942, the coast guard established their Women’s Reserve known as the “SPARs” (after the motto Semper Paratus: Always Ready). SPARs were assigned stateside and served as storekeepers, clerks, photographers, pharmacist’s mates, cooks, and in numerous other jobs. More than 11,000 SPARs served during World War II.
In all, 350,000 American women served in the U.S. military during World War II.
As economic prosperity empowered couples who had postponed marriage and parenthood, the birth rate started shooting up in 1941, paused in 1944–1945 (with 12 million men in service), and then continued to soar until reaching a peak in the late 1950s (the postwar “baby boom”). However, housing shortages, especially in the munitions centers, forced millions of couples to live with parents or in makeshift facilities. Little housing had been built in the Depression years, so the shortages grew steadily worse until about 1948, when a massive housing boom finally caught up with demand. Federal law made it difficult for spouses to divorce absent servicemen, so the number of divorces peaked when many returned in 1946. In long-range terms, however, divorce rates changed little.
African Americans in WWII
Despite racism and segregation in the U.S. military, more than two and a half million African American men registered in the military draft, with more than 1 million serving in the armed forces during World War II.
Explain the importance of the Tuskegee Airmen, the Golden Thirteen, the Port Chicago disaster, and the 1997 recipients of the Medal of Honor
- During World War II, African-American enlistment was at an all-time high, with more than 1 million serving in the armed forces. However, the U.S. military was still heavily segregated, and African-Americans soldiers encountered the same racism as in their civilian lives. Only the Executive Order 9981 from 1948 abolished racial discrimination in the armed forces and eventually led to the end of segregation in the services. The all-African-American 333rd Battalion, although initially excluded from combat, was critical in the Battle of Bulge.
- The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American military aviators in the U.S. Armed Forces. Officially, they formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces. The Tuskegee Airmen were subjected to discrimination, both within and outside of the army.
- The Port Chicago disaster on July 17, 1944, was an explosion of about 2,000 tons of ammunition as it was being loaded onto ships by black navy soldiers under pressure to hurry from their white officers.
- In 1944, the Golden Thirteen became the navy’s first African-American commissioned officers.
- No black military man was awarded the Medal of Honor for service in World War II until the 1990s.
- 333rd Battalion: A racially segregated U.S. Army unit of African-American troops during World War II. The unit was organized during World War I but never saw combat. In World War II, the troops landed at Normandy in early July 1944 and saw continuous combat as corps artillery throughout the summer.
- Golden Thirteen: The thirteen African American enlisted men who became the first African American commissioned and warrant officers in the United States Navy.
- Battle of the Bulge: A major German offensive campaign (December 16, 1944– January 25, 1945) launched through the densely forested Ardennes region of Wallonia in Belgium, France, and Luxembourg on the western front toward the end of World War II in Europe.
- Executive Order 9981: An executive order issued on July 26, 1948, by President Harry S. Truman. It abolished racial discrimination in the armed forces and eventually led to the end of segregation in the services.
- The Port Chicago Disaster: An explosion of about 2,000 tons of ammunition as it was being loaded onto ships by black navy soldiers under pressure to hurry from their white officers. It took place on July 17, 1944.
- Tuskegee Airmen: The first African-American military aviators in the U.S. armed forces. Officially, they formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces. The name also applies to the navigators, bombardiers, mechanics, instructors, crew chiefs, nurses, cooks, and other support personnel for the pilots.
Racism in the Military
African Americans first started enlisting in the military on June 1, 1942. More than two and a half million African American men registered in the military draft, and African American women volunteered their services in the war. During the war, African-American enlistment was at an all-time high, with more than 1 million serving in the armed forces. However, the U.S. military was still heavily segregated. The air force and the marines had no African Americans enlisted in their ranks, and the navy only accepted black Americans as cooks and waiters. The army had only five African-American officers. In addition, no African-American would receive the Medal of Honor during the war, and their tasks in the war were largely reserved to noncombat units.
Despite their high enlistment rate in the U.S. Army, most African-American soldiers still served only as truck drivers and as stevedores (except for some separate tank battalions and army air forces escort fighters). In the midst of the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, a major German offensive campaign launched on the western front (in the region of Wallonia in Belgium, France, and Luxembourg), General Eisenhower was severely short of replacement troops for existing military units that were totally white in composition. Consequently, he made the decision to allow African-American soldiers to pick up weapons and join the white military units to fight in combat for the first time. More than 2,000 black soldiers had volunteered to go to the front.
At the start of the Battle of the Bulge, the 333rd Battalion, a combat unit composed entirely of African-American soldiers led by white officers, was attached to the 106th Infantry Division. Prior to the German offensive, the 106th division was tasked with holding a 26-mile (41.8 kilometers) long length of the front. The 333rd was badly affected, losing nearly 50 percent of its soldiers, including its commanding officer. Eleven of its soldiers were cut off from the rest of the unit and attempted to escape German capture, but were massacred on sight by the Waffen SS. The remnants of the battalion retreated to Bastogne where they linked up the 101st. The vestiges of the 333rd were attached to its sister unit the 969th Battalion. By December, the Germans had surrounded Bastogne, which was defended by the 101st Airborne Division, the all African-American 969th Artillery Battalion, and Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division. Despite low supplies of food and ammunition, and being limited to only 10 artillery rounds per day, the 333rd fought tenaciously, successfully holding their sector of the front despite repeated German assaults.
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American military aviators in the U.S. Armed Forces. Officially, they formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces. The Tuskegee Airmen were subjected to discrimination, both within and outside the army. All black military pilots who trained in the United States trained at Moton Field, the Tuskegee Army Air Field, and were educated at Tuskegee University, located near Tuskegee, Alabama. The name also applies to the navigators, bombardiers, mechanics, instructors, crew chiefs, nurses, cooks, and other support personnel for the pilots.
Although the 477th Bombardment Group trained with North American B-25 Mitchell bombers, they never served in combat. The 99th Pursuit Squadron (later, 99th Fighter Squadron) was the first black flying squadron, and the first to deploy overseas (to North Africa in April 1943, and later to Sicily and Italy). The 332nd Fighter Group was the first black flying group. The group deployed to Italy in early 1944. In June 1944, the 332nd Fighter Group began flying heavy bomber escort missions, and in July 1944, the 99th Fighter Squadron was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group, which then had four fighter squadrons.
Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., served as commander of the famed Tuskegee Airmen during the War. He later went on to become the first African-American general in the U.S. Air Force. His father, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., had been the first African-American brigadier general in the army (1940).
The Golden Thirteen
In June 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the executive order (8802) that prohibited racial discrimination in the national defense industry. Responding to pressure from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Adlai Stevenson, in January 1944, the navy began an accelerated 2-month officer training course for 16 African-American enlisted men at Camp Robert Smalls, Recruit Training Center Great Lakes (now known as Great Lakes Naval Training Station), in Illinois. The class average at graduation was 3.89. Although all 16 members of the class passed the course, only 12 were commissioned in March 1944. Because navy policy prevented them from being assigned to combatant ships, early black officers wound up being detailed to run labor gangs ashore.
Port Chicago Disaster
The Port Chicago disaster was a deadly munitions explosion that occurred on July 17, 1944, at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in Port Chicago, California. Munitions detonated while being loaded onto a cargo vessel bound for the Pacific theater of operations, killing 320 sailors and civilians and injuring 390 others. Most of the dead and injured were enlisted African-American sailors.
A month later, unsafe conditions inspired hundreds of servicemen to refuse to load munitions, an act known as the “Port Chicago Mutiny.” Fifty men—called the “Port Chicago 50″—were convicted of mutiny and sentenced to long prison terms. Forty-seven of the fifty were released in January 1946; the remaining three served additional months in prison.
During and after the trial, questions were raised about the fairness and legality of the court-martial proceedings. Due to public pressure, the U.S. Navy reconvened the courts-martial board in 1945; the court affirmed the guilt of the convicted men. Widespread publicity surrounding the case turned it into a cause célèbre among certain Americans; it and other race-related navy protests of 1944–1945 led the navy to change its practices and initiate the desegregation of its forces beginning in February 1946.
The desegregation of all U.S. Armed Forces did not take place until after World War II. In 1947, A. Philip Randolph, prominent civil rights leader, along with colleague Grant Reynolds, renewed efforts to end discrimination in the armed services, forming the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service and Training, later renamed the “League for Non-Violent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation.” Consequently, Truman’s Order expanded on Executive Order 8802 by establishing equality of treatment and opportunity in the military for people of all races, religions, or national origins. In July 1948, the Executive Order 9981 abolished racial discrimination in the armed forces and eventually led to the end of segregation in the services.
It was not until the 1990s that black World War II military men were awarded the Medal of Honor—the highest military decoration presented by the U.S. government to a member of its armed forces. A 1993 study commissioned by the U.S. Army investigated racial discrimination in the awarding of medals. At the time, no Medals of Honor had been awarded to black soldiers who served in World War II. After an exhaustive review of files, the study recommended that several black Distinguished Service Cross recipients be upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On January 13, 1997, President Bill Clinton awarded the Medal to seven African-American World War II veterans; of these, only Vernon Baker was still alive. The posthumous recipients were Major Charles L. Thomas; First Lieutenant John R. Fox; Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers; Staff Sergeant Edward A. Carter, Jr.; Private First Class Willy F. James, Jr.; and Private George Watson.
Hispanics in WWII
Hundreds of thousands of Hispanic-American men and women served in the U.S. Armed Forces and on the home front during World War II.
Describe the role of Hispanic Americans—especially that of Hispanic women—in the military and labor force during World War II
- Hispanic Americans fought in every major battle of World War II in which the armed forces of the United States were involved.
- Unlike African Americans, many Hispanic soldiers were not entirely segregated into separate groups, though there were heavily Hispanic units. The majority of the Puerto Ricans from the island served in Puerto Rico’s segregated units.
- Many Hispanic American women served in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), where women could attend to certain administrative duties left open by the men who were reassigned to combat zones.
- During World War II, the broad changes in the role of women caused by a need for labor on the home front also affected the role of Hispanic women, who worked as secretaries and nurses, helped build airplanes, made ammunition in factories, and worked in shipyards.
- Although most Hispanic Americans were formally categorized as white, racial discrimination and xenophobia affected many during and after the war.
- Hispanic Americans: American citizens who are descendants of the peoples of the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula.
- Women’s Army Corps: The women’s branch of the U.S. Army. It was created as an auxiliary unit, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) on May 15, 1942, and converted to full status as the WAC on July 1, 1943. It was disbanded in 1978, and all units were integrated with male units.
- The American GI Forum: A congressionally chartered Hispanic veterans and civil rights organization. Its motto is, “Education Is Our Freedom, and Freedom Should Be Everybody’s Business.” It operates chapters throughout the United States, with a focus on veterans’ issues, education, and civil rights.
- Bataan Death March: The Imperial Japanese Army’s forcible transfer of 76,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war after the three-month 1942 Battle of Bataan in the Philippines during World War II. It resulted in the deaths of thousands of prisoners, including two battalions made up primarily of Hispanics.
When the United States officially entered World War II, Hispanic Americans were among the many American citizens who joined the ranks of the U.S. Armed Forces as volunteers or through the draft. Hispanic Americans fought in every major battle of World War II in which the armed forces of the United States were involved. According to the National World War II Museum, between 250,000 and 500,000 Hispanic Americans served in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II, out of a total of 12,000,000, constituting 2.3 percent to 4.7 percent of the U.S. Armed Forces. The exact number is unknown, as at the time, Hispanics were not tabulated separately and were generally included in the white population census count.
In the European theater, the majority of Hispanic Americans served in regular units. Some active combat units recruited from areas of high Hispanic population, such as the 65th Infantry Regiment from Puerto Rico and the 141st Regiment of the 36th Texas Infantry, were made up mostly of Hispanics.
Hispanics of the 141st Regiment of the 36th Infantry Division were some of the first American troops to land on Italian soil at Salerno. Company E of the 141st Regiment was entirely Hispanic. The 36th Infantry Division fought in Italy and France, enduring heavy casualties during the crossing of the Rapido River near Monte Cassino, Italy.
In 1943, the 65th Infantry was sent to North Africa, where they underwent further training. By April 29, 1944, the Regiment had landed in Italy and moved on to Corsica. On September 22, 1944, the 65th Infantry landed in France and was committed to action in the Maritime Alps at Peira Cava. On December 13, 1944, the 65th Infantry, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Juan César Cordero Dávila, relieved the 2nd Battalion of the 442nd Infantry Regiment, a regiment which was made up of Japanese Americans under the command of Col. Virgil R. Miller, a native of Puerto Rico.
The 3rd Battalion fought against and defeated Germany’s 34th Infantry Division’s 107th Infantry Regiment. There were 47 battle casualties. On March 18, 1945, the regiment was sent to the District of Mannheim and assigned to military occupation duties after the end of the war. The regiment suffered 23 soldiers killed in action.
Sergeant First Class Agustín Ramos Calero, a member of the 65th Infantry who was reassigned to the 3rd U.S. Infantry Division because of his ability to speak and understand English, was one of the most decorated Hispanic soldiers in the European theater.
Two National Guard units—the 200th and the 515th Battalions—were activated in New Mexico in 1940. Made up mostly of Spanish-speaking Hispanics from New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas, the two battalions were sent to Clark Field in the Philippine Islands. Shortly after the Imperial Japanese Navy launched its surprise attack on the American Naval Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces attacked the American positions in the Philippines. General Douglas MacArthur moved his forces, which included the 200th and 515th, to the Bataan Peninsula, where they fought alongside Filipinos in a three-month stand against the invading forces.
By April 9, 1942, rations, medical supplies, and ammunition became scarce. Officers ordered the starving and outnumbered troops of the 200th and 515th Battalions to lay down their arms and surrender to the Japanese. These Hispanic and non-Hispanic soldiers endured the 12-day, 85-mile (137 km) forced Bataan Death March from Bataan to the Japanese prison camps in scorching heat through the Philippine jungle.
The 158th Regimental Combat Team, an Arizona National Guard unit of mostly Hispanic soldiers, also fought in the Pacific theater. Early in the war, the 158th, nicknamed the “Bushmasters,” had been deployed to protect the Panama Canal and had completed jungle training. The unit later fought the Japanese in the New Guinea area in heavy combat and was involved in the liberation of the Philippine Islands.
Hispanic Women in the Military and on the Home Front
Prior to World War II, traditional Hispanic cultural values assumed women should be homemakers. Thus women rarely left the home to earn an income. As such, they were discouraged from joining the military. Only a small number of Hispanic women joined the military before World War II. However, with the outbreak of World War II, cultural norms began to change. With the creation of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), predecessor of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), and the U.S. Navy Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), women could attend to certain administrative duties left open by the men who were reassigned to combat zones.
In 1944, the army recruited women in Puerto Rico for the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). More than 1,000 applications were received for the unit, which was to be composed of only 200 women. After their basic training at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, the Puerto Rican WAC unit, Company 6, 2nd Battalion, 21st Regiment of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, a segregated Hispanic unit, was assigned to the Port of Embarkation of New York City to work in military offices that planned the shipment of troops around the world.
However, not all of the WAAC units were stationed in the mainland United States. In January 1943, the 149th WAAC Post Headquarters Company became the first WAAC unit to go overseas when they went to North Africa. Serving overseas was dangerous for women; if captured, WAACs, as “auxiliaries” serving with the army rather than in it, did not have the same protections under international law as male soldiers.
As Hispanic female nurses were initially not accepted into the Army Nurse Corps or Navy Nurse Corps, many Hispanic women went to work in the factories that produced military equipment. As more Hispanic men joined the armed forces, a need for bilingual nurses became apparent, and the army started to recruit Hispanic nurses. In 1944, the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) decided to accept Puerto Rican nurses. Thirteen women submitted applications, were interviewed, underwent physical examinations, and were accepted into the ANC. Eight of these nurses were assigned to the army post at San Juan, Puerto Rico, where they were valued for their bilingual abilities.
The broad changes in the role of women caused by a need for labor on the home front affected also the role of Hispanic women, who, in addition to serving as nurses, worked as secretaries, helped build airplanes, made ammunition in factories, and worked in shipyards.
In 1940, Hispanic Americans constituted around 1.5 percent of the population in the United States. While during World War II, the United States Army was segregated and Hispanics were often categorized as white, racism and xenophobia targeted at Hispanic Americans were common. Many Hispanics, including the Puerto Ricans who resided on the mainland, served alongside their “white” counterparts, while those who were categorized “black” served in units mostly made up of African Americans. The majority of the Puerto Ricans from the island served in Puerto Rico’s segregated units, such as the 65th Infantry and the Puerto Rico National Guard’s 285th and 296th regiments.
Discrimination against Hispanics has been documented in several first-person accounts by Hispanic soldiers who fought in World War II. After returning home, Hispanic soldiers experienced the same discrimination as before departure. According to one former Hispanic soldier, “There was the same discrimination in Grand Falls (Texas), if not worse,” than when he had departed. While Hispanics could work for $2 per day, whites could work in petroleum fields earning $18 per day. In his town, signs read, “No Mexicans, whites only,” and only one restaurant would serve Hispanics. The American GI Forum was started to protect the rights of Hispanic World War II veterans.
Discrimination also extended to those killed during the war. In one notable case, the owner of a funeral parlor refused to allow the family of Private Felix Longoria, a soldier killed in action in the Philippines, to use his facility because, “whites would not like it.”
Native Americans and the War Effort
Some 44,000 Native Americans served in the United States military during World War II, which was one-third of all able-bodied Native American men.
Examine how Native American involvement in the war brought profound changes to their culture
- Native American men enlisted at a disproportionate rate relative to other American ethnic groups, bringing a historically isolated people into contact with white mainstream American culture.
- The Native American men’s service with the U.S. military in the international conflict was a turning point in Native American history.
- Native Americans first saw action in the Pacific Theater along with the rest of the American army and navy. Over the course of the war, they fought across the world on all fronts.
- A significant change that Native Americans experienced was the opportunity—as a result of wartime labor shortages—to find well-paying work in cities. Many relocated to urban areas.
- By September 1942, the American government had recruited several hundred Native Americans who spoke both Navajo and English to translate English words into the Navajo language to avoid enemy interception. Until its declassification in 1968, the code that these Navajo developed remains the only oral military code to never have been broken by an enemy.
- Native American veterans encountered varying degrees of success in re-entering civilian life after World War II. Some returned to reservations while significant numbers settled in urban areas.
- Code Talkers: Term that usually refers to the 400 Native American Marines who during World War II served in the United States Marine Corps and whose primary job was the transmission of secret tactical messages over military telephone or radio communications nets using formal or informally developed codes built upon their native languages. The term is strongly associated with bilingual Navajo speakers recruited during World War II by the Marines to serve in their standard communications units in the Pacific Theater. These codes were never broken.
Native Americans and World War II
Some 44,000 Native Americans served in the United States military during World War II. The number includes over 24,000 residents of reservations and around 20,000 of those who did not live on reservations (thus the number closer to 25,000 is sometimes misleadingly cited). At the time, this was one-third of all able-bodied Native American men from 18 to 50 years of age and 10% of the entire Native American population. Described as the first large-scale exodus of indigenous peoples from the reservations since the removals of the 19th century, the men’s service with the U.S. military in the international conflict was a turning point in Native American history.
The overwhelming majority of Native Americans welcomed the opportunity to serve. The enlistment rate was 40% higher than those drafted. War Department officials noted that if the entire population had enlisted in the same proportion as Native Americans, the response would have rendered the draft unnecessary. Whether it was due to innate skill as warriors or merely as a reflection of the stereotype of the Native American warrior spirit perpetuated by American popular culture, Native American men were generally highly regarded for their military service in World War II.
The resulting increase in contact with the world outside of the reservation system brought profound changes to Native American culture. “The war,” said the U.S. Indian Commissioner in 1945, “caused the greatest disruption of Native life since the beginning of the reservation era,” affecting the habits, views, and economic well-being of tribal members. The most significant of these changes was the opportunity—as a result of wartime labor shortages—to find well-paying work in cities, and many people relocated to urban areas, particularly on the West Coast with the buildup of the defense industry.
Native Americans in the Service
Native Americans first saw action in the Pacific Theater along with the rest of the American army and navy. Over the course of the war, Native American men fought across the world on all fronts, and were involved in many of the most critical battles involving American troops, including Iwo Jima, the Invasion of Normandy, the Liberation of the Philippines, the Battle of the Bulge, the Liberation of Paris, and the Liberation of Belgium. Native Americans were also among the first Americans to enter Germany and played a role in the Liberation of Berlin. Casualty reports showed Native Americans fighting as far away as Australia, North Africa, and Bataan. Around 800 Native American women worked as nurses and supported the military as administrators.
More than 30 Native Americans were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the third-highest aviation honor. Not counting the Purple Heart, more than two hundred military awards were given to Native American soldiers. Many military awards offered to Native American soldiers were later used during the termination period by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as proof that Native Americans were eager to assimilate into white mainstream American culture.
In February 1942, a white civilian named Philip Johnston came up with the idea of using the Navajo language as military code. Johnston, a missionaries’ son, grew up on a reservation and understood the complexity of the Navajo language. By September 1942, the American government had recruited several hundred Native Americans who spoke both Navajo and English to translate English words into the Navajo language to avoid enemy interception. Until its declassification in 1968, the code that these Navajo developed remains the only oral military code to never have been broken by an enemy.
The code itself was composed of carefully selected Navajo words that used poetic circumlocution so that even a Navajo speaker would not be able to understand the commands without proper training. In 2001, the 28 members of the Navajo Code Breakers were awarded a Congressional Gold Medal, mostly posthumously.
While the term code talkers is strongly associated with the bilingual Navajo speakers, code talking was pioneered by Cherokee and Choctaw Native Americans during World War I. Other Native American code talkers were deployed by the United States Army during World War II, including Lakota, Meskwaki, and Comanche soldiers.
The war’s aftermath, says historian Allison Bernstein, marked a “new era in Indian affairs” and turned “American Indians” into “Indian Americans.” Upon returning to America after the war, some Native American soldiers suffered from PTSD and unemployment. Many moved to cities rather than returned to reservations. In 1940, only 5 percent of Native Americans lived in cities. By 1950, this number had ballooned to nearly 20 percent of Native Americans living in urban areas off of reservations.
Military service and urban residency contributed to the rise of Native American activism, particularly after the 1960s and the occupation of Alcatraz Island (1969–1971) by a student Indian group from San Francisco. In the same period, the American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded in Minneapolis, and chapters were established throughout the country, where Native Americans combined spiritual and political activism. Political protests gained national media attention and the sympathy of the American public.
Internment of Japanese Americans
Suspicion of and racial prejudice toward Japanese Americans after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor resulted in the incarceration of around 110,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese residing in the United States.
Assess the racial motivations behind, and the damaging effects of, the internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans during World War II
- Japanese-American internment was the relocation and internment by the U.S. government in 1942 of about 110,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese living along the Pacific coast of the United States to camps called “War Relocation Camps.” It occurred in the wake of Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
- Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 authorized the designation of military areas and paved the way for the eventual internment of Japanese Americans.
- Concerns over the loyalty of ethnic Japanese stemmed from racial prejudice rather than from evidence of actual malfeasance. Evidence suggests that the internment was racially motivated and not a military necessity.
- The facilities of the camps met international laws but conditions in camps and the process of internment made scholars drop euphemisms and refer to them as “concentration camps.”
- In 1944, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Korematsu vs. United States, holding that the exclusion and internment process was constitutional.
- Internees lost irreplaceable personal property. A number of persons died or suffered because of the lack of medical care; several were killed by sentries. Psychological and material losses are difficult to estimate.
- Korematsu vs. United States: A 1944 landmark U.S. Supreme Court case concerning the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066, which ordered Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court sided with the government, ruling that the exclusion order was constitutional.
- Niihau Incident: An incident that occurred on December 7, 1941, when Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service pilot Shigenori Nishikaichi crash-landed his Zero on the Hawaiian island of Niʻihau after participating in the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was killed in a struggle with people on the island but initially received assistance from three local residents.
- Ex parte Endo: A U.S. Supreme Court decision handed down on December 18, 1944, in which the justices unanimously ruled that the U.S. government could not continue to detain a citizen who was “concededly loyal” to the United States. Although the court did not touch on the constitutionality of the exclusion of people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast—which they had, contradictorily, found not to violate citizen rights in their Korematsu v. United States decision on the same date—the Endo ruling nonetheless led to the reopening of the West Coast to Japanese Americans after their incarceration in camps across the U.S. interior during World War II.
- executive order 9066: A U.S. presidential executive order signed and issued during World War II by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, authorizing the secretary of war to prescribe certain areas as military zones. Eventually, it cleared the way for the relocation of Japanese Americans to internment camps.
Japanese-American internment was the relocation and internment by the U.S. government in 1942 of about 110,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese living along the Pacific coast of the United States to camps called “War Relocation Camps.” Relocation and internment occurred in the wake of Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Japan’s rapid military conquest of a large portion of Asia and the Pacific made its military forces seem unstoppable to some Americans. All those of Japanese decent who lived on the West Coast of the United States were interned, while in Hawaii, where the 150,000-plus Japanese Americans composed more than one-third of the population, an estimated 1,200 to 1,800 were interned. Of those interned, 62 percent were American citizens.
After Pearl Harbor
The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, led military and political leaders to suspect that Imperial Japan was preparing a full-scale attack on the West Coast of the United States. American public opinion initially stood by the large population of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. Many Americans believed that their loyalty to the United States was unquestionable. However, six weeks after the attack, public opinion along the Pacific began to turn against Japanese Americans living on the West Coast, as the press and other Americans became nervous about the potential for fifth-column activity. Though the administration (including President Franklin D. Roosevelt and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover) dismissed all rumors of Japanese-American espionage on behalf of the Japanese War effort, pressure mounted upon the administration as the tide of public opinion turned against Japanese Americans.
Civilian and military officials had concerns about the loyalty of the ethnic Japanese after the Niʻihau Incident, which immediately followed the attack on Pearl Harbor, when a civilian Japanese national and two Hawaiian-born ethnic Japanese on the island of Niʻihau violently freed a downed and captured Japanese naval airman, attacking their fellow Niʻihau islanders in the process.
Evidence suggests that the Japanese-American internment was racially motivated rather than a military necessity. President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the internment with Executive Order 9066, issued February 19, 1942. It allowed local military commanders to designate “military areas” as “exclusion zones,” from which, “any or all persons may be excluded.” This power was used to declare that all people of Japanese ancestry were excluded from the entire Pacific coast, including all of California and much of Oregon, Washington, and Arizona, except for those in internment camps.
Camps and Conditions
While this event is most commonly referred to as the “internment” of Japanese Americans, the government operated several different types of camps holding Japanese Americans. The best known facilities were the Assembly Centers run by the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA), and the Relocation Centers run by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), which are unofficially referred to as “internment camps.” The Department of Justice (DOJ) operated camps officially called “Internment Camps,” which were used to detain those suspected of actual crimes or of “enemy sympathies.” German-American and Italian-American internment camps also existed, sometimes sharing facilities with those of the Japanese Americans. The WCCA and WRA facilities were the largest and the most public. Scholars have urged the dropping of euphemisms, and refer to the camps as “concentration camps” and the people as “incarcerated.”
According to a 1943 War Relocation Authority report, internees were housed in, “tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind.” The spartan facilities of the camps met international laws, but still left much to be desired. Many camps were built based on designs for military barracks, making the buildings poorly equipped for cramped family living. Many were surrounded by barbed wire with unpartitioned toilets, had cots for beds, and supplied a budget of 45 cents daily per capita for food rations. Because most internees were evacuated from their West Coast homes on short notice and not told of their assigned destinations, many failed to pack appropriate clothing for the desert winters in some camps, for example, which often reached temperatures below zero Fahrenheit. Armed guards were posted at the camps, which were all in remote, desolate areas far from population centers.
An Issei doctor was appointed to manage each facility, and additional healthcare staff worked under his supervision, although the United States Public Health Service recommendation of one physician for every 1,000 inmates and one nurse to 200 inmates was not met. Overcrowded and unsanitary conditions forced assembly center infirmaries to prioritize inoculations over general care, obstetrics, and surgeries; at Manzanar, for example, hospital staff performed more than 40,000 immunizations against typhoid and smallpox. Food poisoning was common and also demanded significant attention. Those who were interned in Topaz, Minidoka, and Jerome experienced outbreaks of dysentery.
Educational facilities were set up for nearly 30,000 incarcerated children. Camp schoolhouses were crowded and had insufficient materials, books, notebooks, and desks for students. These “schoolhouses” were essentially prison blocks that contained few windows. In the Southwest, when temperatures rose and the schoolhouse filled, the sweltering rooms could be unbearable. Class sizes were immense. At the height of it attendance, the Rohwer Camp of Arkansas reached 2,339, with only 45 certified teachers. The student-to-teacher ratio in the camps was 48:1 in elementary schools and 35:1 for secondary schools, compared to the national average of 28:1.
Post-Incarceration Losses and Prejudice
In the 1944 case Korematsu vs. United States, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the exclusion orders, while noting that the provisions that singled out people of Japanese ancestry were a separate issue outside the scope of the proceedings. The Ex parte Endo case of the same date unanimously declared that loyal citizens of the United States, regardless of cultural descent, could not be detained without cause. In effect, the two rulings held that, while the eviction of U.S. citizens in the name of military necessity was legal, the subsequent incarceration was not—thus paving the way for their release.
Many internees lost irreplaceable personal property due to restrictions that prohibited them from taking more than they could carry into the camps. These losses were compounded by theft and destruction of items placed in governmental storage. Leading up to their incarceration, Nikkei were prohibited from leaving the military zones or from traveling more than 5 miles (8.0 km) from home, forcing those who had to travel for work, such as truck farmers and residents of rural towns, to quit their jobs. Many others were simply fired because of their heritage.
Japanese Americans also encountered hostility and even violence when they returned to the West Coast. There were dozens of reports of gun shots, fires, and explosions aimed at Japanese-American homes, businesses, and places of worship, in addition to incidents of nonviolent crimes such as vandalism and the defacing of Japanese graves. In one of the only cases to go to trial, four men were accused of attacking the Doi family of Placer County, California, setting off an explosion and starting a fire on the family’s farm in January 1945. Despite a confession from one of the men that implicated the others, the jury accepted their defense attorney’s framing of the attack as a justifiable attempt to keep California, “a white man’s country” and acquitted all four defendants.
To compensate former internees for their property losses, the U.S. Congress, on July 2, 1948, passed the American Japanese Claims Act, allowing Japanese Americans to apply for compensation for property losses. By the time the act was passed, the IRS had already destroyed most of the 1939–1942 tax records of the internees, making it extremely difficult for claimants to establish that their claims were valid. Japanese-American families filed 26,568 claims totaling $148 million in requests; only about $37 million was approved and disbursed.
Beginning in the 1960s, a younger generation of Japanese Americans, inspired by the civil rights movement, began what is known as the “Redress Movement,” an effort to obtain an official apology and reparations from the federal government for incarcerating their parents and grandparents during the war. They focused not on documented property losses but on the broader injustice and mental suffering caused by the internment. The movement’s first success was in 1976, when President Gerald Ford proclaimed that the internment was “wrong,” and a “national mistake” which “shall never again be repeated.”
In 1980, Congress established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) to study the matter. On February 24, 1983, the commission issued a report entitled Personal Justice Denied, condemning the internment as unjust and motivated by racism and xenophobic ideas rather than factual military necessity. The commission recommended that $20,000 in reparations be paid to those Japanese Americans who had suffered internment.
In 1988, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed legislation that apologized for the internment on behalf of the U.S. government. The legislation said that government actions were based on, “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” The U.S. government eventually disbursed more than $1.6 billion in reparations to Japanese Americans who had been interned and their heirs.