African-American Military Heroes

African-American Military Heroes Part II
The Tuskegee Airmen were fighter pilots.
The Tuskegee Airmen were fighter pilots.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Below is the second part of "African-American Military Heroes."

During World War I, Europe was divided, with Germany and Austria-Hungary fighting against Britain, France, and Russia. American President Woodrow Wilson at first wanted the U.S. to remain neutral, but in 1917 America declared war on Germany.

Almost 400,000 African-Americans were drafted into the army or enlisted, but only 50,000 saw actual combat. Many were assigned duties like burying the dead or cleaning mess halls. Some of them were even given the dangerous job of setting off explosives.

One of the most famous African-American soldiers who fought in World War I was Private Henry Johnson. He was part of the 369th Infantry, the first African-American unit of combat troops to land in Europe to aide the French troops.

The 369th was cited for bravery several times, and the French honored the men by awarding them their highest honor, the Croix de Guerre. The commanding officer, General Benjamin O. Davis, was promoted to brigadier general in 1940 and was the first African-American general in the army.


World War II was a turning point for African-Americans in the U.S. military. Despite continuing discrimination, more than one million African-Americans joined the armed forces during this war. Women were given the chance to volunteer, and in 1941 the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, which later became the Women's Army Corps (WAC), was formed. Nearly 4,000 African-American women proudly served their country as WACs.

In 1942 the U.S. Marine Corps finally started to enlist African-Americans, and Howard P. Perry became the first African-American to join the Marines. Also, the Army Air Corps began to train African-American pilots, resulting in the famous Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American fighter pilots.

Second Lieutenant Vernon J. Baker should have received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism in 1945, but no African-American soldier had ever received this honor. However, that changed in 1997, when President Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor to Baker and also to six other African-American veterans of World War II.

In 1948 President Harry S. Truman signed the Executive Order. It called for the end of segregation in the U.S. military and equality for all people in the armed services. The Vietnam War became the first battle in American history in which African-Americans were not limited in their duties and served in every area of the military. The Vietnam War came just as the civil-rights struggle was reaching a high point in the Southern states.

The Vietnam War Memorial honors all who fought.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

At last, African-American men and women were able to climb the ranks in the military based on their merit. They could now be rewarded for their achievements and not be judged simply by their race. In Washington, D.C., the Vietnam Veterans Memorial pays tribute to Americans of all races who gave their lives during the war.

General Colin L. Powell received 11 medals and other decorations for his service in Vietnam. He also was the first African-American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which oversees all of the United States' military branches.

African-Americans continue to make history, serving their nation on land, at sea, and in the air.

For more children's stories and activities, check out:

More to Explore