This is a guest post by Margaret McAleer, a historian in the Manuscript Division. It appears in the July/August issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, one of several articles on the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II.
As members of America’s greatest generation, Jimmie Kanaya, William S.M. Banks Jr. and Charity Adams Earley had a lot in common. They served with the U.S. Army in the European Theater during World War II. They responded with exceptional valor and service to the nation’s call for patriotism, courage and ingenuity. They were among more than 30,000 Japanese Americans and one million African Americans who served in segregated units during the war, fighting fascism abroad and for an end to brutal discrimination at home. It was the “Double V” campaign, fighting for victories on two fronts.
Kanaya was a medic with the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team. He was awarded a Silver Star for tending to wounded men under heavy enemy fire near Castellina, Italy. Banks, an officer with the 92nd Infantry Division (known as the “Buffalo Soldiers”), also received a Silver Star in Italy when his company held out for a week against repeated enemy assaults. Adams commanded the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the only African American Women’s Army Corps battalion deployed overseas. Her unit cleared a six-month backlog of mail and packages in only three months after arriving in England in early 1945.
In the European Theater where Kanaya, Banks and Adams served, Japanese American combat units — the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and 100th Battalion — were among the most decorated of the war. African Americans in the theater flew 15,000 sorties as famed Tuskegee airmen, transported thousands of tons of supplies daily in truck convoys known as the “Red Ball Express” and advanced with the Third Army as members of the 761st Tank Battalion, among other achievements.
They accomplished the impossible against a strong headwind of racism.
Kanaya faced the painful task of helping his parents move from their home in Oregon to an internment camp in Idaho. “With our parents incarcerated,” Kanaya said, he and other Japanese American soldiers felt the need to prove themselves.
When word came that his company would be deployed overseas, Banks’ white commanding officer predicted it would be sent to heavy fighting in the Pacific in order to increase the percentage of African American causalities. Banks found the statement “nauseating.”
Despite her rank, Adams recounted “salutes were slow in coming, and, frequently, returned with great reluctance.” Yet she never ceased to use her rank to fight against the discrimination experienced by women in her command. She was aided occasionally by white military personnel who stood up against racism. While traveling in uniform, she was barred from entering the dining car on her train until a white officer standing behind her thundered at the steward: “What in the world are we fighting this damned war for?”
His question was among the most important of the war. Indeed, service men and women of color fought on two fronts — against fascism and oppression overseas and against racism and discrimination at home. They achieved impossible feats despite demoralizing racism, violent encounters stateside, senseless inefficiencies created by segregation policies and training, housing and resources that were often substandard.
“In a thousand subtle ways, in a thousand brutal ways, we were taught we were no part of American culture and history,” observed Nelson Peery, who served with the African American 93rd Infantry Division. “Here we were making history.”
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