World War II: 1939–1952

Women and Minorities during World War II

Changing Workforce

As American men left for the front, six million women stepped out of their traditional roles and into the workforce. There they filled jobs in factories and in the armed forces to support the war effort.

During World War II, over 15 million men served in the armed forces, leaving their families and jobs behind. To keep the American economy and the war effort going, new workers were needed to replace those individuals. As a result, from 1942 to 1945 six million women entered the workforce. Many performed the same labor men had done. They worked in shipyards, manufacturing plants, and factories. They operated construction equipment and maintained the railroads. For the first time in American history, women of all ages were encouraged to take on jobs outside the home. Women from the working class were first to join in. As increasing numbers of women were needed, the government turned to middle-class women, most of whom were domestic homemakers. To persuade these prospective laborers, the government opened some 3,000 day care centers across the nation to help working mothers. Rosie the Riveter was a character based on a photo of Naomi Parker Fraley, a real factory worker who became the face of the government's campaign to draw more women into the workforce. Above her determined face and muscular arm appeared the slogan, "We can do it!"

In addition to those entering the civilian workforce, roughly 350,000 American women volunteered to serve in the armed services. Most became members of the Women's Army Corps (WACs) or the navy's equivalent, the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). Members of the WAC and WAVES served in noncombat positions, such as secretaries, radio operators, air traffic controllers, and instructors. Not everyone approved of women actively taking part in the war effort. However, the director of the Women's Army Corps, Oveta Culp Hobby, reminded objectors that every woman who served would "release a man for combat."

With millions of men off at war, American farms faced a serious labor shortage. To keep up food production, the U.S. government worked with Mexico in 1942 to establish the Bracero Program. This program allowed Mexican farm workers, or braceros, to legally cross the U.S.-Mexico border and work on farms in the American West. Mexico permitted its workers to participate—as long as the United States agreed to pay decent wages, honor its contracts, and provide transportation. In addition, the United States was not to entice or force Mexican workers to enlist in the armed forces. Although the program represented a sudden reversal of prewar immigration policy, it reflected the desperate need for workers in the United States. Between 1942 and 1946, approximately 250,000 braceros crossed the border to work on farms, and over 80,000 more came to work for the railroads to keep the tracks in good repair.
The iconic image of Rosie the Riveter became a symbol of women's independence and patriotism during World War II.
Credit: Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 513683

Contributions of Minorities in the Military and on the Home Front

Minorities played an integral role in the war effort, serving in the armed forces and supporting the war at home. African Americans in particular worked toward victory in the hope of achieving equal rights.

When World War II broke out, African American leaders lobbied the government to integrate the military and treat black servicemembers as the equals of white servicemembers. President Roosevelt prohibited segregation in the defense industry, but he could not integrate the military. Of the nearly one million African American men who enlisted in or were drafted into the armed forces, most were given service jobs and kept out of combat.

In late 1940 President Roosevelt ordered the War Department to begin training African American personnel as military pilots. Formation of the all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron of the U.S. Army Air Corps was announced in January 1941. The squadron was located at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. The 600 African American pilots trained at the airfield became known as Tuskegee Airmen. The Tuskegee Airmen were accomplished fighters who distinguished themselves in battle. From 1943 to 1945 their squadrons were dispatched on over 1,500 missions throughout the European Theater.

African Americans were also represented in other branches of the military. Approximately 200,000 African Americans served in army combat units, including the 93rd Infantry and 24th Infantry in the Pacific Theater. On D-Day—June 6, 1944—over 1,500 African American troops were among army units landing on Omaha and Utah Beaches in Normandy, France. The African American 761st Tank Battalion, which came ashore at Omaha Beach in October, went on to fight alongside General George Patton's Third Army in France. This was one of three all-black tank battalions that took part in the war. Two Marine Corps African American defense battalions served in the Pacific Theater's Marshall Islands and Guam.

In 1942 an African American newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, initiated the "Double V" campaign. This movement symbolized African American efforts to achieve two victories—one against fascism abroad and another against racism at home. Double V highlighted the injustice of sending African Americans to fight in the name of American democracy while they were subject to discrimination at home. The Double V crusade did not create immediate legislative change. However, it prompted thousands of African Americans to join organizations promoting racial equality. These organizations included such groups as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Both the NAACP and CORE would be central to the political, legal, and social push for equality during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.

Nearly 25,000 Native Americans volunteered for wartime military service. Despite having experienced centuries of mistreatment and discrimination by white people, many Native Americans saw the Axis powers as a serious threat to their homeland. Several hundred Native Americans provided a specific contribution to the war effort—their indigenous languages. In the Pacific Theater, Navajo code talkers were Native American servicemembers who transmitted top-secret military communications in their native language. The Navajo language was unknown to the Germans and Japanese and served as a natural code the Axis powers were unable to decipher. In the European Theater, Comanche code talkers provided communications during the June 1944 invasion of Normandy. Code talkers served in both theaters of the war and in all branches of the military. The code talkers gave the Allies a critical advantage over their enemies.

Japanese American Relocation and Internment

In 1942 Franklin Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 led to the roundup and internment of nearly 120,000 Japanese-born U.S. citizens and Japanese Americans living on the West Coast.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, many Americans feared that Japanese Americans living on the West Coast had an allegiance to Japan and would try to sabotage the war effort. Despite the lack of any evidence to support this suspicion, officials at the U.S. War Department decided to round up and detain all people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt approved the plan by signing Executive Order 9066, which gave the U.S. military authority to evacuate from the West Coast any people thought to be a security risk. Civilians of Japanese descent were not specifically mentioned in Executive Order 9066, but they were the only ones affected.

The War Relocation Authority was established to oversee the process of forcibly removing nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans from their homes, taking them into custody, and transporting them to detention camps. Over 30,000 of those detained were children under the age of 19. After each individual or family registered their names at local control stations, they were allowed as little as four days to prepare for relocation. They had to pack their possessions, make arrangements to leave their jobs, and find caretakers for their properties. Some local residents harbored racial prejudice and economic envy toward their Japanese American neighbors. They were eager to acquire Japanese Americans' homes, farms, businesses, and other property for ridiculously small amounts. The experience of Japanese Americans during World War II is explored in David Guterson's 1994 novel Snow Falling on Cedars.

Some Japanese Americans resisted the relocation order. One example was Fred Korematsu, a young California-born man. Like some two-thirds of the individuals affected by Order 9066, Korematsu was an American citizen. He refused to leave his home in Southern California and was arrested in 1942 for disobeying the mandate to evacuate. Representing Korematsu, American Civil Liberties Union lawyers argued that the government's imprisonment of Japanese Americans was unconstitutional. When two federal courts ruled against him, Korematsu appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1944 the Supreme Court also decided against Korematsu, stating that forced relocation was a military necessity.

Korematsu was incarcerated at an internment camp in Utah. An additional nine camps were located in southern California, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, and Wyoming. The camp residents were housed in uninsulated barracks. They ate in mess halls and shared communal bathrooms. They were prisoners, living behind barbed wire fences and under the watchful eyes of armed guards. Despite the hardships, people did their best to recreate a normal life. The children attended schools, played sports, and formed clubs. The adults attended church and started camp newspapers. Some were able to get jobs outside the camps. Many of the young men enlisted in the U.S. Army in the hopes of proving their loyalty. Most people, however, stayed in the camps for over three years. The last camp closed in March 1946. The government made no effort to provide reparations to help former detainees rebuild their lives after they were released from the camps.
World War II internment of nearly 120,000 people of Japanese descent represents a low point in U.S. civil rights. Internment camps were in remote locations, and accommodations were inhospitable, with several families crowded together in tar-papered barracks.
Credit: left: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppprs-00368; right: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppprs-00250