Recognizing Black Troops Who Fought Admirably on the Front Lines of WWII
Proud Warriors: African American Combat Units in World War II. Alexander Bielakowski. University of North Texas Press. 352 pages. $29.95
By Robert Jefferson Jr.
In this thought-provoking book, Alexander Bielakowski, a former U.S. Army Reserve officer, attempts to examine the battlefield activities of African American combat personnel who served admirably on front-line duty during World War II.
Despite the vast outpouring of literature relating to the Black experience in the segregated armed forces, few works have explored the actions of tens of thousands of Black troops who faced enemy fire in combat units during the war itself.
“Without the efforts of these World War II African American [troops], desegregation of the U.S. armed forces might have taken decades longer and the progress of the Civil Rights Movement might also have been hampered,” Bielakowski writes in Proud Warriors: African American Combat Units in World War II.
This work is organized into seven sections, beginning with the African American military experience in U.S. history before Pearl Harbor through the policy assessments made by the Truman and the Kennedy administrations of the combat performances of African Americans in the World War II armed forces. Adopting largely a top-down approach, Bielakowski pays careful attention to the front-line activities of African American infantry, cavalry, Marine Corps, field artillery, coastal and anti-aircraft artillery units in Europe, Africa and the Pacific.
More often than not, the courageous actions taken by African American officers and enlisted men on the battlefield in these theaters elicited comments of grudging respect from senior military leadership, pundits and sectors of the Black community alike.
Proud Warriors also devotes considerable space to explaining how Black aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps and African American sailors in the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard also took their places among the pantheon of heroes in the fighting of the war. But, as Bielakowski points out, their heroic exploits would not be officially recognized by the federal government until decades later.
What readers will find most interesting about Proud Warriors are the profound questions it raises about how and when notions of race, nation and valor frequently blurred on the battlefield. Often, Black soldiers, airmen and sailors found themselves facing seemingly impossible combat conditions that not only tested their physical well-being, but also provoked public discussions about freedom and equality both at home and abroad.
And in those instances, Black soldiers articulated their ideas about American democracy through their acts of bravery during moments of intense fighting.
The performances of African American officers and enlisted men in combat forced a postwar reassessment among War Department officials about issues of race and the military as they confronted the pressing demands of the Cold War era and the modern civil rights movement.
With that, Bielakowski’s book joins a spate of emerging work in seeking to address the memory and legacy of the African American military experience in 20th century U.S. history.
Robert Jefferson Jr. is an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of New Mexico. He is the author of Fighting for Hope: African American Troops of the 93rd Infantry Division in World War II and Postwar America and Brothers in Valor: Battlefield Stories of the 89 African Americans Awarded the Medal of Honor. He holds a doctorate in history from the University of Michigan.
* * *
Support Units Enable Warfighter Success
War of Supply: World War II Allied Logistics in the Mediterranean. David Dworak. University Press of Kentucky (An AUSA Title). 282 pages. $40
By Col. Steve Patarcity, U.S. Army retired
The success of any military campaign is clearly dependent on the effectiveness of accompanying logistical planning and execution. Only by attention to detail and meticulous planning from initial operations to final recovery and post-hostility operations can victory be assured.
History is replete with examples of military forces that fail to consider or adequately address logistical considerations.
The cruciality of logistical efforts is clearly outlined in David Dworak’s War of Supply: World War II Allied Logistics in the Mediterranean. In an in-depth work characterized by thorough research, Dworak details an aspect of World War II that has rarely been addressed so effectively.
Military forces of the past century were becoming more and more dependent on technology and machinery, creating a whole new set of issues never experienced in scope and diversity. Armored and mechanized forces as well as planes and ships required fuel, ammunition and spare parts—as well as specialized units for supply, maintenance and repair.
A tank couldn’t be simply turned out to pasture to graze and water itself; ammunition could not be simply manufactured by a soldier rolling a lead ball and 90 grains of powder into a paper tube during a lull in battle. In the initial phases of World War II, this radical change was not readily understood.
Dworak divides his book into three cleanly defined sections: North Africa; Sicily and Italy; and Southern Europe. Each part shows the maturation of logistical support, with resultant lessons sometimes brutally learned in combat. He focuses on Allied efforts but doesn’t neglect to address problems experienced by the German enemy, such as a severe lack of natural resources, which created demands on transportation capability.
Plentiful examples of difficulties and solutions abound. One that echoes strongly is an effort to free space in theater ports during the North African campaigns by reducing ration loads from between 60–90 days to 45 days, which required the unloading of almost all rations from transports, then reloading the ships to attain the right mix of rations. Similar problems in accountability and other areas based on uninformed decisions or misinterpretation are plainly detailed.
As the possibility of a return to large-scale combat operations is a current concern, the lessons learned from World War II as outlined in Dworak’s book are worth reviewing. War of Supply provides these lessons not only for the career logistician, but also for the military leader and the amateur or professional historian.
This book leaves the reader with the understanding that World War II was more than just fighting. It was clearly a war characterized by materiel superiority and the importance of the support units that enabled the success of the warfighter.
I strongly recommend this work as an addition to any command reading list at all levels. The key teaching points of accurate logistical planning and forecasting—from understanding the inevitability of second- and third-order effects in a campaign to the necessity of being flexible and open to entertaining solutions—resonate strongly throughout.
War of Supply clearly displays the Army’s ability to learn and mature, as well as the ability of American soldiers and their sister service members to accomplish the mission at hand.
Col. Steve Patarcity, U.S. Army retired, is a civilian strategic planner on the staff of the Office of the Chief of Army Reserve, the Pentagon. He retired in 2010 after 33 years of service in the active Army and the U.S. Army Reserve, which included military police and armor assignments in the U.S., Kuwait and Iraq.
* * *
Exploring America’s Civil-Military Divide
The Inheritance: America’s Military After Two Decades of War. Mara Karlin. Brookings Institution Press. 320 pages. $34.99
By Maj. Gen. John Ferrari, U.S. Army retired
Mara Karlin is both a respected national security scholar and an experienced public servant with extensive ties to the Pentagon and a deep understanding of civil-military relations. With The Inheritance: America’s Military After Two Decades of War, she has authored a book that looks at the Clausewitzian “social trinity,” the three-way relationship between the military, the civilian policymakers who oversee the military, and the American people. Her premise is that the relationship in this triangle is fragile, and the tensions need to be addressed.
This is a must-read book for anyone studying U.S. national security processes, as well as those who are heading to the Pentagon, either in a military or civilian role.
Karlin examines this tension by analyzing three civil-military crises that occurred during the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of the three legs of the “social trinity,” she aims her book at the military, with an emphasis on how military leaders are dealing, or not dealing, with the positive and negative “inheritances” or “baggage” these wars have imparted on the institution.
Three crises define Karlin’s The Inheritance. The first is a crisis of confidence, which focuses on the military’s relationship with itself, stemming from the inability of the greatest military in history to clearly win against less capable adversaries.
The second is a crisis of caring, which focuses on the military’s relationship with the American public, caused by the growing disconnect between those who serve and those they are serving.
The third is a crisis of meaningful civilian control, which focuses on the military’s relationship with its civilian policymakers, where each side blames the other for post-9/11 strategic missteps. Karlin applies these crises through the lenses of how the military goes to and wages war, who serves and leads in the military, and the military’s preparedness for future conflicts.
Why is this important? According to Karlin, the post-9/11 wars were akin to heartburn, and if we do not solve these problems now, war with Russia or China will be more like a severe heart attack, with the corresponding catastrophic results.
In the second half of the book, Karlin exposes the effect these three crises have had and will have on the United States’ ability to wage war. Given her background, the analysis is strongest when discussing how war plans are developed and resourced.
In a chapter on how the military goes to war, Karlin provides concrete examples of how the divide between the military and civilian leadership led to ad hoc decision-making that during a war with Russia or China could result in catastrophic failure.
For readers who are working on the Joint Staff, in a combatant command or in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the strongest section of the book may be Karlin’s in-depth exploration of interservice rivalries and the trade-offs between readiness, modernization and force structure. If we do not understand this terrain, then we will certainly experience the heart attack she predicts.
In the end, Karlin leaves the reader to ponder three important questions: How should we assess the post-9/11 wars? What is the U.S. willing to fight for? What does it mean to win or lose in war? For those who read The Inheritance, she provides a conceptual framework for each to come to their own conclusions.
Civilian and military leaders should read this book, then decide how they will internally adapt to meet our nation’s future challenges.
Maj. Gen. John Ferrari, U.S. Army retired, is a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C. He served for 32 years in the Army, including deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and during Operation Desert Storm.
* * *
Snapshots Spotlight History’s Combatants
Soldiers: Great Stories of War and Peace. Max Hastings, Editor. William Collins. 528 pages. $35
By Matthew Seelinger
Sir Max Hastings’ latest book, Soldiers: Great Stories of War and Peace, is an extensive collection of soldier anecdotes from ancient times to the present. Hastings, a former reporter and author of several acclaimed books on military history, states in his introduction that his purpose in writing Soldiers is to share with readers his “lifelong fascination with wars and those who have fought them through the ages.” The book is not a collection of quotations or a study in strategy; instead, it is “a gathering of tales about people who have borne arms.”
What follows is a collection of 345 anecdotes spanning the millennia, from passages in the Bible and tales from ancient Greece and Rome, through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the early modern era and the Napoleonic Wars, World Wars I and II, to the global war on terrorism. Several themes emerge: glorious victory and bitter defeat, bravery and cowardice, the excitement of battle and the terror of combat.
In addition, Hastings includes passages on the absurdities of war and the tedium of garrison duty, though he states that he attempted to select stories that rise above “barrack-room humour.”
While Hastings includes history’s great generals, Soldiers also features lesser-known figures. Of particular interest is his inclusion of soldiers who went on to distinguish themselves as great writers, including Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Edward Gibbon, Marcel Proust, Siegfried Sassoon and George Orwell.
Hastings does not ignore female soldiers. From ancient times to the 21st century, female warriors have served as both leaders and in the ranks. Hastings highlights figures such as Queen Boudicca, who led the Iceni in Britain against the Roman legions; Cathay Williams, an African American woman who dressed as a man to serve in the U.S. Army after the Civil War; and Kayla Williams, a modern-day Army linguist who served as part of an intelligence unit in Iraqi mountain country.
While the earliest entries date to ancient times, Hastings states that the majority of the book focuses on the modern era. Writers of the past few centuries “strike a more responsive chord with modern readers than do earlier chroniclers,” he writes.
In addition, Hasting notes that Soldiers emphasizes the British experience as it “is my own culture.” Thus, British military leaders such as the Duke of Marlborough, the Duke of Wellington, Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery and many others are well represented. Readers seeking entries of soldiers of other nationalities, particularly American, will be disappointed, as only a handful of noted U.S. soldiers (George Washington, Ulysses Grant, George Patton Jr.) are featured.
Hastings includes a set of color plates and a list of sources, a valuable tool for anyone wanting to read more about the soldiers featured in this book.
One critique is with Hastings’s introduction to each entry. Since many of the soldiers may not be familiar to some readers, additional information there would provide better context. Despite this issue, Soldiers is a fine book worthy of anyone’s library, and it should be of particular interest to anyone serving as a soldier.
Matthew Seelinger is chief historian of the Army Historical Foundation and editor of the foundation’s quarterly magazine, On Point.