Ethnic minorities in the US armed forces during World War II

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Lt. Daniel Inouye was a Japanese-American who served during World War II

Ethnic minorities served in the US armed forces during World War II. All citizens were equally subject to the draft. All minorities were given the same rate of pay. The 16 million men and women in the services included 1 million African Americans, along with 33,000+ Japanese-Americans,[1] 20,000+ Chinese Americans,[2] 24,674 American Indians,[3] and some 16,000 Filipino-Americans.[4] According to House concurrent resolution 253, 400,000 to 500,000 Hispanic Americans served.[5] They were released from military service in 1945-46 on equal terms, and were eligible for the G.I. Bill and other veterans' benefits on a basis of equality. Many veterans, having learned organizational skills, and become more alert to the nationwide situation of their group, became active in civil rights activities after the war.[6]

White minority participation[edit]

The vast majority of the US population at the time was of northwest European descent, most prominently descending from the British Isles and Germany. A considerable number of groups legally defined as white could still be considered ethnic minorities at the time, and even separate races per the Nordicism thought popular in the United States and northwest Europe at the time (Hispanic American soldiers with significant Amerindian ancestry were also classified as "white"), and exemplified by the Nazi German state that was the United States' main enemy in the war. Detailed tabulations were not kept for these groups by the US military, which simply listed them all as "white". Separate statistics were kept for African Americans and Asian Americans.[7]


Hispanic Americans, also referred to as Latinos, served in all elements of the American armed forces in the war. They fought in every major American battle in the war According to House concurrent resolution 253, 400,000 to 500,000 Hispanic Americans served in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II, out of a total of 16,000,000. Most were of Mexican or Puerto Rican descent.[8][9][10] By another estimate, over 500,000 Mexican-Americans served[11] plus over 65,000 Puerto Ricans[12] and smaller numbers of others. Hispanic-Americans constituted 3.1% to 3.2% of the total who served. A number of Hispanics served in senior leadership positions, the highest ranking being Marine Corps Lieutenant-General Pedro Del Valle.

The exact number of Hispanics serving in the US military is unknown as, at the time, Hispanics were not tabulated separately, but were generally included in the general white population census count. President Roosevelt had personally demanded all Mexican-Americans be classified as white as part of his "Good Neighbor" policy with US-friendly Latin American nations[13] while most Puerto Ricans had always been considered legally white since the island was annexed on part of its population being of majority-European descent (the average Puerto Rican being 66% European, 18% Native American, and 16% West African).[14] While the military did not document the numbers of Hispanic servicemen and servicewomen, the US Census did note that less than 2% of the general population was of Hispanic origin;[15] if true this would mean Hispanic-Americans were overrepresented in the armed forces.


Over 550,000 Jewish-Americans served in the armed forces during World War II, account for 3.5% of the roughly 16 million American soldiers in total, the highest number of Jewish soldiers of any participating country.[16] There were 4,770,000 American Jews at the time, accounting for 3.6% of the US population, meaning they were proportionally represented.[17] 22 Jewish-Americans obtained the ranks of general or admiral during the war, including Major General Maurice Rose, and 49,315 earned citations for valor in combat. The total number of Jewish-American war casualties was 38,338, with 11,000 killed.[18]


Americans of Polish descent were common in all the military ranks and divisions, and were among the first to volunteer for the war effort. They were heavily motivated by the Nazi policy of extermination towards the people of occupied Poland, the first country attacked during the war. Polish Americans were enthusiastic enlistees. They composed 4% of the American population at the time, but ultimately composed 8% of the U.S. military during World War II, with over 1,000,000 joining the U.S. armed forces.[19] Polish general Władysław Sikorski toured the United States in a failed attempt to raise large numbers of Polish-Americans for segregated battalions, saying that they were "turning their backs" on Poland by not joining the cause.[20]


Over 1.5 million Italian-American soldiers served in World War II, accounting for 10% of the armed forces, of whom 14 won Medals of Honor.[21] While Italian-Americans were in general enthusiastic participants in the Allied cause, several Italian-language newspapers were forced to close because of past support of the fascist government of Benito Mussolini.[22]


Over 30,000 Arab-Americans are estimated to have served during the war, accounting for 0.2% of soldiers. Most were of Lebanese descent.[23]


During World War II, about 18,500 Armenians served in the armed forces of the United States.[24] A number of them were decorated for their service, including Col. Ernest Dervishian, a native of Virginia, who was awarded the Medal of Honor.[25] US Marine Harry Kizirian is considered the most decorated soldier of the state of Rhode Island.[26] Another Marine Captain, Victor Maghakian is considered one of the most decorated American soldiers of the war.[27][28] The highest-ranking Armenian-American during World War II was Brigadier General Haig Shekerjian (who had previously served in the Pancho Villa Expedition and as an American military attache in the Middle Eastern theater of World War I). He was appointed Commanding General of Camp Sibert, Alabama, which was used extensively as the main training camp for chemical warfare troops, and remained in that position until 1945. Shekerjian also gave numerous speeches during the war encouraging Americans of Armenian descent to enlist.[29]

Possible reasons for ethnic minority participation[edit]

The participation of ethnic minorities in the US armed forces during World War II highlighted an inconsistency in American ideology at the time. The United States invaded Europe to fight against Hitler’s Nazi regime and its idea that there is an Aryan master or superior race, while perpetuating racism at home, some minorities believed. These soldiers and sailors were aware of this perceived double standard, and thus began the Double V campaign for a "Double Victory": a victory against National Socialism and Fascism abroad, and a victory against racism at home. The black soldiers fought for equal citizenship and better job opportunities.[30][31] W.E.B. Du Bois declared that in order to win World War II, we must also win the “War for Racial Equality” at home.[32]

As the enlistment statistics below demonstrate, some men were drafted, others enlisted voluntarily. Ethnic minorities gave many patriotic reasons for wanting to participate in the War effort. For many, it was an exciting role and essential to identify with one's pride and courage. For some, fighting in the war was a way to prove their patriotism and honor their love for their country. Those who fight for this reason considered themselves Americans, independently of race, and thus felt obligated or proud to fight for their country. Others took a strategic approach, serving in the U.S. armed forces with the belief that once they returned as veterans the U.S. would have to do away with racial discrimination and segregation. Others still recognized the opportunity to achieve financial security for their families; jobs in the armed forces could provide them with steady incomes when they were often excluded from jobs in the defense industries and trade unions at home. Women were not drafted, but they enlisted with the same motivations as the men.[33] Japanese Americans who are US citizens volunteered in large numbers, especially in Hawaii.[34] The Cuban-American community, based in Florida, saw military services and opportunity for adventure, patriotism and financial aid to their family.[35]

Detailed instances of racial discrimination[edit]

Whatever their reasons for joining, they all faced further discrimination in the U.S. armed forces. At the start of the War, all branches of the U.S. military were segregated. President Harry S. Truman ordered the end of military segregation with his Executive Order 9981 in 1948, but racial discrimination and segregation continued in the U.S. armed forces through the Korean War. Some states did not desegregate their National Guard until the mid-sixties.[36]

African American soldiers and sailors were banned from fighting on the front lines, and were assigned menial tasks in place of positions in combat. However, in some cases of emergency or shortage, African Americans were brought to the front lines, including during the Invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. Mess-attendant Dorie Miller left his station to fire at the attacking planes during the Attack on Pearl Harbor. Some special African American units, such as the Tuskegee Airmen, also fought in combat.

Many African-Americans wrote or otherwise described the great disparities in treatment between themselves and white soldiers. Some of these disparities included receiving fewer provisions and poorer quality gear, and struggling with gross disorganization in command and instruction. In letters to his girlfriend back home, one African American soldier named Jim Dansby described, “the colored here in camp seem to be neglected to a certain extent. We are poorly organized,”[37] and “I am pretty much disgusted. I don’t think they’re treating us right.”[38] Additionally, there were often racial tensions between different ethnic minority groups within the armed forces. Beyond these, African Americans and other ethnic minority servicemen had to undergo their training in communities run by Jim Crow laws, enforced by local police. Dansby also described events of racial violence in the town where he trained at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, and the effect such events had upon his psyche: “Honey I am telling you I’ll be glad when I get away from this place. A soldier got killed in town last nite, also the nite before. The one that was killed the nite before was found by the railroad tracks with his head cut and arm almost cut off. These soldiers down here are really bad…so anything liable to happen.”[37]

Statistical information[edit]

The following passage from pages 187-190 of Selective Service and Victory: The 4th Report of the Director of Selective Service (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1948) represents the best statistical information available to the United States Army Center of Military History to answer questions about the participation of various minority groups. Note which of these statistics only cover those minorities drafted into the armed forces and which include personnel who voluntarily enlisted. Statistics are difficult to compile since contemporary classifications and the Army's interest in data rarely match modern interests.

Minority groups[edit]

Another special problem of great importance in Selective Service operations was the mobilization of black ("Negro") registrants and other minority groups of this nature. The main difficulty here was securing the induction of men who were found (1) to be available by the System and (2) to be qualified by the armed forces physical examination. There were, of course, other problems as evidenced by the following treatment of the matter for the period extending from July 1, 1944 through December 31, 1945.

One million African-American inductions[edit]

Blacks were an important source of manpower for the armed forces in World War II as is shown by the fact that a total of 1,056,841 African American registrants were inducted into the armed forces through Selective Service as of December 31, 1945. Of these,

  1. 885,945 went into the Army,
  2. 153,224 into the Navy,
  3. 16,005 into the Marine Corps, and
  4. 1,667 into the Coast Guard.

The African American inductees made up:

  1. 10.9 percent of all registrants inducted into the Army (8,108,531),
  2. 10.0 percent of all inductions into the Navy (1,526,250),
  3. 8.5 percent of all Marine Corps inductions (188,709) and
  4. 10.9 percent of all Coast Guard inductions (15,235).

Thus African Americans, who constituted approximately 11.0 percent of all registrants liable for service, furnished approximately this proportion of the inductees in all branches of the service except During the period July 1, 1944 – December 31, 1945, 141,294 African Americans were inducted, comprising 9.6 percent of all inductions (1,469,808) therein. Of this number:

  1. 103,360 went into the Army, which was 9.1 percent of all Army inductions (1,132,962).
  2. The Navy received 36,616 Negroes, or 11.6 percent of its inductees (316,215).
  3. The 1,309 Negroes going into the Marine Corps were 6.4 percent of Marine Corps inductions (20,563).
  4. Only 9 African Americans were inducted into the Coast Guard, but this was 13.2 percent of the inductees for this branch of service (68).

The somewhat lower proportion of African American inductions during this period was principally due to the proportionately lower calls made upon Selective Service for African American registrants. The African American call for 18 months was only 135,600, or 8.3 percent of the total call (1,639,100).

Inductions of other minority groups[edit]

Inductions into the Army of Selective Service registrants from other racial and nationality groups up to December 31, 1945, included:

  1. 13,311 Chinese,
  2. 20,080 Japanese,
  3. 1,320 Hawaiians,
  4. 44,000[39] American Indians,
  5. 11,506 Filipinos,
  6. 51,438 Puerto Ricans.

The 13,311 Chinese Americans Who were drafted comprised about 22% of all adult Chinese men. An additional several thousand volunteered for service. One in four served in the Air Force.[40]

Counting enlistments and those in the Enlisted Reserve Corps, a total of 24,085 Japanese Americans had either enlisted or been inducted into the Army by December 31, 1945. Similar statistics are not available for the naval services. Also by June 30, 1945, a total of 125,880 aliens of various nationalities had enlisted or been inducted into the Army and Navy. The increased proportion of inductions of Japanese-Americans during the two 6-months periods from July 1, 1944, to June 30, 1945 is indicated in the first table. Beginning January 14, 1944, registrants who were natural-born United States citizens of Japanese extraction or parentage were subject to induction in the Army after the War Department had determined in each case that the registrant was acceptable.

African American enlistments[edit]

From December 1942 until VJ-day there were relatively few enlistments into the armed forces as restrictions against the direct recruiting of men in the age group acceptable for service (18-37) were in effect. There were, however, 483,605 other enlistments into the Army and Navy during the period July 1, 1944, to June 30, 1945, but only 1.3 percent were African Americans. Although African Americans constitute approximately 11 percent of the population, aged 18 through 37, only 0.8 percent of Army enlistees and 1.4 percent of Navy enlistees during the period July 1, 1944, to June 30, 1945, were of that race.[citation needed] The reasons why relatively few African Americans enlisted during World War II were numerous. The principal one, however, was the severe restrictions placed against African American enlistments by the armed forces, which, in some periods, amounted to complete prohibition.[citation needed][41]

Army inductions by race, July 1, 1944-December 31, 1945 United States and Territories[edit]

Accumulative to June 30, 1944	July–December 1944	January–June 1945	July–December 1945	Accumulative to December 31, 1945
All Races 	Number 	7,041,087 	393,392 	518,127 	272,747 	8,225,353
	        Percent 100 	        100 	        100 	        100      	100
White 	        Number 	6,139,589 	348,060 	457,460 	236,675 	7,181,784
	        Percent 87.2 	        88.5    	88.3    	86.7    	87.3
Negro 	        Number 	797,444 	30,882  	46,123 	        27,447  	901,896
	        Percent 11.3 	        7.8 	        8.9     	10.1    	11.0
Japanese 	Number 	11,260 	        3,483 	        2,933    	2,404   	20,080
	        Percent 0.2 	        0.9     	0.6     	0.9     	0.1
Puerto Rican 	Number 	32,344 	        8,109    	8,005   	2,980   	51,438
	        Percent 0.5 	        2.1     	1.5 	        1.1 	        0.6
Others 	        Number 	60,450 	        2,858    	3,606   	3,241   	70,155
	        Percent 0.8 	        0.7      	0.7     	1.2     	0.9


  1. ^ "Japanese-Americans at War: World War II Memorial". National Park Service. United States Department of the Interior. Accessed May 11, 2017.
  2. ^ "Asian-Americans in the United States Military: Fact Sheet". State of New Jersey. Accessed May 11, 2017.
  3. ^ Burnstein, Alison R. Walking In Two Worlds: American Indians In World War Two, Diss. Columbia University, 1986. University Microfilms International. Web. 26 April 2015. 65. Details: 21,767 in the Army, 1,910 in the Navy, 874 in the Marines, 121 in the Coast Guard, and several hundred Native American women as nurses.
  4. ^ "Congressional Bills 114th Congress". Retrieved 2019-05-19.
  5. ^ "Hispanics in the United States Army". Retrieved 2019-05-19.
  6. ^ David Levinson and Karen Christensen (2003). Encyclopedia of Community: From the Village to the Virtual World. Sage. p. 1485.
  7. ^ World War II By The Numbers, The National World War II Museum, New Orleans. Retrieved on August 22, 2007.
  8. ^ "Hispanics in the United States Army". Retrieved 2019-05-19.
  9. ^ Student Almanac of Hispanic American History: From the California Gold Rush to today, 1849-present. Greenwood. 2004. p. 72.
  10. ^ "WWII Veteran Statistics". The National WWII Museum | New Orleans. Retrieved 2019-05-19.
  11. ^ Lorena Oropeza. "Latinos in World War II". National Park Service of the United States. U.S. Department of the Interior. Accessed May 11, 2017.
  12. ^ Dept. of Defense; "Number of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. Armed Forces during National Emergencies".
  13. ^ Patrick D. Lukens, A Quiet Victory for Latino Rights: FDR and the Controversy over Whiteness (University of Arizona Press, 2012)
  14. ^ Tang, H; Choudhry, S; Mei, R; Morgan, M; Rodriguez-Cintron, W; Burchard, EG; Risch, NJ (2007). "Recent genetic selection in the ancestral admixture of Puerto Ricans". Am. J. Hum. Genet. 81 (3): 626–33. doi:10.1086/520769. PMC 1950843 Freely accessible. PMID 17701908.
  15. ^ US Census, 1940.
  16. ^ Grayzel, Solomon: A History of the Jews: From the Babylonian Exile to the Present (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1968), p. 786.
  17. ^ Ibid, p. 785
  18. ^ Jewish Virtual Library.
  19. ^ Haiman, Miecislaus (January–June 1946). "The Polish American contribution to World War II". Polish American Studies. Polish American Historical Association. 3 (1/2): 35–37.
  20. ^ Kochanski, Halik (2012). The Eagle unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674068148. Page 271.
  21. ^ Marton, Eric. "Italian Americans: The History and Culture of a People." Page 148. Quote Vice President Nelson Rockefeller: "I think of the 1.5 million Americans of Italian descent who made up ten per cent of the armed might of the United States in World War II, and many of these men you have met in years still well remembered."
  22. ^ Di Stasi, Lawrence (2004). Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment during World War II.
  23. ^ Haiek, Joseph. "Arab-American Almanac." 6th Edition. December 1991. Page 33.
  24. ^ Tashjian, James H. (1952) The Armenian American in World War II. Boston: Harenik Association
  25. ^ "Ernest Herbert Dervishian". Military Times Hall Of Valor. Retrieved 3 December 2012.
  26. ^ "Much-beloved Rhode Islander regarded as 'national treasure' – Harry Kizirian, postmaster, war hero, dies". The Providence Journal. 15 September 2002. p. C-01. Kizirian, a former Marine widely acclaimed as the most decorated soldier from Rhode Island in World War II, served on numerous boards of directors, was honored by dozens of local organizations and was a member of the Rhode Island Hall of Fame. Regarded as a "national treasure," Kizirian received an honorary doctor of public service degree from Rhode Island College in 1992.
  27. ^ Bulbulian, Berge (2000). The Fresno Armenians: History of a Diaspora Community. Fresno: California State University Press. p. 193. ISBN 0912201355. He was one of the most decorated military men in World War II having won the Navy Cross, Silver Star with Gold Star, Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and many other medals.
  28. ^ Tashjian, James H. (1952). "'Transport' Maghakian". Armenian Review. 5: 43. He fought from the Makin Raid through Tinian in the Pacific, came out of it all, on the testimony of the Department of the Navy, "one of the highest decorated" Marines of World War II.
  29. ^ A Tribute to Brig. Gen. Haig Shekerjian.
  30. ^ Natalie Kimbrough (2007). Equality Or Discrimination?: African Americans in the U.S. Military During the Vietnam War. University Press of America. p. 69.
  31. ^ Robert F. Jefferson (2008). Fighting for Hope: African American Troops of the 93rd Infantry Division in World War II and Postwar America. Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 5–6.
  32. ^ Takaki, Ronald T. "Introduction: A Different Memory." Introduction. Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II. N.p.: First Back Bay, 2001. p 7.
  33. ^ Maggie Rivas-Rodríguez; Emilio Zamora (2010). Beyond the Latino World War II Hero: The Social and Political Legacy of a Generation. Uy of Texas Press. p. 84.
  34. ^ Abbie Lynn Salyers (2009). The Internment of Memory: Forgetting and Remembering the Japanese American World War II Experience. ProQuest. p. 86.
  35. ^ Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez; B. V. Olguín (2014). Latina/os and World War II: Mobility, Agency, and Ideology. U of Texas Press. p. 55.
  36. ^ Honsa, Thomas P. (2008). "Doing the Job: The 1964 Desegregation of the Florida Army National Guard". The Florida Historical Quarterly. 87 (1): 50–70. JSTOR 20700195.
  37. ^ a b Letter from soldier Jim Dansby to his girlfriend Gertha Sykes. November 6, 1942. Gertha Sykes Collins Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary.
  38. ^ Letter from soldier Jim Dansby to his girlfriend Gertha Sykes. January 22, 1943. Gertha Sykes Collins Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary.
  39. ^
  40. ^ Jingyi Song (2010). Shaping and Reshaping Chinese American Identity: New York's Chinese during the Depression and World War II. Lexington Books. p. 148.
  41. ^ "Minority Groups in World War II". Retrieved 2016-07-07.

See also[edit]


 This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Army Center of Military History document "Selective Service and Victory: The 4th Report of the Director of Selective Service".

Further reading[edit]

  • Armor, David J., and Curtis L. Gilroy. "Changing minority representation in the US military." Armed Forces & Society (2009). Online
  • Bernstein, Alison R. American Indians and World War II: Toward a New Era in Indian Affairs (1991)
  • Brooks, Jennifer E. Defining the Peace: World War II Veterans, Race, and the Remaking of Southern Political Tradition (Univ of North Carolina Press, 2004)
  • Bruscino Jr, Thomas A. "Minorities in the Military." in by James C. Bradford, ed. A Companion to American Military History (2010) vol 2 pp: 880-898.
  • Burk, James. "Citizenship status and military service: The quest for inclusion by minorities and conscientious objectors." Armed forces & society (1995) 21#4 pp: 503-529.
  • Evans, Rhonda. "A history of the service of ethnic minorities in the US Armed Forces." Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military (2003). online
  • Dalfiume, Richard M. Desegregation of the US armed forces: Fighting on two fronts, 1939-1953 (University of Missouri Press, 1969)
  • James, C. L. R. Fighting Racism in World War II: From the Pages of The Militant. Ed. Fred Stanton. New York: Pathfinder, 2011.
  • Krebs, Ronald R. "One nation under arms? Military participation policy and the politics of identity." Security studies 14.3 (2005): 529-564. Online
  • Lee, Ulysses (1965). The Employment of Negro Troops. United States Army Center of Military History. CMH Pub 11-4.
  • MacGregor, Jr., Morris J. Integration of the Armed Forces, 1940-1965 Defense Studies Series (Washington, 1981).
  • McGuire, Phillip. "Desegregation of the Armed Forces: Black Leadership, Protest and World War II." Journal of Negro History (1983): 147-158. in JSTOR
  • Moye, J. Todd. Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II (Oxford University Press, 2010)
  • Nalty, Bernard C. Strength for the fight: A history of Black Americans in the military (Simon and Schuster, 1989)
  • Salyer, Lucy E. "Baptism by Fire: Race, Military Service, and US Citizenship Policy, 1918–1935." Journal of American History 91.3 (2004): 847-876.
  • Stauffer, Samuel. The American Soldier Vol. 4." (1949) on blacks in WW2
  • Takaki, Ronald T. Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II. N.p.: First Back Bay, 2001.
  • Treadwell, Mattie E. The Women's Army Corps (Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1954.)
  • Wong, Kevin Scott. Americans First: Chinese Americans and the Second World War (Harvard University Press, 2009)