What the World War II Black Cannoneer Can Teach Us about Diversity, Inclusion, and Combat Readiness

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What the World War II Black Cannoneer Can Teach Us about Diversity, Inclusion, and Combat Readiness

Col (Ret) Bryon Greenwald, Ph.D.


In World War II, the Army trained, equipped, and deployed almost 90 divisions worldwide.  Yet less than three percent of the African-American units that deployed overseas were combat units and very few of those outfits fought, or fought for long, on the front lines.  The conventional wisdom among the Army’s white leadership was that Black soldiers were poor fighters who did not have the intelligence to operate complex weaponry, the inherent discipline to follow orders, nor the grit to stand up to the Germans or Japanese.  Except for digging ditches, loading supplies, or washing laundry, World War II would be a white man’s war; Black soldiers need not apply.


As a candidate for an unprecedented third presidential term who sought the Black vote, Franklin Roosevelt had different ideas about Black soldiers.  On 13 September 1940, FDR directed the Army organize African Americans in each branch at a rate equal to their proportion of the U.S. population, approximately ten percent.[i]  At a meeting with Black political leaders two weeks later he discussed this directive.  When asked by these leaders if he would integrate the Army, FDR demurred and suggested that by putting a Black artillery battery near a white artillery battery the two groups would begin to work together and “back into it,” in essence, integrate.[ii]  

The WWII Army, however, was run by white men with decades of socially-sanctioned prejudice ingrained in their psyche.  Thus, as the Army inducted draftees and prepared for war, it systematically discriminated against African Americans and established an apartheid-like segregation of Black soldiers. Organizationally, Army policy prohibited the integration of Black and white units below division level.  While publicly the national attitude toward Blacks and other minorities may have been “separate, but equal” as decided in Plessy v Ferguson (1896), the Army psychologically and physically treated Black men and Black units as “unequal and keep separate.”  Therefore, to meet FDR’s directive, but stay true to its policy, the Army organized thousands of separate Black units at corps level and above.  In the spirit of Plessy, the Army went so far as to build separate barracks, mess halls, and recreational facilities, few of which were equal to those used by whites, to ensure that Black and white units, and particularly Black and white soldiers, remained segregated.  

The Army’s action to create Black units at corps level and above, but keep them separate amounted to a “bait and switch” scheme that drew heavy criticism from Black civilian leaders. These leaders argued that the only way for African Americans to attain equality was to fight on the front lines and prove that they were truly equal to whites.  They called it the “Double V” campaign; victory over fascism abroad and racism at home. By organizing these units at corps level and above, the Army guaranteed that very few Black soldiers would get close enough to engage in close combat on the front lines. 

For our purposes today, it is quite instructive to note that when the urgency of global combat threw Blacks and whites together in close proximity, perceptions changed.  When a Black medic aided white soldiers on Omaha Beach, when Black cannoneers fired in direct support of white infantrymen, and when a few thousand Black soldiers fought side-by-side with white troops in the closing days of the war in Europe, opinions about the value of African Americans as fighting men began to change significantly. It is a lesson that we can apply in our current polarized world, where technology and physical separation tend to reinforce our own stereotypes and preferences.  And it is one of the reasons that breaking down the digital, physical, and psychological barriers that allow us to remain separated—and dare we say encourage diversity, equity, and inclusion—is critical to combat readiness. 

* *

            Excluding observation battalions, the Army established 697 Field Artillery battalions in World War II.   Only 28 or 4% of those battalions were African-American.  And while that fell far below President Roosevelt’s goal of 10% per branch, the number of units that finished the war as FA battalions was even lower, reflecting the Army’s collective feeling toward Black combat units.

The Army redesignated five of those 28 battalions (732nd, 795th, 930th, 931st, and 993rd) as Combat Engineer battalions.  Four battalions (159th, 353rd, 971st, and 973rd) never deployed; the Army inactivated them within a year of their establishment.  Ten battalions supported their three deployed African-American divisions: the 92nd Infantry Division (Italy), 93rd Infantry Division (Pacific), and 2nd Cavalry Division (North Africa). None of these battalions interacted significantly with white units. Of the three Black divisions, only the 92nd Division in Italy fought together as a division before being reorganized. Soldiers in its four artillery battalions (597th, 598th, 599th, and 600th) won 11 Silver Stars and over 100 Bronze Stars. The 93rd Division was scattered throughout the Pacific and given mop up duty behind the lines. The Army inactivated the 2nd Cavalry Division two months after its arrival in North Africa and turned its forces into service units.[iii]


            The nine remaining African-American artillery battalions (or 1.3% of all FA battalions activated) deployed to the European Theater of Operations (ETO). Once there the 333rd, 349th, 350th, 351st, 578th, 686th, 777th, 969th, and 999th FA battalions fought as non-divisional corps artillery units.  The first to arrive was the 333rd FA Battalion (along with the 333rd FA Group) on 29 June 1944.  The 969th, 999th, and 578th battalions followed in July.  The 969th FA Bn arrived on Utah Beach on 9 July and the following day fired 28 rounds in its first combat action.  By the end of November, the battalion had fired over 20,000 rounds.  The 777th FA Bn arrived on 18 September 1944 and was the first Black unit to cross the Rhine River.  The 349th, 350th, 351st, and 686th battalions arrived in February 1945 and with the war ending on 8 May saw little action.[iv]

To command at least some of these nine battalions, the Army formed six FA Groups (46th, 333rd, 349th, 350th, 351st, and 353rd), the equivalent to today’s artillery brigades. Two groups (350th and 353rd) never deployed, one group (46th) organized in Southern France on 31 December 1944 from elements of the 8th Antiaircraft Artillery Group, two deployed (333rd and 349th) through Normandy in 1944, and one (351st) arrived later on 19 February 1945 and like its battalions (350th and 686th) faced a minimum of combat.[v]  


Despite being hidebound, Army policy concerning race was at times contradictory.  For example, although African-American soldiers served as forward observers, the Army foreswore creating any Black observation battalions.   This policy was the result of at least one Interwar Period study that maintained that Black soldiers “should never be employed in close support of white infantry.  Any negro batteries in the vicinity would be blamed for all ‘short’ rounds” regardless of fault, and prejudice the morale of the white infantry.  But yet in the ETO, Black artillery groups commanded by Black officers would occasionally command both Black and white artillery battalions.[vi]

* * *

Combat is about winning and not dying.  It is about using whatever resources you have available to defeat your enemy by fighting.  Stateside policies and prejudices often fail when faced with the physical realities of combat.  Although it may take human beings some time to change minds, competence in combat does not discriminate.  

While there are different models to measure the psychological journey from discrimination to acceptance, the transition experienced by some WWII white soldiers seemed to go from Admiring Black soldiers in the performance of their duties to Desiring their assistance in fighting the Germans to Requiringtheir help to stay alive and win the war.[vii]

Stage of Acceptance



“Look at those fellas hustle”


“Could you drop some artillery on this target?”


“We are running out of infantry; any volunteers?”




Admiring: For example, white infantrymen and others on Omaha Beach admired the way the Black men of the 320th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Barrage Balloon Battalion used their thirty-five foot balloons to create aerial hazards for incoming German planes.  As Bill Richardson, a military correspondent on Eisenhower’s staff, noted, “It seems the whole front knows the story of the Negro barrage balloon battalion outfit which was one of the first ashore on D-Day.  [They] have gotten the reputation of hard workers and good soldiers.  Their simple earnestness and pride . . . [are] obvious to some of the most Jim-Crow-conscious southerners.”[viii]

One member of that battalion, a Black medic named Corporal Waverly Woodson, was one of the first African-Americans to land in Normandy.  For over 30 hours, Woodson provided medical care to dozens of white soldiers, including giving artificial respiration to three soldiers who had gone underwater during their landing, before he collapsed from wounds and exhaustion.  He was nominated for a Distinguished Service Cross, but ultimately received a Bronze Star.   Years later, when talking about racial relations and his service on Omaha Beach, Woodson remarked that when men needed aid, “they didn’t care what color my skin was.”[ix]

At Omaha Beach and through operations like the Red Ball Express, the round-the-clock resupply convoy largely staffed by Black soldiers, the proximity of the two groups gave white soldiers the opportunity to observe and admire the work of Black soldiers without necessarily relying on them or becoming intimately familiar.  That situation would change during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. 

Desiring: At 5:30 A.M. on a dark, misty December 16, the first of up to 27 German armor and infantry divisions, 200,000 men in total, attacked across a 60-mile front catching 83,000 men in six untested or refitting American divisions, most belonging to the VIII U.S. Corps, completely by surprise.[x] Over the next three days, American divisions managed to hold the northern and southern shoulders and delay the German main thrust in the center.  While bitter combat occurred throughout the salient, the battle devolved into an all-out fight in the highly compartmented terrain to hold bridges and major road junctions, in particular, the junction of several major roads at Bastogne.  

In December 1944, VIII Corps divisions received reinforcing artillery fires from several organizations including the 333rd Field Artillery Group (Colored), as the Army characterized African-American units back then.  The 333rd FA Group consisted of two Black artillery battalions, the 333rd FA Battalion and the 969th FA Battalion, both equipped with twelve 155-mm howitzers, and 771st FA Battalion, a White battalion armed with 4.5-inch guns.    Over 16 and 17 December, the German onslaught overran elements of the 106th Infantry Division and portions of the 333rd FA Battalion supporting it and drove them to the west.  In the process of retreating, the 333rd FA Battalion lost seven of its guns and the majority of soldiers, including 11 Black soldiers massacred by men from the German 1st SS Panzer Division.[xi]

To blunt the German advance, General Eisenhower sent one of his two theater reserve divisions, the 101st Airborne Division, to Bastogne to hold the vital road junction and slow, if not stop, the German attack in the center of the Bulge.  To reinforce the division’s own artillery, VIII Corps assigned the 333rd FA Group headquarters, and the 969th FA and 771st FA Battalions.[xii] As the 101st Airborne Division moved by truck to Bastogne, the Germans attacked from the east, north, and south, forcing American units to retreat toward the town. By 20 December, the 333rd FA Battalion, having suffered a direct attack by German panzers, had lost two additional howitzers, for a 4-day total of 9 guns, 34 trucks, 12 weapons carriers, six officers, and 222 men, either as casualties or prisoners. The remnants of the battalion folded into the 969th FA Bn, the other Black artillery battalion, now in the vicinity of Bastogne.  Concurrently, direct German pressure on the White cannoneers of the 771st FA Battalion drove most of the soldiers off, leaving just six officers and 14 soldiers to man two of their 4.5-inch guns.  The 969th FA Bn took control of these guns, creating a composite battalion, and the 20 remaining men of the 771st FA Bn joined the 333rd Field Artillery Group headquarters.  By the afternoon of 21 December, with Bastogne now surrounded, the 969th FA Battalion was the only medium artillery to back up the Division’s light 105-mm howitzers inside the half-mile wide defensive perimeter.[xiii]

From 21-26 December, the German’s completely surrounded Bastogne.  Some of the artillerymen were within 500 yards of the front lines.  Artillery rounds, however, were in such short supply that the 969th FA Bn only fired on targets called in by observers.  Not surprisingly, the infantrymen defending the town did not stop to ask what color the cannoneers were when asking for artillery protection.  They just asked for help.  

Despite the shortages and the constant German artillery, armor, and infantry attacks, cooperation between men and units was superb.  Soldiers from the 969th FA Bn recovered abandoned vehicles, carried messages under fire, and evacuated wounded individuals to aid stations.  Several Black men received the Bronze Star for their actions.  Some men, identifying with the way Airborne soldiers wore their uniforms, began tucking their pant legs into their boots. One enterprising 969th Battalion cook, Technician 4 Broman Williams, even set up an improvised mess and fed a thousand men, white and Black, daily.  Like the men Waverly Woodson treated at Omaha Beach, the tired, cold, and hungry men of Bastogne did not care who prepared the food as long as it was hot.[xiv]   

Late on 26 December, the first tank from the 4th Armored Division attacking from the south, pierced the German lines and entered Bastogne.  Before dawn on 27 December, American forces had cleared both sides of the road leading to town sufficiently that they now had a relatively secure path to resupply and support the 101st Airborne Division in the tough fighting that followed.[xv]  On 3 January 1945, Major General Maxwell Taylor, 101st Airborne Division Commander, wrote to Lt Col Hubert D. Barnes, commander of the 969th FA Battalion, thanking them for their “gallant support” in defense of Bastogne, attributing the success to the “shoulder-to-shoulder cooperation of all units involved.” He closed by noting that he was recommending the battalion for the Distinguished Unit Citation.[xvi] On 11 January, Maj Gen Troy Middleton, commander of VIII Corps, wrote “Your contribution to the great success of our arms at Bastogne will take its place among the epic achievements of our Army.”[xvii]

Requiring: Hitler’s desperate gamble to knock the Allies out of the war in the west failed miserably, but caused over 79,000 American casualties and drove the Army to rush replacements from the States and rear area white units.  In a bit of inspired leadership, Lieutenant General John C. H. Lee, the commander of American service troops in England, approached Eisenhower with the idea to take volunteer Black support troops into the infantry.  Already planning to release up to 20,000 white men to undertake infantry and armor training, Lee now wanted to tap his reserves of Black manpower.  Lee had even drafted a message to be read to African Americans throughout his command asking them to volunteer, and take a reduction in rank to Private and Private First Class, to fight as individual infantry replacements on the front lines.[xviii]   

Over 4,500 African Americans came forward to form 37 over-strength Black rifle platoons led by white officers and platoon sergeants.  After some very brief infantry training, Eisenhower’s headquarters sent 25 platoons to General Omar Bradley’s 12th Army Group, which detailed them to the First and Ninth Armies and further down through corps to Army divisions, where they fought side by side with white platoons in integrated infantry companies.  The other 12 platoons went to 6th Army Group and down to the Seventh Army, where they formed into Black companies and fought in white battalions.  A bit later, a second group of 16 platoons arrived with 12 going to the 12th Army Group and four to the 6th Army Group.  These units remained infantry outfits until the war ended, where upon the Army either returned them to their service-unit headquarters or discharged them.  The platoons in the 12th Army Group won praise from their commanders and from white men in their units.[xix]

In the 12th Army Group, which had faced the brunt of the recent German attack, their gaining organizations did their best to welcome the arrival of the Black platoons.  Division and assistant division commanders personally greeted them upon arrival and in some instances platoons received the division patch and a brief history of the division and regiment they were joining.  The 104th Division, which was then not committed, gave them extra training.  The assistant division commander noted, “We wanted to make sure they knew all the tricks of infantry fighting.  We assigned our best combat leaders as instructors.  I watched those lads training and if ever men were in dead earnest, they were.”[xx]

The 104th Division was rewarded for the efforts. A divisional report on their Black platoons stated that, “their combat record has been outstanding. They have, without exception, proven themselves to be good soldiers.”  The Division G-1 (Personnel officer) told Brigadier General Davis during an inspection trip: “Morale: Excellent. Manner of performance: Superb. Men are very eager to close with the enemy and to destroy him. Strict attention to duty, aggressiveness, common sense, and judgment under fire has won the admiration of all the men in the company. . . . the men of Company F all agree that the colored platoon has a caliber of men equal to any veteran platoon.”[xxi]

Black platoons assigned to the 9th and 1st Infantry Divisions were just as effective. One soldier, Private First Class Jack Thomas, received the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor, for his actions with the 60th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division.  In the 1st Infantry Division, the most bloodied and experienced division in the Army, the platoons joined the regiments that landed in North Africa and stormed the beach on D-Day.  As they fought side-by-side with white platoons, the Black platoons’ proficiency climbed dramatically from 30% to 80% in two weeks.  When casualties dropped one platoon’s strength too low for it to continue as a separate unit, the remaining men joined a white platoon as an infantry squad.  In another platoon, when the white platoon sergeant was wounded, a Black infantryman stepped forward, worked closely with the other white platoon sergeants and leaders, and performed “all duties . . . in a superior manner.”  More directly, a white platoon sergeant from South Carolina said, “When I heard about it, I said I’d be damned if I’d wear the same shoulder patch they did.  After that first day when we saw how they fought, I changed my mind. They are just like any of the other boys to us.”  In so integrating at all but the individual soldier level, these men began to reverse centuries of discrimination, bigotry, and racism.[xxii]

In June 1945, a month after the war in Europe ended, the Army surveyed 255 white company officers, platoon sergeants, and other enlisted men to determine their reaction to fighting in integrated units.  The officers, sergeants, and men noted that African American soldiers performed well with 84% of the white officers and 81% of the sergeants and enlisted men responding, “very well” and 16% and 17% responding “fairly well,” respectively. Stated another way, 100% of the officers and 98% of the enlisted men responded positively that Blacks, fighting side-by-side, had performed well.  When asked if “with the same Army training and experience, how do you think colored troops would compare with white troops as Infantry soldiers?,” 86% of white officers and 92% of white platoon sergeants and men said, “just the same” or “better than white troops.”[xxiii]  

While an emergency action during war, the integration of Black platoons into white infantry companies nonetheless represented a small, if belated, step forward for actual equality.  From admiring to desiring to requiring the support of outsiders to win the war, white infantrymen and others in these vignettes gradually came to accept the integration of African American soldiers when their lives depended on it.  And as Roosevelt predicted in 1940, they “backed into it.”  

In 1948 with Executive Order 9981, President Harry Truman ordered the military to integrate, but it would take the Korean War to force the Army to eliminate separate African-American units and the Vietnam War before it became a cultural reality.[xxiv] But even then, changing attitudes and perceptions was exceedingly difficult. It would take a few more decades before the Army truly integrated Blacks into all levels of the force from individual squad members to 3-and 4-star commanders and longer still before the Defense Department promoted them to positions like the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense.   

* * * *

            So, what can we learn from the experience a Black cannoneer and a few other WWII soldiers? 

            First and foremost, warfare has always been and will remain a human affair.  But like the American WWII Army, today’s force is running out of Soldiers.  A recent report highlighted that out of 31.8 million military-aged youth, 9.1 million met the minimum physical, mental, educational, aptitudinal, and legal and drug use standards, but only 435,000 were of high academic quality and were interested in military service.  Moreover, corporations are competing for this same shrinking pool of high school and college graduates.[xxv]

 The Army, both as a corporate business and as a combat organization, can ill-afford to treat potential employees with disdain, discriminate against them, and exclude them because they are different—in race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.  As leaders, our job is to put the best, most effective force on the battlefield.  To recruit it, train it, employ it, and keep it together for as long as possible.  

Today’s force must not repeat the mistakes of the WWII Army, must capitalize on our national diversity, and include individuals from all communities into the defense establishment if we are to maximize our intellectual and physical abilities to defend the nation and ensure our continued prosperity.  

This brief article suggests two lessons leaders can apply today:

  1. Due to administrative or self-selective separation, the assumptions a majority makes about a minority are often wrong and when placed together and given the necessity to interact attitudes can and will change.
  2. Actions speak louder than words. Advocates for the creation of African-American combat forces helped initiate steps that led to Black troops being available in Europe and elsewhere, but the act of fighting together, of placing Black platoons and companies within white units, created the opportunity for change to take root. 

Going forward, we must actively engage in making our units better by welcoming openly high quality and competence regardless of whence it comes.  We must not settle for President Roosevelt’s passive approach.  Our humanity, our professional ethics, and our dire personnel (recruiting and retention) situation require us to do more than “back into it”.  



References and Notes:

[1] Memorandum, Chief of Staff for General Shedd (the G-1), 14 September 1940, CCS 20609-79. “Reports on presidential intention regarding publicizing Black participation in the services” MacGregor and Nalty, Blacks in the United States Armed Forces: Basic Documents. Volume V, 25.


[ii]Franklin D. Roosevelt: Transcript of White House Office Conversations, 1940, Collection: FDR White House Transcripts Collection, 8/22/1940 -10/10/1940, FDR-FDRTA, “FDR Meets With Black Leaders. Side 1, 1637 – 1972. September 27, 1940,” 

https://catalog.archives.gov/OpaAPI/media/194775/content/arcmedia/media/images/23/4/23-0350a.gif and 23-0351a.gif.


[iii]Figures derived from an analysis of artillery units listed in Part VII of Shelby Stanton, Order of Battle: U.S. Army in World War II, (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1984), 393-424. The 522 FA Battalion (Nisei) supported the 442nd Infantry Regiment (Nisei). Silver and Bronze Star data from Elliott Converse, et al, The Exclusion of Black Soldiers from the Medal of Honor in World War II, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc, 1997), 119.


[iv]Ibid., and Converse, et al, The Exclusion of Black Soldiers, 76-78.




[vi]Quoted from Richard J. Stillman, “The Role of the Negro in the U.S. Armed Forces, 1939-1968,” Irish Defense Journal, (March 1969): 102-103, cited in Converse, et al, The Exclusion of Black Soldiers, 26 and 77.


[vii]The following examples are illustrative and not meant to be inclusive of all white and Black relationships in World War II. I developed this framework.


[viii]Cited in Linda Hervieux, Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, at Home and at War, (New York: Harper, 2015), 238.


[ix]Hervieux, Forgotten; Converse, et al, The Exclusion of Black Soldiers, 80.


[x]Charles B. MacDonald, The Mighty Endeavor: The American War in Europe, (New York: William Morrow, 1969), 388-394, 397.


[xi]Raymond Bell, Jr., “Black Gunners at Bastogne,” Army (Nov 2004): 49-53; and Denise George and Robert Child, The Lost Eleven: The Forgotten Story of Black American Soldiers Brutally Massacred in World War II, (New York: Caliber, 2017), 272-300.  The book’s cover mistakenly shows Black soldiers manning a 40-mm Bofors antiaircraft gun. 


[xii]Bell, “Black Gunners at Bastogne,” 51.


[xiii]Ibid; Converse, et al, The Exclusion of Black Soldiers, 77-78.


[xiv]Bell, “Black Gunners at Bastogne,” 52-53.


[xv]S. L. A. Marshall, Bastogne: The Story of the First Eight Days, (Washington, DC: Center for Army History, 1988), 172.  


[xvi]Cited in both Booker, African Americans in the United States Army in World War II, 120 and Bell, “Black Gunners at Bastogne,” 50.  


[xvii]Booker, African Americans in the United States Army in World War II, 121. 


[xviii]Michael Lee Lanning, The African-American Soldier: From Crispus Attucks to Colin Powell, (Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing Group, 1997), 181-182; Lee, The Employment of Negro Troops, Office of the Chief of Military History, US Army, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1966), 695-705.


[xix]Lanning, 181-182; Lee, 695-705; Booker, 277.

[xx]Booker, African Americans in the United States Army in World War II, 279.




[xxii]Ibid., 279-280; Stouffer, et al, “Negro Soldiers,” 592.


[xxiii]Stouffer, et al, “Negro Soldiers,” 589-591.


[xxiv]For an excellent discussion of the period following WWII, see Jeremy Maxwell, Brotherhood in Combat: How African Americans Found Equality in Korea and Vietnam, (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018).


[xxv]Data from the Army Marketing Research Group as cited in Inspired to Serve: The Final Report of the National Commission on Miliary, National, and Public Service, Report to Congress, March 2020, 32-33,  https://www.volckeralliance.org/sites/default/files/attachments/Final%20Report%20-%20National%20Commission.pdf .