African-American soldiers played a significant role in World War II. More than half a million served in Europe. Despite the numbers they faced racial discrimination: prior to the war the military maintained a racially segregated force. In studies by the military, blacks were often classified as unfit for combat and were not allowed on the front lines. They were mostly given support duties, and were not allowed in units with white soldiers.
That changed in 1941, when pressure from African-American civil rights leaders convinced the government to set up all-black combat units, as experiments. They were designed to see if African-American soldiers could perform military tasks on the same level as white soldiers.
Eighty-seven-year-old Woodrow Crockett was a part of that experiment. He was a Tuskegee Airman, the first group of black pilots ever trained by the Air Force. He flew 149 missions between 1944 and 1945, protecting harbors in Italy and American bombers from German fighter planes. Mr. Crockett says the Tuskegee Airman had a lot to prove and did so. In 200 missions they never lost a bomber to enemy fire.
"Many times [military leaders] would brief the results of yesterday's mission. And I said it did not take a rocket scientist to listen to those briefings and they figured out that the 332nd [Fighter Group], all black, were not losing any bombers to enemy fighters. And soon they started requesting that we escort them," says Woodrow Crockett.
Retired U.S. Army Colonel Bill De Shields, a historian and founder of The Black Military History Institute of America in Annapolis, Maryland, says, "The symbol of black participation at that time was 'the Double V'. in other words, 'Double V' meant two victories: victory against the enemy abroad, and victory against the enemy at home. The enemy at home of course being racism, discrimination, prejudice and Jim Crow."
Mr. De Shields says widespread racial discrimination throughout American society made it...