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War brought racial integration to Army

by Sgt. Anastasia Norman

It was World War II's onslaught that brought the integration of African-American soldiers to its full fruition in the Army. The Selective Service Act was passed Sept. 3, 1940, forbidding "discrimination of any person (in the armed forces) on account of race or color."

Even though the Selective Service Act paved the way for a broader definition of what a signal soldier was, African-American soldiers have played a vital link in its definition since the first black man became a Signal Corps member in 1884.

First black Signal Corps soldier, units

Hallett Greene attempted to enlist in the Signal Corps, although Army mandates at the time limited African-American soldiers to the infantry and cavalry. Greene received a negative response initially, but after persistent correspondence with Secretary of War Robert Lincoln (son of President Abraham Lincoln), he was allowed to enlist in the Signal Corps and paved the way for many others.

During World War I, only two African-American divisions went overseas to Europe. At the war's onset the Army had fielded its first black signal unit, consisting of high school and college graduates trained on advanced radio equipment.

Prejudices were still abundant in the civilian population, notably in the Camp Crowder, Mo., area, where the African-American construction units trained. Many Americans expressed doubts about a black signal unit. Some states still practiced segregation.

The Army's first African-American signal battalion, the 325th, served with distinction in France. The 325th strung miles of telephone and telegraph lines, often times during heavy incoming fire, dispelling many prejudices held against black soldiers with their relentless dedication to duty.

When World War I ended, the Great Depression contributed to the Army's downsizing. The 325th became a part of history, setting the example for the African-American units of World War II to follow.

Canal Zone service

In 1941 the first African-American unit since World War I emerged as a product of the Selective Service Act and World War II's tremendous manpower requirements. The 275th Signal Construction Company was shipped to the Panama Canal Zone to put up pole line for telephone and telegraph systems.

Although the Selective Service Act forbade discrimination, signal units were not integrated and had white commanders and executive officers as specified by Army regulations at that time. As in the case of the 325th in World War I, prejudices and stereotypes sometimes influenced decision-makers' judgment, making the battle to prove its worth another obstacle of many in the 275th's path.

LTG Daniel Van Voorhis, commanding the Caribbean Defense Command during the war, believed African-American troops were more durable than white troops when dealing with the unbearable temperatures and extreme humidity experienced while cutting through the rough Panama countryside. He was right.

Overseas prejudice

The 275th was officially activated in May 1941 and arrived in the Canal Zone's hot jungles Dec. 8, 1941. Although performing admirably, the 275th was redeployed to the United States upon completing its mission after being declared unwelcome by the Panamanian government.

Not only in Panama but in other overseas areas did African-American soldiers find themselves unwelcome. "Negroes in foreign theaters posed problems," noted the writers of The Signal Corps: The Test. "Australia wanted none of them. They were not acceptable in China. In Africa itself the economic status of the United States Negro bred discontent among the native blacks."

There were some bright spots, too. At Fort Monmouth, N.J., the few African-American officer candidates lived and studied with white trainees at the Signal Corps school there without racial-prejudice problems.

Service with the Air Forces

During World War II the Army Air Forces support services — still part of the Signal Corps — had tough initial screening criteria, but they had enough volunteers who met the standard to create an African-American Signal Corps unit. Out of these rigid requirements, 689th Signal Reporting Company, Aircraft Warning, Frontier) was born.

The 689th was forced to wait out summer 1943 at Tuskegee, Ala., growing stagnant and restless like many other African-American units that were trained and ready.

Many members of the 689th were trained as Signal Corps radio operators, had been to college and were serving as members of the enlisted reserve corps. Upon their activation and completion of basic training, these men didn't receive the additional training they were expecting. Instead, the well-trained soldiers of the 689th found themselves at Seymour Johnson Field, N.C., participating in not too much of anything.

On July 11, 1942, the unit was redesignated as 689th Signal Aircraft Warning Reporting Company, Special, and redesignated as well as reorganized again Nov. 6, 1942, as 689th Signal Aircraft Warning Company.

The newly refurbished and retitled company went on to participate in two campaigns in the Pacific theater: the New Guinea campaign off Australia's northeast coast and the southern Philippines campaign. The unit was inactivated in February 1946 while serving in the Philippines.

The 689th was awarded the Philippine Presidential Unit Citation for its dedicated service during the campaign, as well as a unit campaign streamer with the dates Oct. 17, 1944, through July 4, 1945.

Recruiting

One of the war's most active of all African-American signal units owed its expertise to what is known today as recruiting.

African-American men train Afr.-Am. women replacements Women's Army Auxiliary Corps switchboard operators receive on-the-job training from the enlisted men they'll replace.

The 1000th Signal Company, 96th Service Group, was born when the Air Forces went outside the military into the civilian world, recruiting highly skilled African-American men with the required knowledge needed to sustain the company. The Air Forces didn't feel the soldiers being schooled by the Army at the time were proficiently trained enough to meet the 1000th's intricate needs. Six weeks later, the Army began training soldiers in the specialty areas the 1000th required.

42d Signal Battalion

Another greatly productive unit was 42d Signal Battalion. Its soldiers wasted no time in distinguishing themselves.

The 42d spanned the globe participating in campaigns in both the European and Pacific theaters. The men took part in the Ardennes, Central Europe and Rhineland campaigns and the Luzon campaign near the end of the war.

Signal construction company

The 430th Heavy Signal Construction Company (Aviation) was one of the first all-black units that served side-by-side with an all-white unit, 96th Signal Battalion. Together, these units, with the help of some quartermaster troops, pushed pole line from Ledo, India, through the dense rainforests, and up through the rugged Himalaya mountains to Shingbwiyang in northern Burma's Hukawng Valley.

The entire endeavor took almost one year to complete and presented a strong and clear example that black and white units could in fact be integrated with highly successful results.

Alaska service

In the opposite climate extreme from the Canal Zone served 258th Signal Construction Company. The 258th was deployed to Dawson Creek, British Columbia, Canada, in April 1943 to widen existing rights- of-way for the Alaska-Canada communication system's pole lines, repair and improve the telephone lines set up by 255th Signal Construction Company, and put in new stretches of line and more facilities along the Canadian section of the Alaska-Canada highway. The 258th stayed at Dawson Creek until January 1944.

40th Signal Battalion

Although examples of success and productivity flourished throughout the war, many African-American units suffered morale problems as they watched other units get "shipped off" overseas. For the men of 40th Signal Battalion, morale was very low, and it seemed like their day would never come.

The 40th was a unit of African-American soldiers whose skills were growing duller and duller as they participated in the menial taskings assigned to them as a stateside unit.

In 1944, the 40th was deployed to the European theater. Its men found themselves hard at work, side by side, along with other signal units supporting the initial build-up of forces after the Normandy invasion. The 40th's soldiers played a vital role in establishing and maintaining essential communications throughout the entire Normandy campaign.

The 40th Signal Battalion would eventually play an active role in no less than five campaigns in the European theater. After Normandy, the troops participated in the northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes- Alsace and Central Europe campaigns.

These units' achievements provided an unquestionable example of units' successful integration during World War II. More than 500,000 soldiers participated in overseas campaigns during the war, although African-American soldiers in the Signal Corps accounted for less than 2 percent. However, the outstanding achievements of these and other African-American signal units set an example for all future soldiers to follow.

Sgt. Norman — assigned to 551st Signal Battalion, Fort Gordon, Ga. — is on special assignment to the command historian's office at U.S. Army Signal Center and Fort Gordon.

dividing rule

(Editor's note: The Signal Corps: the Test is part of "The Technical Services" subseries of the U.S. Army in World War II historical series; written by George Raynor Thompson, Dixie Harris, Pauline Oakes and Dulany Terrett; published by the Army's chief of military history in 1957.)

Last modified on:
April 04, 2012

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