For blacks during World War II, life in the military often proved frustrating, demeaning, and, at times, terrifying. At Tampa’s MacDill field, recalled Master Sergeant Warren Bryant, “When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor…all of the whites…were running around with loaded guns. We [blacks] had no guns and no idea of what was going on, so you can imagine what was running through our minds until we learned of the Japanese attack.”

In the weeks following Pearl Harbor, African American leaders pledged a fight on two fronts – victory abroad against fascism and victory at home against racism. But the home front foe proved more unyielding. Wrote one reader to the Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper: “Please tell me how the President of the United States knowing that we are at war, allows the Negro solider to be treated so intolerably? Does he condone the treatment of those soldiers in Alabama and those in Tallahassee, Florida?”

Segregation often produced bitter ironies, such as this wartime reminiscence of Herbert Krensky of Miami: “When we arrived in Ocala (in 1943), a platoon of German POWs wearing Afrika Corps uniforms were put aboard guarded by military police. They had been picking oranges in the citrus groves of Central Florida and were being returned to their bases of detention….We stopped for a moment at the station that served Gainesville. On the platform were these colored servicemen, one of them wounded and hobbling on crutches. They tried to board the train with their tickets in hand. The conductor refused to let them board. He told them that since there were no colored coaches that they would have to ride in the baggage car.”

Originally posted in the Florida Humanities’ magazine The Forum Vol. XXII, No. 3, Fall 1999 by Patsy West