Posted on December 22, 2021

‘Greatest Generation’ Survey on Race, Sex and Combat During World War II Runs Counter to Its Wholesome Image

Michael E. Ruane, Washington Post, December 20, 2021

In August 1944, an American soldier finishing up an Army survey was asked whether he had any further remarks. He did.

“White supremacy must be maintained,” he wrote.

“I’ll fight if necessary to prevent racial equality. I’ll never salute a negro officer and I’ll not take orders from a negroe. I’m sick of the army’s method of treating …[Black soldiers] as if they were human. Segregation of the races must continue.”

Another soldier wrote: “God has placed between us a barrier of color … We must accept this barrier and live, fight, and play separately.”

These harsh views, and others, from the segregated Army of World War II, emerge in a new project at Virginia Tech that presents the uncensored results of dozens of surveys the service administered to soldiers during the war.

Much of material is being placed on the Internet for the first time, and a lot of it runs counter to the wholesome image of the war’s “greatest generation.”

Raw attitudes on topics including race, women, sex, gender and combat are revealed in 65,000 pages from Army surveys that a Virginia Tech historian found in the National Archives.

Black soldiers had their own views about the men they called Southern “crackers” who couldn’t admit that the Civil War was over. {snip}

The project is called “The American Soldier in World War II,” and is supported by funding from the university and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and by the work of the National Archives.

It is directed by Edward J.K. Gitre, an assistant professor of history at Virginia Tech.

“It does speak to a generation,” he said in a recent interview. “The good, the bad, the ugly, heroic, not heroic.”

The website, which debuted on Dec. 7, makes available digitized and transcribed survey responses, as well as analyses, lists and statistics.

The surveys guaranteed anonymity. (About 500,000 service members were surveyed, but results from about 300,000 survive.) The surveys gave soldiers a chance to beef, opine or vent, and gave the Army an idea of what soldiers were thinking.

For scholars, and now the public, they provide a glimpse into the mind-set of the American generation serving in the war, which for the United States lasted from 1941 to 1945.


The survey results are often coarse and jarring.


Some of the harshest language came from White soldiers commenting on the segregated army. A general survey found that 75 percent of soldiers from the North and 85 percent of soldiers from the South thought Blacks and Whites should train and serve separately.

But a Black soldier wrote: “It is impossible to understand how the brains of the Southern white man works and just what can be the cause of so much … hate that is imposed upon the Negro soldier.”

“With all the patriotic speeches … he takes time out to heap insults and abuse upon the Negro soldier who is doing all that he can to further the war effort,” he wrote.

“Most Southern white people must fear that the rise of the Negro will be of danger to their long vaunted White Supremacy,” he wrote. “For us the saying goes a house or an Army divided against itself will surely fall. Hitler knows this better than we may think.”

Another Black soldier said the army “stinks …[and] is filled up with a lot of ‘Crackers’ who don’t know that the Civil War is over and from all indications never will!”

And another wrote: “After the war there will be riots after Riots because we are tired of the so called white Supremacy as they call it. … We just want the right to live, work and advance as normal people do. The right to fight & die as true Americans should. … You can’t keep us down, try as you may.”

One survey question asked Black soldiers if they thought they were being given a fair chance to help win the war. Fifty-four percent said no. Another question asked whether they thought White newspapers were reporting fairly on the role of Black people in the war. Forty-one percent said no.