Drawing on interviews with the survivors, journalist Colley paints a “Band of Others” picture of the first integrated unit to see combat in WWII.
In 1941, he writes, blacks were simply not considered reliable combatants by the white military hierarchy. Generals may have believed that integration was coming, but none were about to undertake “a social experiment” in the middle of a war whose outcome was still in doubt. The result, stresses Colley (The Road to Victory, not reviewed), is that African-American units were segregated from induction on and given inferior training that all but guaranteed the conventional expectation. The brass planned to deploy most black soldiers behind the lines as cooks, MPs, or auto mechanics, but manpower demands by early 1945 dictated another tactic: African-American platoons would be mixed in at the front with infantry units struggling against a Wehrmacht now fighting on its home soil. The author introduces the all-volunteer 5th platoon of K Company, 394th Regiment, 99th Infantry Division as it reinforces white soldiers, “mostly Southern boys,” pinned down on a hill at night a few miles east of the Rhine. The reader will doubtless guess there would be no book if the 5th had not acquitted itself with honor; one officer reported its ranks showed “courage to the point of foolishness.” In a worthwhile digression, the author explains why nobody should have been surprised: although there hadn’t been an integrated infantry since Washington’s Continental Army marched away, segregated black troops were crucially effective in the Civil War and also as Buffalo Soldier cavalry units (as they were nicknamed by the Cheyenne and Comanche) in campaigns against Mexico and Spain. “They saved our ass,” recalled one white infantryman in that action east of the Rhine. But it was decades before the 394th’s black veterans would join their comrades at reunions back in the States.
Revealing look at yet another facet of the army’s racial politics.