Photo courtesy of the Photo Library, U.S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. Reproduced at <http://www.coax.net/people/lwf/761_TB.HTM> According to the source, this photograph depicts "Officers of the 761st Medium Tank Battalion, await[ing] action near Nancy, France on 5 November 1944. L-R: Captain Ivan H. Harrison, Captain Irvin McHenry and 2nd Lieutenant James C. Lightfoot."
Throughout Devil in a Blue Dress, Easy Rawlins thinks back on his days as an African-American soldier in World War II. Over and over, his memories inform his views of race and racism, physical violence, and his will to survive and gain independence. To help us better understand Easy's memories and his attitude towards his experience as a soldier, let us examine the history of African-American soldiers in World War II.
Before World War II began, the United States Army was completely segregated. Black officers could enlist but were usually considered "unfit for combat" and relegated to desk jobs. Indeed, Easy's first experiences in the war are as part of a statistics unit. Like many black soldiers, Easy was trained as a soldier but denied the opportunity to engage the enemy directly. The white government administration as well as heads of the Armed Forces were convinced that black men were incapable of correctly following orders and handling the responsibility of combat. In Easy's words, "They said we didn't have the discipline or the minds for a war effort, but they were really scared that we might get to like the kind of freedom that death-dealing brings." Easy recalls that he enlisted in the army because he wanted to be a part of "the hope of the world." But like most black soldiers, he was hard-pressed to retain his patriotism in the face of the blatant racism he experienced in the segregated South.
In 1941, Civil Rights pioneers including the NAACP convinced the military to recruit and train all-black combat units as an experiment. These social activists hoped that giving black people a chance to prove themselves in the arena of war would facilitate a victory over racism at home. As historian Stephen Ambrose wryly notes, "Soldiers were fighting the world's worst racist, Adolph Hitler, in the world's most segregated army. The irony did not go unnoticed." The War Department's first all-black units was the famous Tuskeegee Airmen, known officially as The 99th Pursuit Squadron of the U.S. Army Air Corps. Like many black units after them, the Tuskeegee airmen were trained for over a year while their white counterparts went from enlistees to full-fledged soldiers in the space of a few months. They left for their first run of duty only in 1943. Units such as the Tuskeegee Airmen as well as the 761st Tank Battalion, Patton's Panthers, paved the way for black volunteers for combat, represented by the fictional Easy Rawlins.
The year 1944 marked a major triumph for black people in the military. Mosley places Easy among the approximately two thousand black soldiers who volunteered for combat after General Dwight D. Eisenhower temporarily desegregated the Armed Forces in order to head off advancing Axis forces in France. Black soldiers fought alongside white soldiers during D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. In Easy's words, "By that time the Allies were so desperate that they didn't have the luxury of segregating the troops. There were blacks, whites, and even a handful of Japanese-Americans in our platoon ... There was always trouble between the races ... But we learned to respect each other out thre too." That same year, the Tuskeegee Airmen flew alongside white pilots and groups of black nurses were finally allowed to serve their country and prove their competency. Back in the United States, approximately four million black workers aided the war effort on the home front, protected by desegregation of government and defense jobs.
Despite considerable victories over segregation, black soldiers were far from being recognized as equals. Not one black soldier was awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II despite the fact that many fought gallantly for the Allied cause. In 1997 seven veterans were awarded the Medal of Honor, six of them posthumously, in an attempt to redress this lack of acknowledgment. The Army was not officially desegregated until 1948, when Devil in a Blue Dress takes place. And even though they could die fighting alongside white soldiers after 1948, black people were subject to government-sanctioned discrimination until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Easy Rawlins begins his detective career in a changing, but still very segregated America. Because of this, he faces similar disappointment as other black veterans returning to their communities. Like so many black people, Easy has killed others and nearly died for his country. Despite his heroism he is still subject to discrimination from venues ranging from the neighborhood candy store to City Hall. Mosley does a great deal in Devil in a Blue Dress to draw attention to the black veteran's struggle with the irony of transitioning from victory on the foreign front to disenfranchisement on the home front.