SIDEBAR Winter 2017-18 - 22


In 1939, Hastie resigned from the Court to accept the
position of assistant solicitor for the War Department under
the direction of the patrician Henry L. Stimson. Hastie's
tenure at the War Department was marked by controversy and
bureaucratic infighting as Hastie was insistent in his attempts
to end the racist policies in which the United States Army
and Navy had been entangled since the Civil War. To Hastie,
Stimson was the most dangerous kind of racial obstructionist:
paternal, kind, pleasant, cultured, and benign. Stimson
sincerely believed that it was for the black soldiers' own good
that they not be sent into combat and that they serve on
fatigue, cooking, quartermaster, and transportation details.
Unfortunately, Stimson's attitudes were shared by the Chief of
Staff, the redoubtable General George C. Marshall, Roosevelt's
Chief of Staff.
Hastie reminded his superior of the spectacular record of the
all-black 369th Infantry Regiment in World War I. The men of
the regiment - known as Harlem's Hell Fighters - were awarded
the coveted Croix de Guerre by a grateful French nation.
Seventeen soldiers of the 369th were inducted into France's
Legion of Honor. He reminded Stimson that the Medal of
Honor had been awarded to eighteen black soldiers during the
Civil War, to eight black soldiers during the Indian Wars, and to
four black soldiers during the Spanish American War.
Hastie was particularly disturbed by the second-class
treatment afforded to African Americans who had volunteered
for flight training. The commanders of the United States Air
Force held the unshakeable opinion that African Americans
lacked the physical stamina and the mastery of aeronautics
necessary to fly fighter planes. The 332nd Fighter Group,
formed out of the Tuskegee Airmen, were assigned obsolete
Curtis P-40 Warhawk fighter planes, aircraft simply incapable of
holding their own against the superb Messerschmitt and FockeWulf fighter planes of the Luftwaffe. He reminded General
Henry Arnold of Sergeant Eugene Bullard, an African-American
fighter pilot serving with the French Air Service in World War
I; Bullard shot down ten German aircraft in aerial dogfights
and received ten decorations for valor. The War Department,
nevertheless, continued to maintain that African-American
airmen lacked the physical ability and technical skill necessary to
fly modern aircraft in combat.
Hastie did manage to persuade noted Hollywood film
director Frank Capra to produce a feature film, The Negro
Soldier, a documentary that chronicled the service of AfricanAmerican sailors and soldiers in all of the nation's wars. The
movie was well-received. Finally, Hastie convinced the War
Department and the American Red Cross to collect blood from
African-American donors though the bottles had to be marked



In 1943, discouraged by his inability to move the needle
on the treatment of African Americans in the armed forces,
Hastie resigned as a matter of principle. For his government
service and his lonely and uncompromising stand on behalf of
racial justice, the National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People (NAACP) awarded Hastie the Springarn Medal.
Hastie's efforts eventually came to bear some fruit. The
332nd Fighter Group, now re-equipped with the fast, heavily
armed North American P-51 Mustang fighter plane, was
assigned to the 15th Air Force where it escorted American
bombers on raids over Germany. The group earned 150
Distinguished Flying Crosses with one of its pilots being the
first American fighter pilot to shoot down a Messerschmitt 262,
the world's first operational jet fighter.
While General George Patton saw leadership and audacity
as the keys to successful command, General Dwight Eisenhower
maintained that logistics and supply were the keys to victory in
the European Theatre of Operations. As the American armies
stormed across France and into Germany they consumed tons
of supplies: food, fuel, clothing, weapons, ammunition, and
medical supplies. The armed forces assembled the "Red Ball
Express," which was a network of miles-long truck convoys
driven by African-American teamsters that raced over narrow,
dangerous roads - many of which were heavily mined and
subject to ambush - to deliver the supplies essential to the war
The 761st Armored Regiment, after training in Texas, was
assigned to Patton's Third Army. Upon their arrival, Patton
addressed the tankers, saying that he didn't care if they were
black so long as they killed the SOBs wearing gray. For eight
consecutive months - longer than any other American armored
unit - the Regiment, dubbed the "Black Panthers," sought out,
engaged, and destroyed the dreaded German panzers.
By late 1944, American infantry divisions had sustained
ghastly casualties as they fought through Europe; the combat
regiments were seriously depleted. The Army, finally re-thinking
and reversing the policy of segregation, decided to offer black
soldiers the chance for front-line combat service with white
riflemen on condition that they accept reductions in rank. Five
thousand black soldiers volunteered, forming 37 rifle platoons,
which served alongside white units in 1944 and 1945. One of
those African-American riflemen was Medgar Evers who would
be assassinated in 1962 by a white racist for leading the civil
rights movement in Mississippi. That Hastie was able to nudge
the hide-bound War Department toward positions not only
racially fair but also practical and progressive was a tribute to his
dogged determination. [To be continued in next issue...]

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of SIDEBAR Winter 2017-18

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