World War II officially came to an end 75 years ago when Japan formally surrendered on September 2, 1945 during a brief ceremony aboard the Navy battleship USS Missouri, which was anchored in Tokyo Bay. Amid much pomp and circumstance, stoic Japanese leaders signed the Instrument of Surrender as did U.S. officials and leaders of the other Allied countries. When the ceremony was over, a parade of fighter jets flew overhead.
On the day of the ceremony, over 200 warships representing the U.S. Navy Fleet and the Allies were either present in Toyko Bay or sat just outside in the Pacific Ocean. Thousands of young sailors were aboard these ships; many of them had been at sea for a year. So, while they were witnessing history, they were more excited about returning home. Yet Black sailors looked forward to something more.
They hoped to return to a country that finally saw them as equal citizens. Even though they’d served in a segregated military, they were determined to represent America with valor; thus proving themselves worthy of having full rights and earning the respect that had so often eluded them before and during the war.
This was the hope of every Black service member in each branch of the military, whether they served in the South Pacific, Europe, or on the homefront. Yet, their optimism was often challenged by the racism that followed them into the war.
Just three years before the war ended, the Marines finally enlisted its first group of Black recruits. These men were trained in a snake-infested wooded area called Montford Point, North Carolina, the Marines’ segregated boot camp near Camp Lejeune. Here, the new recruits were tasked with clearing out the trees and building their own barracks.
Perhaps the Army is best known for its rigid segregation policies, which ironically made way for the much-touted success of the Tuskegee Airmen. With General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. at the helm, these skilled and highly disciplined Army Air Force pilots blew up the awful theories that military officials concocted during World War I. Things like, Black soldiers were “unintelligent, inferior mentally, and weak in character.”
That was the toxic poison these pilots and other Black servicemen had to live with while fighting for the freedom of others and still they performed their duties with supreme excellence.
In spite of their impeccable record, when the Tuskegee Airmen returned home after the war, they were denied jobs as commercial pilots. All of the 1 million Black veterans came back to a country that still hadn't managed to rid itself of racism while they were gone. They couldn’t dine in restaurants. They were denied the right to vote; they couldn't even take advantage of the GI Bill to buy homes because of legal housing discrimination. Likewise, many others weren’t able to use the GI Bill to further their education because many colleges didn’t admit Black students.
These scenarios played out all over the U.S., however, returning to the Deep South was the worse. Black veterans had to ride in the Jim Crow train cars or sit in the back of the bus to get home after the war, and they were also victims of violence.
On February 12, 1946, Sgt. Isaac Woodard, a 26-year-old Army vet boarded a Greyhound bus in Georgia and headed home to Winnsboro, South Carolina. After getting into a dispute with the bus driver, who’d become irate after Woodard asked to use the restroom at a stop, the bus driver ultimately stopped later in Batesburg, S.C. where he complained to the police that Woodard had been disrespectful.
Woodard, who was wearing his Army uniform, tried to give his side of the story but the policemen beat him with their nightsticks and hauled him off to jail where the police chief brutally beat him some more, even using his nightstick to gouge the young sergeant’s eyes. When Woodard regained consciousness he was permanently blind.
Also that year, a White mob killed two Black couples in Walton County, Georgia, after pulling them out of their car. One of the victims, George Dorsey, was a war veteran who had been home less than a year. Dorsey’s wife Mae, and Roger and Dorothy Malcolm were the other victims of this brutal murder.
During the Surrender Ceremony in Tokyo Bay, a young sailor named Alonzo Smith, Jr. was aboard the USS Norman Scott, a Navy destroyer that had participated in the Battle of Okinawa. During the ceremony, the ship was anchored nearby in the Pacific Ocean. Smith was a diesel engineer, the only Black sailor with a skilled position on the entire ship. That was typical, as the Navy was notorious for enlisting Black sailors to serve mostly as stewards in the lowest-ranking messman branch.
As Smith listened to the ceremony via radio, he was recovering from a severe head injury — and it wasn't something he received in battle. Rather, it was an injury he got when one of the ship’s chief petty officers hit him over the head with a metal mop after Smith had “disrespected” him. You can read about what happened here (and by the way, Alonzo Smith, Jr. was my Dad):
In The Navy: Fighting a War and Rocking the Boat
The stories of Black servicemen are often untold. Here’s one of them.
After the war, my father went on to have a successful military career, as did many other Black servicemen and women who rose through the ranks as officers and they did so with pride.
As Dad once said, they were the torchbearers who stood on the shoulders of all who came before them — the Black Patriots, the Buffalo Soldiers, the Harlem Hellfighters, General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the Tuskegee Airmen, Mess Attendant 2nd Class Doris Miller, the first Montford Point Marines, and so many others.
And over seven decades later, we can never forget World War II veterans like Sgt. Isaac Woodard and George Dorsey because even though we’ve made great strides, the battle at home continues…