Prologue Magazine

The Lions' History

Researching World War II Images of African Americans

Federal Records and African American History (Summer 1997, Vol. 29, No. 2)

By Barbara Lewis Burger

Until the lions have their historians, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter.
- African Proverb

A few years ago while visiting my mother, my attention was suddenly drawn to a pair of gaily painted wooden shoes that are displayed on a bookshelf. The shoes have been there for as long as I can remember, but I really had not given them much thought until that moment. Curious, I asked Mom about the shoes and was told that they were a gift from her late brother, Milton. Uncle Milton was the rascal in our family who, when World War II was declared, was eager to join the army and serve with that other rascal, Gen. George S. Patton. Mom doesn't remember much about her brother's service, but according to family lore, Uncle Milton managed to fulfill his wish and to serve under the general. When my uncle returned home at the end of the war, among the many things he managed to carry back were the Dutch shoes—a token for his sister.

The visit piqued my curiosity. Although I have no real interest in warfare and military history, I decided to browse through the World War II photographic records in the National Archives Still Picture Branch, where I am employed as a senior archivist. Looking only for photographs relating to African Americans, I was amazed at the variety of material I found. I resolved to find a way to publicize this remarkable collection of images. So little published information exists about black Americans and the war. Yet, from branch correspondence and conversations with researchers, I knew there was an audience, like myself, eager for material on African American history. I thought about and discarded several possibilities until finally deciding on developing a slide set composed of selected images. The majority of the set would be composed of images of African American men and women in all branches of the services serving at home and overseas, but it would also include photographs documenting black Americans supporting the war effort. My decision, fortunately, coincided with National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) plans to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of World War II, and consequently my proposal for a publication was readily accepted. For several months thereafter I immersed myself in African American military history, researched life on the home front in the 1940s, selected a hoard of photographs, agonized over each, made final selections, and saw the product through each step of the publishing process. All of this work culminated in the 1993 publication of Pictures of African Americans During World War II.

In the remainder of this essay I will share what I discovered while researching photographs of African Americans among the holdings of the armed services and the Office of War Information. I will highlight only the primary resources for still picture documentation of African Americans in World War II. However, other wartime agency files and series, although not included, are often good supplemental sources that should not be overlooked, especially by researchers interested in in-depth and exhaustive research. Persons interested in researching the records described in this paper and other records maintained by the Still Picture Branch are invited to contact the branch for assistance or additional information.

Most of the wartime photography in the Still Picture Branch was generated by six major programs conducted by the five military services and one civilian agency, the Office of War Information. In general, coverage varies little from agency file to agency file. For the most part, each documents recruitment, training programs, job assignments both overseas and in the United States, and recreational activities. All of the records feature individuals, many of whom are identified. But by no means are any of the files comprehensive in their coverage of either the war or the service of American men and women. The files do not contain photographs of every individual who served in the military, and coverage of African Americans is even less comprehensive. Researching these records is fairly straightforward. Most are arranged by subject and can be accessed by organizational entity and other topics or by surname (i.e., WAC, SPAR, Nurses, Women, Negro, Recruitment, etc.). In some instances, a subject index must be used to locate necessary access points.

The Army

The principal source for photographic documentation of U.S. Army activities in World War II is Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer (Record Group 111, Series SC and SCA). The Signal Corps directed the army's photographic program—the most extensive of all the services—and consequently its files are the source of the greatest documentation of army activities. Although coverage of African Americans is by no means extensive, the Signal Corps files do contain a significant number of images of black soldiers. The main series, RG 111, Series SC, is a vast file containing about 200,000 World War II photographs recording almost every aspect of army activities from battles to mundane functions. The series is arranged numerically by Signal Corps item number; access is possible, however, through the use of subject and personality indexes (RG 111, Series SCY and PX). Useful subject headings include the terms "Negroes," "WACS," and "Nurses." Index searches may also be undertaken using geographical locations and unit designators. When using personality indexes, a word of caution is in order. Generally personality indexes in this series and others contain mostly information about top-ranking officers, recipients of high-level awards or decorations, or perhaps individuals who performed uncommon heroic acts.

Record Group 111, Series SCA, provides a subject approach to a large percentage of the same photographs found in the previously described series. The photographs are in albums arranged by broad subjects. There are nine "Negro (Black) Troops" albums that are a handy source for images of male soldiers; researchers interested in women should consult the "WAC" albums.

Ostensibly all army jobs were open to black soldiers, but in reality most soldiers were assigned to support units clustered in the quartermaster, engineer, and transportation units. Only a small percentage of African American soldiers saw combat.1 Using this information, I searched topics related to occupations and locales where black Americans were deployed in large numbers, and I found additional photographs. For example, as early as 1942 black troops were deployed to Liberia to assist the Liberian Frontier Force.2 A search of RG 111, Series SCA, revealed approximately forty photographs of black soldiers in the "Africa, Liberia" album.

Dogged research in both series uncovered perhaps a dozen or so photographs of the first black Wacs to arrive in Europe—the eight hundred women of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion who were assigned to Rouen, France. The 6888th was responsible for ensuring that mail was routed properly to troops constantly on the move. Unfortunately, little is included showing the Wacs performing their duties. Easier to find are photographs of the activities of the 92d and 93d divisions, which were reactivated during the war. The 92d was sent to the Mediterranean theater, where an advance group landed in Italy in 1944. The 93d was deployed to Bougainville in the Solomon Islands.

The Navy

Too often any mention of African American participation in the navy in the war focuses on the heroic deeds of Doris (Dorie) Miller during Pearl Harbor and perhaps on the "Golden Thirteen," the first group of African Americans commissioned as navy officers. While their service was indeed commendable, the narrow focus overlooks the roughly 165,000 black men and women who served in the navy and composed approximately 5 percent of the navy's total strength.3

Photographs documenting the service of black sailors and Waves are in the records of the Department of the Navy. Although its photography program was not as extensive as the army's, the Navy Department photographic files are just as voluminous. The General Records of the Department of the Navy, 1789-1947 (RG 80, Series G) consists of over 700,000 photographs, of which a significant percentage was taken during World War II. The General Photographic File, RG 80, Series G, is the main file in this record group and the primary source for pictures. The series is arranged numerically, but a detailed subject index (RG 111, Series GG) and a personality index (RG 80, Series GX) offer points of entry. Approximately two hundred photographs are indexed under the term "Negroes." Most of the images cited are of recruitment and training activities at Camp Robert Smalls, located at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. There are also citations to photographs of sailors working in construction battalions and at ammunition depots in the Pacific theater. Many more may exist, but in order to locate additional photographs in this file, a researcher must be blessed with both perseverance and luck. As an example, with additional information about bases where black sailors served, the ships on which they served, and the most common occupations, I located a few more images. Nevertheless, I suspect that probably only a few hundred images documenting the participation of black Americans exists in this series.

Although few in number, there are many gems in this file, such as photographs of Pearl Harbor hero steward Doris Miller; the "Golden Thirteen;" Phyllis Mae Dailey, the first black nurse sworn into the Navy Nurse Corps; Lt. (jg) Harriet Ida Pickens and Ens. Frances Wills, the first black Waves commissioned; the USS Mason and its all-black crew; seamen and Seabees serving in the Mariana Islands and the New Hebrides; and a host of African American celebrities entertaining the sailors.

The Coast Guard

The Coast Guard has a long tradition of enlisting black seamen, but their numbers and job assignments were always restricted. Just over five thousand African Americans served in the Coast Guard during the war. Included were approximately twenty-three hundred men in its Steward's Branch, who worked in officers messes and quarters.4 African Americans in general service were commonly assigned shore duties, such as labor and security details and beach patrols and as storekeepers and radio operators. The main photographic file in the Records of the U.S. Coast Guard (RG 26, Series G) unfortunately reflects little of their service. Filed under the heading "Negro" are approximately two dozen images of black coast guardsmen. The images are of exceptional quality. Because Coast Guard photographers were encouraged to portray the individual, the records contain many portraits often with very detailed captions about the person pictured.5 There are about four hundred photographs of women in the Coast Guard Women's Reserve (the SPAR), but I found none of black Spars.

The Marine Corps

In 1942 the Marine Corps constructed a segregated facility, Montford Point, for training African American marine recruits. In the early years of the war, those marines who completed training at Montford Point were assigned to the Fifty-first and later the Fifty-second Composite Defense Battalions, units specifically established to train black marines for combat. Ironically the two battalions never saw combat. Instead, support troops (stewards and men in the ammunition and depot companies, which were formed later) saw action in some of the most intense battles in the Pacific—Saipan, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. All-in-all, nine black marines were killed in action in battles or died of their wounds—a significant toll, considering their jobs were not supposed to bring them into confrontation with the enemy.6

The Records of the U.S. Marine Corps (RG 127, Series GW, GC and N) are the primary sources for locating photographs of black marines in training or in combat on the Mariana, Palau, and Volcano Islands. Record Group 127, Series GW and GC, are arranged by subject with categories for Negro marines. There are no images of African American women marines in the above-listed series inasmuch as the first African American woman enlisted in the corps in 1949. As with the Navy Department series, it is difficult to estimate how many images exists of black marines. Although there are photographs filed under the heading "Negro Marines," this does not preclude the possibility that photographs may be found under other subject headings. Both series are quite large, and a exhaustive search will require more hours of research than I was able to devote. Researchers interested in photographs of activities at Montford Point will find some pictures in RG 127, Series GC, filed under Camp Lejeune, the name of the base where the training facility was located. There is also a personality index (RG 127, Series PX) that I found useful in accessing RG 127, Series N, the main negative file. For example, by using the personality index, I found a citation for Pfc. Luther Woodward, a member of the Fourth Ammunition Company. Woodward was awarded a Bronze Star for "his bravery, initiative and battle-cunning" in action in Guam. The award was later upgraded to the Silver Star. His decoration was the highest earned by a black marine in World War II.7

The Army Air Forces

The majority of Army Air Forces photographic records taken during World War II period are on temporary loan to the National Air and Space Museum and were not used in preparing the slide set. There is one small series, however, among the Records of the Army Air Forces (RG 18, Series T) that pertains specifically to African Americans. Record Group 18, Series T, consists of identification portraits of pilots who trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field from 1943 through 1946. For documentation of the Tuskegee Airmen and other black Americans who served in support units, aviation squadrons, air base defense units, quartermaster battalions, and ordnance and transportation units, I relied upon the records of the Office of War Information.8

Office of War Information

The Records of the Office of War Information (RG 208, Series AA, FS, LO, LU, MO, N, NP, PMO, and PU) are perhaps the best single source for locating photographs relating to African Americans during the war, whether in the theaters of operation or on the home front. The Office of War Information (OWI) was established in 1942 to coordinate government information. To achieve its objectives, OWI utilized the press, radio broadcasts, motion pictures, and other media to disseminate information. The agency made extensive use of photographs in carrying out its programs. OWI's Domestic Operations Branch distributed information within the United States, while its Overseas Operations Branch concentrated on countries outside the continental United States. The majority of photographic records found here were taken or accumulated by the Picture Division, a subunit of the Overseas Operations Branch.

This is a large record group consisting of approximately 200,000 images in dozens of series that constitute a pictorial history of the war. Coverage of African Americans is found throughout the record group. Although several series within this huge record group are of value to researchers of black history, the series listed above offer the most direct access to several hundred images. The records in most of these series are arranged by subject; for the others, a subject index (RG 208, Series Z) is available. For example, through determined research I found in RG 208, Series FS, a rare picture of the 555th Parachute Infantry Company, "Triple Nickels," the first all-black parachute infantry unit. Trained for combat, they were assigned instead to the western United States to counter Japanese air balloon attacks and to fight forest fires. Still, they excelled at their assignment, racking up thirty-six fire-fighting missions and making over a thousand individual jumps into burning forests. Out of respect for their abilities, they are often called the "Smoke Jumpers" or the "Black Panthers."

Researchers of black Americans during the war will find RG 208, Series NP, "Negro Activities in Industry, Government and the Armed Forces," of particular interest and relevance. This series of photographs was collected by the Negro Press Section, a subunit of the Domestic Operations Branch, that gathered information about the war activities of African Americans. Interestingly, many of the pictures were taken by black photographers, some of the first hired by the government. Negro Press Section chief Theodore Poston, cognizant of the social concerns of the time, had strongly recommended hiring black photographers for assignments relating to African American subjects.9 Included in Negro Press Section files are photographs military personnel, government employees, and workers in defense industries. The series is particularly strong in coverage of civilians supporting the war effort, whether by building merchant vessels, making model planes for the military, buying war bonds, donating goods, or entertaining troops. RG 208, Series NP, was particularly useful in filling in gaps in military coverage. The series includes several photographs of Tuskegee pilots and other airmen. Here too is where I located photographs of Yeoman 2d Class Olivia J. Hooker, the first black woman to enlist in the SPAR.10

Researching photographs for the select list was a challenging and time-consuming project, but the reward is well worth the effort. My intent was to produce a publication that fills a visual documentation void while at the same time stimulates interest in both black history and the holdings of the National Archives. With Pictures of African Americans During World War II, I achieved both objectives.


1. Ulysses Lee, The Employment of Negro Troops, Special Studies Series, U.S. Army Center of Military History (reprint 1994), p. 636.

2. Ibid., p. 620.

3. Morris J. MacGregor, Integration of the Armed Forces, 1940-1965, Defense Studies Series, U.S. Army Center of Military History (1981), p. 98.

4. Ibid., p. 116.

5. Malcolm F. Willoughby, The U.S. Coast Guard in World War II (1957), p. 32-33.

6. Henry I. Shaw, Jr., and Ralph W. Donnelly, Blacks in the Marine Corps (1988), pp. 1–46.

7. Ibid., p. 37.

8. Alan M. Osur, Blacks in the Army Air Forces During World War II: The Problem of Race Relations, U.S. Air Force, Office of Air Force History (1977).

9. William Nelson, Domestic Operations Branch, News Bureau, to Marion Sabatini, Domestic Operations Branch, Oct. 6, 1942, box 961, folder "Personnel," Records of the News Bureau, General Records of the Bureau, December 1941–November 1943, Records of the Office of War Information, Record Group 208, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC.

10. Robin J. Thomson, PA2, The Coast Guard & The Women's Reserve in World War II (1992), p. 5.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.