By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
We expected to gain our dignity as human beings in this country when we put our blood on the line in combat. - James Strawder, 99th Infantry Division
Riding a tank near Speyer, Germany on 23 March 1945, armored infantryman Edward Allen Carter of the 12th Armored Division dismounted in a hurry when the Sherman was hit by a German panzerschreck anti-tank rocket. Carter led three other men across an open field to try to find the anti-tank team, but two of his men were killed and the third badly wounded, while Carter was hit five times. When eight German soldiers closed in on him, Carter killed six of them and took the others prisoner, using them as human shields to escape back across the field. He then interrogated them - Carter spoke German. Carter would be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions, upgraded decades after his 1963 death from cancer to the Congressional Medal of Honor, along with promotion to sergeant.
Carter wasn’t like the rest of the 12th Armored Division. The son of American missionaries, he had run away from home in Shanghai at the age of 15 to join the National Revolutionary Army and fight the Japanese; he rose to the rank of lieutenant before the Chinese discovered his age and sent him back to his parents. Enrolled in a military school in Shanghai, he learned several languages including German before he ran away again to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fighting the fascists in Spain.
Carter (right) wasn’t like the rest of the 12th Armored Division. He was Black in a segregated Army, fighting in what until three weeks earlier had been an all-white unit.
Replacements to the Front
By late 1944, it had become obvious that the U.S. Army’s estimates of battlefield casualties and the men needed to replace them had been wildly optimistic. Not only would the planned 213 combat divisions never be fully mobilized, filling the ranks of the 89 divisions actually stood up became increasingly difficult as losses mounted. Many rifle companies suffered 100 percent casualties, and in December the European Theater reported a shortage of 29,000 infantrymen, or about five divisions’ worth.
Some emergency measures eased the shortfall. The Army Specialized Training Program, which had held the best and brightest out of brutal infantry combat and sent them to college instead, was eliminated and its recruits inducted as infantrymen. Entire anti-aircraft battalions were hastily re-trained, infantrymen from new divisions were diverted as replacements to those already at the front, and the Ground Forces Replacement Command began to comb out healthy young soldiers from rear-area service units for re-assignment to the infantry.
Lt. Gen. John C.H. Lee, commanding the Communications Zone, believed that 20,000 men could be found among his service units. But many of his rear-area units - truck companies, port battalions, quartermaster companies - were manned by African-American soldiers, who spent the war doing laundry, baking bread, stacking ammunition and driving trucks. Lee proposed asking for Black volunteers from these units, men who had already completed infantry training, who would be sent to the front as individual replacements.
French and American soldiers share candy and cigarettes, Rouffach, France.
Dwight Eisenhower, his boss, approved the proposal and his “Special Advisor on Negro Troops,” Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr., enthusiastically pushed the program as an opportunity to de-segregate the infantry arm and eventually the entire U.S. Army. But Eisenhower added some qualifiers: the men would be sent to Black units, and only to white units if they were not needed by Black units. But the European Theater had no Black infantry units; it did include two Black tank battalions that desperately needed replacements, but Eisenhower’s command had no means of training new tankers, only infantrymen. Eisenhower also relaxed the requirement for infantry training, only stating that men with that qualification would be preferred.
Non-commissioned officers - like Carter, a staff sergeant and at the time a member of George S. Patton’s personal palace guard - could volunteer if they accepted a reduction in rank. No Black sergeants or officers would be allowed in the platoons; their parent divisions were ordered to provide a white lieutenant and white sergeant for each platoon. The Black platoons had no corporals; squads were led by privates first class, though these men were almost entirely former NCO’s.
The call went out for Black volunteers on the day after Christmas, and by February over 4,500 men had signed up. The first 2,253 of them completed their refresher training on 1 March 1945, and Eisenhower’s new deputy commander, Lt. Gen. Ben Lear, issued a new order. The men would not be assigned to front-line units as individual replacements, but rather as overstrength rifle platoons.
Black volunteers training for combat. Noyon, France, February 1945.
Of the 37 rifle platoons organized on 1 March, 25 went to 12th Army Group and the remainder to 6th Army Group. They in turn parceled them out to the 1st, 8th, 9th, 69th, 78th, 99th, 104th and 106th Infantry Divisions and to the 12th and 14th Armored Divisions. The infantry divisions usually then sent one platoon to each of its regiments. The regiment then assigned the Black platoon to one of its infantry companies as its fourth rifle platoon. These were always referred to as “Fifth Platoons,” since the company’s heavy weapons platoon was its fourth platoon. The two armored divisions each received three rifle platoons and each formed them into a Black armored infantry company.
The 12th Armored Division, known as the “Suicide Division” after the heavy losses it suffered in the German North Wind offensive during January 1945, welcomed the Black troopers. “We’re soldiers,” Col. Charles Bromley of the division’s Combat Command B told his men during the fighting. “We have weapons; we’re expendable.”
And most front-line troops seem to have accepted the reinforcing platoons the same way. “Men are very eager to close with the enemy and to destroy him,” 104th Infantry Division reported. “Strict attention to duty, aggressiveness, common sense and judgment under fire has won the admiration of all the men.”
“White platoons liked to fight beside them,” 1st Infantry Division added, “because they laid a large volume of fire on the enemy positions.”
A “Fifth Platoon” soldier of the 12th Armored Division guards German prisoners.
In a postwar survey of 250 white officers who had commanded or fought alongside the Black troops, 84 percent said they had performed well in combat, while the remaining 16 percent said they performed fairly well. No one rated their performance as “poor.”
Carter would not be the only Medal of Honor recipient among the 2,253 men of the “Fifth Platoons.” Willy F. James, serving as an infantry scout with the 104th Infantry Division, was recognized for his heroism on 7 April 1945. After leading an assault on a fortified house, and purposefully drawing enemy fire to reveal their positions, he attempted to rescue his White platoon lieutenant who had been hit by a German sniper. James was killed by a burst of machine-gun fire.
The Fifth Platoons had fought well, and even heroically, in just a short time. They won the praise of the white soldiers who fought alongside them, and of the white commanders who led them. And so on 9 May 1945, the day after Germany surrendered, Eisenhower ordered the Fifth Platoons immediately disbanded and the troops returned to the service units from whence they had come.
Several of the platoons rejected the order. Told to turn in their weapons and instead construct barracks for white troops, armed Black soldiers of the 99th Infantry Division faced down Military Police. In the 69th Infantry Division, Black soldiers who had been denied entry into a division recreation hall forced their way in behind the leadership of their white company commander. Another Fifth Platoon from the 99th Infantry Division sent a delegation to Frankfurt to confront Eisenhower himself, who refused to see them.
Alarmed, Eisenhower sent Gen. Davis on a tour of the Fifth Platoon to calm the men and overturn the disbandment orders, allowing them to return home with their combat divisions. Once in the United States they were discharged, though some of the divisions remained on a combat footing for possible deployment to the Pacific Theater.
As for Sgt. Carter, he remained in the Army until 1949, when he was denied re-enlistment on the basis of suspected Communist sympathies, since he also spoke Chinese.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published an unknowable number of books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.
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