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Roles of U.S. Men and Women in WWII
World War II was the largest and most violent armed conflict in the history of
mankind. Over time, Americans have grown largely unaware of the political, social,
and military implications of a war that, more than any other, united us as a people
with a common purpose, pulled us out of the depression and defeated a global
enemy. World War II was waged on land, on sea, and in the air over several diverse
theaters of operation for several years. Not only was the war fought abroad, but
hard work was done at home as well. Americans were called to combine their efforts
in what has been called "the mighty endeavor." All citizens played a role in some
form or fashion. The following lesson has been created to enhance your appreciation
of the American spirit and achievements to overcome great struggle and peril during
World War II.
Choose one of the following groups that fits how you think you would have
contributed to the war effort. Answer the questions that follow.
Army NavyArmy Air Force
Ghost Army Women in WWIIAfrican Americans in WWII
The American soldiers of the Army were a crucial component in the defeat of the Axis
powers - and they had to be tough to survive. They sweated through eight
abbreviated weeks of basic training, and shipped out to help throw back the tidal
wave of Axis aggression in Europe and the Pacific.
While the colonels and the generals waved their hands over the maps, the American
soldier was down in the mud and the blood and the gore, waving his rifle in the
direction of the enemy.
During World War II
personnel served in the
U.S. Military. Around
11,200,000 or 70%
served in the U.S. Army.
There were 5 types of divisions: infantry, mountain, armored, airborne, and cavalry.
Armored division of M24 Chaffee Tanks Airborne dropping into enemy territory
The average Army soldier
served for approximately
33 months. 16 of those
months were spent
abroad, in combat zones.
The average pay for
these soldiers was about
$71 per month.
The uniform of a U.S. soldier was rather plain. They most often came in a
standard “OD Green.” Usually there was a patch on his left shoulder that
told at a glance what division he served and another on his sleeves gave
some indication of his rank. On his head, the American soldier wore a one-
pound steel helmet. This was sometimes covered with netting for
camouflage purposes. He was armed with the M-1 Garand rifle, carbine,
Thompson sub-machinegun or Browning Automatic Rifle. He also relied
heavily on the MK II fragmentation hand grenade to keep the enemy at bay
or bust open a machinegun bunker. Life as a soldier was not glamourous.
There were day marches to gain ground, followed by night marches to mask
movement. There were attacks, patrols to be run and sentry posts to guard
position. This, of course, was all while bullets are whizzing by your ears and
bombs are bursting the ground at your feet. You've got to recover from the
shock and fear, force your head up, spot the threat and react to it. That's
the way the American soldier would defeat his enemies in World War II.
Audie Murphy was one of the greatest war heroes in American history. At the age of 19, Murphy received the Medal of
Honor after single-handedly holding off an entire company of German soldiers for an hour. It was a cold morning in 1945.
A battalion of German mechanized infantry that included a half dozen Tiger tanks, was heading towards his company’s
position. While alone and outnumbered, it was his duty to hold this position. He sent his men behind him to take
defensive, and called the M-10s forward but within minutes, the vehicles had been destroyed by the Germans. Now, it
was just Audie against an impossibly large force of German troops. Instead of falling back to safety, Murphy manned a
.50 caliber machine gun mounted on one of the burning, disabled M-10s. He radioed in artillery strikes to hit the German
position. Shells rained down, taking out the enemy, but it wasn’t enough. From his completely exposed position, Murphy
opened fire while artillery continued to pound the area. Before long, the German losses were so great that the Tiger
tanks had to retreat because they had lost most of their infantry support. The position held, thanks to Murphy.
Army Air Force
The United States Army Air Force (AAF) was the forerunner to the military branch
known as the United States Air Force. The Army Air Forces were created in June 1941,
just prior to WWII, to provide the air arm of the military. The Army Air Force oversaw
all air operations during the war. The Army Air Force used a large variety of aircraft in
accomplishing its various missions from large scale bombing campaigns, to defense
and to support of Army operations on the ground.
These courageous fighter pilots, bomber pilots, and air crews fought their way into
heavily defended targets deep inside Europe and to the far reaches of the Pacific.
These young men and women fought valiantly and many did not return, but they
changed the direction of a terrible war, insuring victory and securing the freedom
which we enjoy today.
The B-17 Flying Fortress was a heavy
bomber primarily employed by the
United States Army Air Forces for
precision strategic bombing campaigns
in World War II against German
industrial and military targets and to a
lesser extent in the war in the Pacific.
At the United States
Army Air Force’s
height it had more
than 2.4 million
people and 80,000
aircraft in service and
flew more than 2.3
The P-51 Mustang is generally considered
to be one of the best and well known
fighter planes of WWII. Possessing
excellent range and maneuverability, the
P-51 operated primarily as a long-range
escort fighter and also as a ground attack
fighter/bomber. Showing its versatility,
the Mustang served in nearly every
combat zone during WWII.
Stories abound of B-17s returning to base
with tails having been destroyed, with
only a single engine functioning or even
with large portions of wings having been
damaged by flak. One of the most famous
B-17’s was Memphis Belle. The aircraft
was one of the first B-17 heavy bombers
to complete 25 combat missions with her
crew intact. It inspired a Hollywood film
in 1993 called Memphis Belle.
Richard Bong is the United
States' highest-scoring air
ace, having shot down at
least 40 Japanese aircraft
during World War II. He was a
fighter pilot in the U.S. Army
Air Forces and a recipient of
the Medal of Honor.
The B-29 Superfortress was one of the largest
aircraft in service during World War II and a
very advanced bomber for its time. It was
also the plane to drop the first atomic bomb,
The U.S. Navy quickly became a formidable force after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on
, 1941. Following American entry into the war, the U.S. Navy grew tremendously as
the United States was faced with a two-front war on the seas. The Navy gained most of its
notoriety from the war in the Pacific.
The Pacific War was the largest naval conflict in history. Across the huge expanses of the Pacific,
the two most powerful navies in the world found themselves locked in a death struggle. Every
conceivable type of naval activity was represented: carrier aviation battles, surface engagements,
bitterly fought night-fights, the largest amphibious landings of the entire war, and the stealthy,
brutal battles waged by and against submarines.
By war's end in 1945, the United States Navy was the largest, most dominant navy in the world.
The most decorated ship of WWII is the USS
Enterprise. It earned 20 battle stars, participating in
major battles like Midway, Solomon Islands and
Guadalcanal. The ship had a knack for escaping. For
example, the Enterprise was at sea on the morning of
, 1941 and was not part of the attack at
Pearl Harbor. In fact, the Japanese announced on
three different occasions that she had been sunk in
battle, earning her the name "The Grey Ghost".
The largest, most impressive battleship of WWII was the Japanese
Yamato. It was the size of most American aircraft carriers and had an
impressive arsenal of weapons as well as remarkable speed. The
American ships were outclassed and outgunned. In 1945, the Yamato
headed toward Okinawa to prevent American landings on the island.
Having broken the Japanese code, the U.S. launched an aerial attack
on the Yamato and sank her before she could reach the destination.
The Battle of Midway is one of the considered one of the most important battles in
history. The U.S. had a small base on the island of Midway and had gotten wind of a
Japanese attack. With this knowledge, the U.S. lured the Japanese to attack the island
but had their own ships waiting nearby. In the battle, the Americans were able to sink 4
Japanese aircraft carriers and a cruiser in addition to destroying hundreds of aircraft. The
U.S. suffered just minimal losses. This gave the U.S. naval superiority and allowed for the
advance towards Japan.
Future U.S. President John F. Kennedy served
in the Navy in WWII aboard a torpedo boat
known as PT-109. One night, it engaged a
Japanese battleship. Amidst the battle, the
boat was rammed by the battleship and the
crew was forced overboard. Kennedy, who
was on the swim team at Harvard, took two
life jacket straps between his teeth and
towed injured crew members to an island 4
miles away. After many hours, they reached
the small island. The crew hid from passing
Japanese patrols and survived on coconuts
for six days before being rescued by
African Americans in WWII
Millions of Americans fought in the military during World War II, including nearly one million
African-Americans. African-American soldiers played a significant role in World War II. Despite
the numbers, they faced racial discrimination: prior to the war the military maintained a racially
segregated force. In studies by the military, blacks were often classified as unfit for combat and
were not allowed on the front lines. They were mostly given support duties, and were not allowed
in units with white soldiers.
That changed in 1941, when pressure from African-American civil rights leaders convinced the
government to set up all-black combat units, as experiments. They were designed to see if
African-American soldiers could perform military tasks on the same level as white soldiers. While
facing widespread racial discrimination that made it difficult for black soldiers, they proved
themselves time and time again. Their efforts not only paved the way towards fully integrating
the military and the civil rights movement, it made them heroes and legends.
The Tuskegee Airmen were part of the
integration experiment. The Tuskegee
Airmen were the first group of black pilots
ever trained by the Army Air Force. They flew
many missions protecting American bombers
from German fighter planes. They had a lot
to prove and did so in the most impressive
way. In 200 missions, they never lost a
bomber to enemy fire.
Dorie Miller joined the Navy in 1939. He served
aboard the USS West Virginia as the ship’s cook.
On the morning of December 7th
, 1941, Miller
awoke to do his usual chores. Shortly thereafter,
the Japanese attack started. He was ordered to
help carry injured crew to safety. He even tried
to carry the injured captain to safety but the
captain refused to leave his post. He would later
die. Next, Miller was told to help load the big,
.50 caliber guns. Despite having no training in
operating the big guns, he bravely jumped into
action firing into the air at dive-bombing
Japanese planes. It was reported that Miller shot
down 4 Japanese fighter planes. For his
distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary
courage and disregard of his personal safety
during the attack, Miller was awarded the Navy
Cross, the 3rd
highest award attainable.
While not as
Although African Americans supported their
government during WWII, they were not silent
about racial practices in America. It was almost
impossible to ignore the irony of a segregated
military fighting the world’s greatest racists, the
Nazis. During the global conflict, African
American leaders and organizations established
the “Double V” campaign, calling for victory
against the enemy overseas and victory against
racism at home. The major objective of the
campaign was to encourage blacks to support
the war effort but to also fight for civil rights.
This new black consciousness and the defiant
rejection of unjustifiable racism planted
important seeds for the post-War civil rights
The Ghost Army was a United States Army tactical deception unit during World War II. The 1,100-man
unit was given a unique mission within the U.S Army: to impersonate other U.S. Army units to deceive
the enemy. Ghost soldiers were encouraged to use their brains and talent to mislead, deceive and
befuddle the German Army. Many were recruited from art schools, advertising agencies and other
venues that encouraged creative thinking. In civilian life, ghost soldiers had been artists, architects,
actors, set designers and engineers.
From a few weeks after D-Day, when they landed in France, until the end of the war, they put on a
"traveling road show" utilizing inflatable tanks, sound trucks, fake radio transmissions and pretense.
They staged more than 20 battlefield deceptions, often operating very close to the front lines. Their
mission was kept secret until 1996, and elements of it still remain classified.
The visual deception of the Ghost Army was
equipped with inflatable tanks, cannons,
jeeps, trucks, and airplanes. They would
camouflage perfectly so that enemy air
reconnaissance could see them. They could
create dummy airfields, troop camps
(complete with fake laundry hanging out on
clotheslines), caravans, artillery and tank
formations in just a few hours. Many of the
men in this unit were artists, recruited from
art schools. Several of these soldier-artists
went on to have a major impact on art in the
The sonic deception of the Ghost Army
recorded sounds of armored and
infantry units onto a series of sound
effects records that they brought to
Europe. For each deception, sounds
could be “mixed” to match the scenario
they wanted the enemy to believe. This
program was recorded on state-of-the-
art wire recorders (the predecessor to
the tape recorder), and then played back
with powerful amplifiers and speakers
mounted on halftracks. The sounds they
played could be heard 15 miles away.
The radio deception of the
Ghost Army or "Spoof radio",
as it was called, created
phony traffic nets,
impersonating the radio
operators from real units.
They were educated in the art
of mimicking a departing
operator’s method of sending
Morse Code so that the
enemy would never detect
that the real unit and its radio
operator were long gone.
Women in WWII
During World War II, women served their country, both at home and abroad. For
many women, World War II brought not only sacrifices, but also new jobs, new skills,
and new opportunities.
Widespread male enlistment left gaping holes in the industrial labor force. However,
the U. S. government and industry had to expand dramatically to meet wartime
needs. It was women made it possible. Between 1940 and 1945, the female
percentage of the U.S. workforce increased, and by 1945 nearly one out of every four
married women worked outside the home.
In addition to factory work and other home front jobs, some 350,000 women joined
the Armed Services. Women were nurses, but also served in the Army, Army Air
Force, Navy and Marines! America's “secret weapon” was the women who
voluntarily mobilized to meet every challenge.
corps and the
so that more
men could be
the war and
the peace that
Girls" came to
D.C. to help
lines in the
Women were needed to fill many
traditionally male jobs and roles
during the war and various
advertisements were used to
encourage women to take on
these jobs and roles.
In the community, women raised money
for war bonds, collected blood, rolled
bandages, aided in civil defense, tended
Victory Gardens, and hosted troops. In the
home, women recycled scarce materials,
dealt with the strains of rationing, raised
their children, and mourned the war dead.
retooled for war
women were a
of the labor
In 1942, the U.S. was faced with a severe shortage of
pilots, and leaders gambled on an experimental program
to help fill the void: train women to fly military aircraft so
male pilots could be released for combat duty overseas.
Women tested new aircraft, transported planes to military
bases and even practiced combat maneuvers!