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The Long Fight to Achieving Military Integration


Patrick J. Charles1

On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 desegregating the United States military. “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin,” ordered Truman, adding, “This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale.”2  Executive Order 9981 was the culmination of years of sustained lobbying and political action by the black community, including from black civil rights groups such the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), black publications such as The Crisis, Chicago Defender, and Pittsburgh Courier, and black military service members and veterans, who were determined to end the separate and unequal treatment they endured.3

From the outset of World War II, the black community fought feverishly for the opportunity to militarily serve.4  This was due largely to existence of widespread prejudice and institutional racism. In the pantheon of American history, World War II is not unique in this regard. For instance, on October 31, 1775, despite years of distinguished military service by blacks along the American frontier, General George Washington, on the advice of his Council of War, agreed to “reject all slaves, and by a great majority to reject Negroes all together” in the Continental Army.5  But within just two months, due to the low enrollments and the British Army openly encouraging blacks, both free and slave, to join their ranks, Washington was forced to rescind his order.6  As a result, blacks ended up comprising roughly one-fifth of all Continental forces by the war’s end.7  Sometimes referred to as the “Forgotten Fifth,” there is a strong historical argument to be made that ‘but for’ black participation in the Continental Army and state militias, the British would have proven victorious.8  Yet in 1792, when it came time for Congress to decide the composition, organization, and training of the nation’s well-regulated militia—what the founders intended to be the bulwark of new republic’s defense—blacks were excluded from participating. Congress made it clear that only “free able-bodied white male citizens” need enroll.9

However, in the decades that followed, whenever a conflict or crisis arose, blacks were called upon to militarily serve and did so with distinction.10  This included the Union Army during the Civil War—a war in which blacks were initially excluded from participating in despite Frederick Douglass’s persistent urging.11  By that time, the distinguished service of black Revolutionary War veterans had long been forgotten—that is until a history was compiled by a librarian and historian named George Moore. Titled Historical Notes on the Employment of Negroes in the American Revolution, Moore’s history sought to ‘set the record straight’ by highlighting the valiant service of the all-black First Rhode Island Regiment, as well as historically provide other examples of blacks participating in the achievement of American independence.12  It was a history that effectively aided Douglass in convincing President Abraham Lincoln to approve black enlistments in the Union Army for the remainder of the Civil War. And by the war’s end, over 200,000 black soldiers took up arms in defense of the Union, mostly runaway slaves from the South. In reward for their service, Congress offered these black military veterans the opportunity to the purchase their service rifle, believing that many of these men would be called upon again to secure peace and order in the militia.  But Congress overlooked the fact that many Southern militia laws not only forbade blacks from militarily serving, but also that Southern Black Codes would be used to confiscate from black military veterans the very arms that Congress had provided to them.13

The disarming of black military veterans was just one of many atrocious civil rights violations committed against the black community following the Civil War.14  These civil rights violations ultimately led the Reconstruction Congress (1865-77) to draft, enact, and ratify the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution—each of which was intended to afford newly freed blacks equal rights and privileges alongside whites.15  For a time, many in the country hoped that the horrors associated with slavery, and the racism and bigotry that came with it were over. This hope can be seen in an 1876 Harper’s Weekly political cartoon celebrating the country’s centennial, wherein it depicts Lady Liberty steering the United States Constitution towards ‘peace and prosperity,’ and away from the days of ‘slavery’, ‘bigotry’, ‘prejudice’, ‘hatred’, and ‘malice’. Yet unfortunately, not long after Reconstruction ended, those unhappy with the outcome of the Civil War and the new constitutional amendments that followed it, began reframing the war as a revolutionary, ‘lost cause’ conflict over states’ rights or increasingly referred to it as the “war of Northern aggression.” Some went so far to defend slavery as a necessary and benevolent institution.16  The chief lessons of the Civil War—ending slavery and ensuring equal citizenship for all—were unfortunately cast aside by much of the country—not just the South.17  Segregation, prejudice, racism, and overall unequal treatment against blacks became both normalized and institutionalized across the country, including within the United States military.18
Fast forward to post-World War I, where despite the hopes of black civil rights leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois, who during the war had urged the black community to “forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow citizens,”19  little had been accomplished to improve the prejudicial, racist, and unequal treatment imposed upon the black community.20  This included black military veterans. More than 400,000 blacks heeded the call to serve their nation during World War I, yet they did so in segregated units and were generally looked upon by their white brethren as inferior.21

A post-World War I, Army War College study titled Employment of Negro Man Power in War is illustrative. The study leads with the following prejudicial and mind-numbing conclusion: “The negro does not perform his share of civil duties in time of peace in proportion to his population. He has no leaders in industrial or commercial life. He takes no part in government. Compared to the white man he is admittedly of inferior mentality. He is inherently weak in character.”22  Although the study’s principal aim was to assert that blacks—given that they are United States citizens and therefore must “bear [their] share of burden of war”—should be afforded the same opportunity to serve in the military as whites,23  the study did so under the erroneous belief that blacks stood inferior to whites in virtually all respects, and therefore must be treated differently.24  This belief of blacks being “other” or biologically different from whites had long been engrained in American society, to include the United States military.25
In addition to facing prejudice and racism within the very military that they served, blacks faced even worse treatment outside it. This was particularly true for World War I veterans, who like the wider black community were sometimes the victims of public lynchings or even murdered for simply wearing their uniform. “The very uniform on a Negro was to the reactionary like a red rag thrown in the fact of a bull,” observed historian Carter G. Woodson, adding, “Negro soldiers clamoring for equality and justice were beaten, shot down, and lynched, to terrorize the whole black population.”26

Given the disparate, prejudicial, and racist treatment that black veterans faced both during and after World War I, it may be surprising to learn that the black community came together and fought so feverishly for the opportunity to take part in World War II.27  Certainly, early in the war, some within the black community expressed reservation in fighting fascist oppression overseas when the very same oppression faced them at home. In the end, however, the community came together to support the war effort and overwhelmingly so. The principal reason for this being the war was seen as an opportunity to not only shine a light on the institutional prejudice, bigotry, and racism that the black community faced daily, but also, in the process, potentially achieve significant social and legal change towards equality. These goals later came to be known as the “Double V” or “Double Victory” campaign.28  The name was derived from an editorial by Pittsburgh Courier news correspondent James G. Thompson, who posed the following question to the black community: “Should I sacrifice my life to live half American?”29  Thompson ultimately answered his own question, writing, “Let…colored Americans adopt the double VV for a double victory. The first V for victory over our enemies from without, the second V for victory over our enemies from within.”30  Within the very next issue of the Pittsburgh Courier appeared the “Double V” insignia, depicting an eagle, perched on top of two stacked V’s, placed over a scroll reading “Double Victory.” On the bottom left of the insignia read the phrase “At Home,” and on the bottom right the word “Abroad.”
The black press’s “Double V” campaign was not all that warmly embraced outside the black community. Many white Americans viewed the campaign as either being influenced by foreign propagandists or outright un-American.31  Meanwhile, many within the War Department viewed the campaign as an unneeded distraction from the war effort, to include Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, who was adamant that any racial “experiments within the army” would be “fraught with danger to [military] efficiency, discipline, and morale.”32  Therefore, evidentiarily speaking, it is not uncommon for historians to uncover official War Department reports and correspondence criticizing the black press, as well wider black community, as being nothing more than racial agitators.33  For instance, a July 17, 1942, report by the War Department’s Military Intelligence Division partly attributed the ongoing racial “agitation” between black and white troops to the black press’s “demands for greater equality and the remedying of alleged injustices.”34  Although the report could not provide any concrete evidence supporting this conclusion, the report nevertheless determined that the black press’s “articles caustically criticizing the Army and its Administration” were in part to blame.35
But what many within the War Department at the time failed to understand—and what every social historian knows to be verifiably true—is that in any democratic system of government, the best time to effectuate social and legal change is in the very thick of a national problem, tragedy, or crisis. The black community understood this very well.36  Thus, for them to hold off—that is wait until after the problem, tragedy or crisis has passed, much like W.E.B. Du Bois had done during World War I—would be to concede political defeat and kick the proverbial can of social and legal change down road. And early on in World War II—that is before United States’ direct military involvement—two notable political victories were achieved largely because of the black community’s resolve in achieving social and legal change. The first was the inclusion of a non-discrimination provision within the 1940 Selective Service Act. Federal law now required that all men, “regardless of race or color,” would have the opportunity to serve in the military, albeit in accordance with a 10 percent racial quota system.37  This change in federal law prompted the War Department to announce a new policy on black utilization. No longer would blacks be excluded or prohibited from attending officer candidate schools, nor could they be excluded or prohibited from “aviation training as pilots, mechanics, and technical specialists.”38  Instead, blacks were to be given the same “fair and equitable” opportunity to serve militarily as whites, but again, only so long as they did not exceed 10 percent of the total force.39  Additionally, the War Department announced that blacks would be given an “equal opportunity” to gain civilian employment at any military installation “for which they are qualified by ability, education and experience.”40
The second notable political victory came in the way of a June 25, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt executive order ending non-discrimination within the wider defense industry. Otherwise known as Executive Order 8802, the order declared that there “shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in the defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin,” and therefore it was the “duty of employers and of labor organizations…to provide for the full and equitable participation of all workers in defense industries…”41
Yet despite the enactment of these non-discrimination provisions, prejudice, bigotry, and racism in the military and defense industry remained rampant throughout the war. The reason is essentially four-fold. First, the new, non-discrimination provisions did not contain any real, legal enforcement teeth. Second, many of the military’s top leaders, including Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and Chief of Staff General Marshall, supported maintaining the discriminatory status quo, at least for the time being.42  Third, the new, non-discrimination provisions were not really all that equitable. The provisions did not adequately consider that the black community had long been placed in a disadvantageous position, both socially and institutionally, and therefore could not compete ‘equally’ for most jobs, positions, and assignments alongside whites.43  Segregation had been the norm throughout the country for more than half-a-century. And with segregation came separate and unequal policies that detrimentally affected blacks’ education, housing, and employment prospects far more so than whites.
This brings us to the fourth and perhaps most significant reason the new non-discrimination provisions failed to halt prejudice, bigotry, and racism within the military and defense industry—the new, non-discrimination provisions embraced discrimination in part. The War Department’s policy on black utilization serves as a principal a case in point. Although the October 1940 policy stipulated that blacks would be employed and utilized on a “fair and equitable basis,” it only did so on the condition that there was no “intermingl[ing]” of “colored and white enlisted personnel in the same regimental organizations.”44  In the War Department’s mind, segregation had “proven satisfactory over a long period of years and to make changes would [only] produce situations destructive to morale and detrimental to the preparations for national defense.”45  In a October 8, 1940 letter to New York senator Robert F. Wagner, who was one of handful of congressmen  at the time seeking to remove society’s racial barriers, Lieutenant General Henry “Hap” Arnold described the War Department’s policy in similar terms, writing:

It is the policy of the War Department not to intermingle colored and white enlisted personnel in the same regimental organization. The condition which has made this policy necessary is not the responsibility of the Department, but to ignore it would produce situations destructive of morale, and, therefore definitely detrimental to the preparations for national defense in this emergency. This existing policy has been proven satisfactory over a long period of years. It provides for a full percentage of colored personnel and a wired variety of military units.46

 Despite the valiant efforts of black civil rights advocates like William H. Hastie—who served as Civilian Aide to Secretary of War Stimson until February 1943—to break down what he described as an “inflexible” racial policy,47  segregation would in fact remain the policy of the War Department throughout the war. Thus, today, looking backward, given our modern disdain for racist, prejudicial, and exclusionist policies and behavior, it is easy to historically criticize the War Department for its actions, or one might say inaction. And certainly, today, one would be correct in historically noting the existence of prejudice, bigotry, and racism not only in the World War II Era military ranks, but also among the general American populace.

Contextually speaking, however, this helps explain why most within the War Department felt compelled to continue with a segregated military. Two internal War Department studies on white attitudes towards integration weigh this out. Indeed, a close examination of these studies reveals a serious bias problem, particularly the War Department being far more concerned with white attitudes on segregation compared to that of black attitudes. However, at the time the studies were compiled and written, those in the War Department believed they were objective. And what these studies ultimately informed the higher echelons of the War Department was that segregation was far and away the preferred policy of the white service member. Take for instance the study titled Attitudes of Enlisted Men Towards Negroes for Air Force Duty. According to the study’s findings, out of the 5,872 white enlisted service members polled, three-quarters favored a segregated military, with Southern service members favoring segregation more than Northern service members by roughly 10 percent.48  The study titled Attitudes of White Enlisted Men Toward Sharing Facilities with Negro Troops arrived at a similar conclusion. According to the study, even “[w]hite enlisted men from the North show[ed] a strong prejudice against sharing recreation, theatre, or post exchange facilities” with black service members. The prejudice was even stronger among white enlisted members from the South, again by roughly 10 percent.49
The findings of these two War Department studies mirrored that of the general American populace. Hypothetically speaking, even if the War Department was in favor of integration, which it was not, the political reality was that most Americans did not want the federal government interjecting in the improvement of race relations. According to August 1943 Gallup Poll, Southern white voters were particularly unhappy with the steps the Roosevelt Administration had already taken to “improve the status of the colored man.”50  “[Southern white voters] feel that large-scale [race neutral] reforms have been undertaken too swiftly…and claim that the desire for swift and immediate reforms has made the Negro unruly and unmanageable in many parts of the South,” wrote Dr. George Gallup.51  And the Roosevelt Administration, knowing that the 1944 presidential election cycle was rapidly approaching, was not going to do anything that would further politically upset the Southern white voter.

It is a point of historical emphasis that the widespread, Southern white voter belief that removing racial barriers was in part to blame for the country’s ongoing racial unrest was not confined to the South. It was being espoused across the country, and therefore also repeated by many white military officers—officers who believed that black military members opposed to segregation and the local, prejudicial social norms that came with it, were effectively the real problem. In other words, many white military officers believed black military members should strictly adhere to, not question, whatever local, prejudicial, and racist social norms were thrust upon them. And according to these white military officers, the solution to dealing with this issue was two-fold: 1) impose stricter discipline on black military members than that imposed upon whites; and 2) segregate black service members even further according to their “prior [Northern or Southern] home environment.”52  The latter solution was eventually adopted as one of the War Department’s official policies. As Chief of Staff General Marshall wrote to Alabama senator John H. Bankhead on August 6, 1942: “It is the policy of the War Department to station Northern negroes in Northern posts and Southern negroes in southern posts in all cases where miliary necessity does not require deviation from this policy.”53
But what the higher echelons of War Department apparently failed to grasp, is that the true cause of the racial unrest was not individual black service member’s place of origin or their lack of discipline. It was the glaring unequal, disparate, and prejudicial treatment thrust upon them. Several War Department memoranda acknowledged this fact, yet nothing was done to remedy it. For instance, in a July 3, 1942, memorandum from William H. Hastie to Lieutenant General Arnold, the evidence of unequal, disparate, and prejudicial treatment imposed upon all-black Aviation Squadron’s was laid to bare.54  Similarly, in a June 25, 1942, War Department Inspector General Report, several of the real causes that contributed to racial unrest were sufficiently outlined, including the failure of many base commanders to provide black service members with adequate living, work, and recreational facilities, permitting local, prejudicial social norms to take place on military installations, and allowing white service members to launch “unprovoked attacks” on black service members due merely to the fact that they were black.55  It is worth noting, however, that that same Inspector General Report also listed several dubious and racially biased causes as well, such as black service members’ “desire for a woman frequently leads him into localities where he arouses fear and causes trouble,” and their alleged political extortion by the black press and foreign propagandists.56
The fact that black service members suffered prejudicial, racist, and unequal treatment throughout World War II is not to suggest that the War Department did not make any attempts at improving race relations as the war dragged on.57  The War Department did indeed try, as did several base and unit commanders, particularly as the need for black military manpower increased.58  An October 25, 1943, memorandum from Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers, Commander of Headquarters European Theater is one such example. The memorandum ordered that “discrimination…against either white or colored personnel” was prohibited and noted that any “derogatory remarks concerning soldiers of another race…[constituted] a serious offense” that could lead to court-martial proceedings.59  Another example is an April 18, 1944, memorandum from now Army Air Forces Commanding General Henry “Hap Arnold to the Chief of the Air Staff, which ordered that any unit or agency that did not comply with the War Department’s existing non-discrimination provisions should be “immediately stamped out…”60
It was in early 1944 that the War Department, through its public relations division, stepped up its efforts to improve the disparate and unequal treatment imposed upon black military members.61  This was principally accomplished through the distribution of two publications. The first, titled Command of Negro Troops, sought to educate white military officers on the fact that black service members were not different from their white brethren, and that the “same methods of discipline, training, and leadership apply” to both groups.62  Moreover, the publication sought to educate white officers on the facts that not only are “[c]olored Americans, like other Americans, [entitled to] the right and duty to serve their country,” but also that federal law dictated that “there will be no racial discrimination in the selection and training of men for military duty.”63  The second publication was titled Leadership and the Negro Soldier, which provided service members with the hard facts—at least as the War Department understood them.64  Indeed, at several points, the publication somewhat misses the historical mark. However, the publication was a significant step by the War Department in trying to improve race relations. At Fort Huachuca, Arizona for instance, a military post where the War Department knew that black military service members were being repeatedly discriminated against,65  Leadership and the Negro Soldier was the basis of a mandatory day-long course of instruction for all officers. The course included a series of lectures with titles such as “Camp Community and the Negro Soldier,” “Health of the Negro Soldier,” “The Negro Soldier in American History,” and “Federal and State Laws of Importance to Commanders of Negro Troops.”66
And it was not only through print media in which the War Department sought to improve race relations. Additionally, it was done through film. For instance, in a 1944 film titled The Negro Soldier, the War Department for the first time visually acknowledged the long and often forgotten military service of black veterans going all the way back to the Revolutionary War.67  And a year later, in a film titled Don’t Be a Sucker, the War Department highlighted how different forms of social prejudice and discrimination, to include that of racial prejudice and discrimination, are all inseparably linked—that is they are all premised on propaganda and misinformation meant to politically divide the people.68  In the May 1945 edition of Army Talk, the War Department doubled down on this message by declaring that “racial and religious prejudices are not only unchristian and un-American but are [also] deadly weapons used by [our enemies] in their war against democracy…”69

 But just weeks after the May 1945 publication of Army Talk, the War Department took a step backwards through an Army wide historical study on how to best utilize black service members in the post-World War II establishment.70  The historical study’s principal purpose was gauge whether the recent recommendations of the Advisory Committee for Special Troop Policy71  on black service member utilization were indeed proper—recommendations, by the way, that failed to move the racial equality needle one iota and were nothing more than a post-war extension of existing, segregationist War Department policies.72  The way the historical study on black utilization worked was that all three Army subcommands, to include the Army Air Forces, were instructed to compile a detailed report outlining the training, utilization, and performance of black troops during the war. And in compiling these reports (which were ordered to be done in secret), any units that were selected to take part in the historical study were instructed to follow the four-page list of questions provided by the War Department.73
Given that the reports were compiled and written by white military officers, the conclusions contained within are generally prejudicial, and therefore provide historians with very little insight into the actual military performance of black service members during the war. What the reports do provide, however, is a historical window into the minds of the white military officers during segregation, as well as their general opinions on race and racial relations circa the mid-1940s.74  And one of the more illuminating reports in this respect is that of the 1st Troop Carrier Command (1 TCC). The 1 TCC report is in fact the only such report that has a large appendix to have survived historical posterity. Within this appendix is a wide array of individual interviews and subordinate unit reports on black utilization. And what these interviews and subordinate unit reports ultimately inform is that racial prejudice prevailed across the command, as well as larger Army Air Forces. The general view among the 1 TCC white personnel interviewed was that black brethren lacked ambition, initiative, intelligence, and as sense of responsibility, and therefore required close supervision.75  The subordinate unit reports were arguably even more prejudicial against black service members. As for the contents of 1 TCC’s final report, it is largely a reflection of the findings within the appendix. For within the final report, black service members are repeatedly characterized as having low intelligence, ambition, and discipline, and therefore a low “degree of [military] efficiency.”76
The Army Air Forces’ study on black utilization was not all that different from the 1 TCC’s. It too was highly prejudicial against black service members. At one point, the study concludes that it is the “consensus of opinion that all white officers are most effective in leading negro units; that all negro officers are lease effective and that mixed officers are more effective than all negro officers and less effective than all white.”77  At another point, the study concludes that with but a “few exceptions it can be generally stated that negro units do not attain the same proficiency in training as white units.78  In support of this latter conclusion, the study cites several contributing factors, such as black service members’ maintained lower standardized testing scores to whites, black service members’ generally showed a lack of “initiative, ingenuity, accuracy, speed, and pride,” and black service members’ intuitively maintained a “persecution complex”—that is an acute irrational fear that other people are responsible for one’s failures.79  The report ends with the recommendation that the Army Air Forces retain its policy of providing black service members an equal opportunity to train and serve, albeit in segregated units, living quarters, and recreational facilities.80  Lieutenant General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, based on his personal observations of the problem, came to a similar segregationist conclusion in a October 16, 1945 memorandum to General Arnold: “Notwithstanding the claim that all people are created equal, the vast majority of whites insist on racial segregation. To avoid incidents and to provide for harmony in service, both for white and colored, segregation is essential if Negroes are to be accepted for training.”81

Fortunately, these service-wide studies on black utilization in the post-World War II establishment were not the final word on the matter. For on August 8, 1945, Truman Gibson, Jr., the Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War who replaced William H. Hastie, wrote to Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy on the need to examine the subject more holistically. In Gibson’s words, it was “not enough to compare reports of the performance of Negro troops with those of whites,” but rather the “reports…also be examined with the point of view of determining whether the performance of Negro troops would be improved or impaired by changing the policy of segregation.”82  Gibson went on to write that “[e]very possible precaution must be utilized to avoid the error common to all previous studies of this problem, namely, that of ascribing failures of Negroes to racial characteristics without considering the possibilities that such failings as occur may be due to lack of educational, social and economic advantages which would affect other personnel in the same way under similar conditions, or the possibility that these failures may be due to effects in Army policy.”83
A few weeks later, McCloy’s executive assistant, Lieutenant Colonel Davidson Sommers, provided McCloy with his views on Gibson’s memorandum. Sommers noted that although Gibson’s memorandum did not “call for any action” from McCloy, there was no disputing the fact that the Army had yet to find “the right answer in terms of the most efficient use of available [negro] manpower.”84  For this reason, Sommers urged McCloy to consider two actions: 1) “the designation of a first class officer or group of officers of high rank with the special assignment of planning for the use of Negro troops”; and 2) that “basic Army policy be changed to call for eventual non-segregation and assignment of Negro troops solely on the basis of ability…”85
On October 4, 1945, Gibson’s and Sommer’s memoranda proved to the basis from which new Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson formed the Gillem Board. Named after Lieutenant General Alvan C. Gillem, Jr., who served as chairman, the board was tasked with preparing “a policy for the use of authorized Negro manpower potential…”86  And the Gillem Board succeeded by relying on a more holistic, even-keeled analysis of the facts. Most notably, the Gillem Board recognized the full military potential of black service members, as well as the need for the War Department to maximize their utilization in the interest of the national defense. Black manpower was not, in the words of one unidentified World War II Army officer, “not worth the effort.”87  The Gillem Board in fact arrived at the very opposite conclusion. And rather than place the blame on biased, intellectually predisposed racial factors, the Gillem Board looked inward—that is at the War Department’s inadequate racial policies and failed lines of effort.88  And in the process of making this inward evaluation, the Gillem Board put forward several progressive ideas on resolving racial inequities in the War Department through gradual military integration.89
Initially, the findings and recommendations of the Gillem Board caused some wrangling within the War Department. But ultimately the board’s gradual approach to racial inequity was accepted as the way ahead,90  and on April 27, 1946, the board’s final recommendations were published and released as Circular No. 124.91  The problem was finding an agreeable way to implement the recommendations across the War Department.92  As a result, the prejudicial, racist, and unequal treatment imposed upon black service members during World War II in many ways continued through the post-war military establishment93 —that is until President Truman intervened.94
As historian Matthew F. Delmont notes in his book Half American, Truman was somewhat an unlikely, black civil rights ally in the fight for military integration. Truman grew up in the segregated South, his relatives on both sides owned slaves, and he often used racial epithets in personal correspondence.95  But Truman, a veteran himself, was also personally dismayed by the continued, unprovoked attacks on black veterans.96  This provided black civil rights advocates with a window to convince Truman in forming the President’s Committee on Civil Rights in 1946. A year later, the committee published its findings in a report titled To Secure These Rights, which detailed how widespread racial discrimination was harming the country. To resolve the problem, the committee put forward roughly three dozen anti-discrimination proposals, to include Congress enacting voting rights legislation and anti-lynching legislation, the removal of racial housing covenants, ending employment discrimination, and ending military segregation.97  This last proposal—ending military segregation—was the only one that Truman had the power to personally deliver on. And with the 1948 presidential election looming, Truman knew he would have to act fast and began to weigh the political prospects of such executive action.98
By this time, through the National Security Act of 1947, the Office of the Secretary of Defense was established, as was a separate Department of the Air Force, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the National Security Council (NSC). The War Department was reconstituted as the Department of the Army, the Naval Department was reconstituted as the Department of the Navy, and both departments now fell directly under the Department of Defense. This national defense reorganization provided—in the words Robert K. Carr, who served as the executive secretary to the President’s Committee on Civil Rights—“an opportunity to reconsider the inequality of rights which the armed forces now extend” to “Negroes and other minority groups.”99  In Carr’s mind, this was rather important because the “armed forces are one of our [country’s] major status symbols,” are the “one place in…society where the mind of the adult citizen is completely at the disposal of his government,” and therefore was the perfect place for “Americans to learn to respect one another as the result of cooperative effort in the face of serious danger.”100  In other words, according to Carr, “the importance of the armed forces in the struggle of minority groups for full achievement of their civil rights is too obvious to require labored discussion.”101
Truman ultimately arrived at the same conclusion. In a February 2, 1948, special message to Congress on civil rights, Truman informed both legislative bodies that he had instructed the Secretary of Defense “to take steps to have the remaining instances of discrimination in the armed services eliminated as rapidly as possible,” and to have the “personnel policies and practices of all the services in this regard…made consistent.”102  Four months later, due in part to continued political pressure by the black community, Truman signed Executive Order 8801, which legally put into motion the integration of the armed forces.103  It would take another two years before the armed forces were formally required to adhere to the order.104  Within some military units, integration was easily achieved. Within others, integration proved much more difficult.105  The problem of integrating a geographically widespread military force was often exasperated by the segregationist politics of the times. For instance, in 1950, Georgia senator Richard B. Russell spearheaded an effort to congressionally undo Executive Order 8801 with a bill that would have given military members the right to state whether they wished to serve with members of another race. A year later, Mississippi representative Arthur Winstead put forward a similar bill. Both congressional bills ultimately failed in part due to opposition from the Joint Staff.106
For the next two decades, segregationist politics cast a shadow, and at times hampered the Department of Defense’s integration efforts. A historian does not have to look hard to find examples. The writings of Hanson W. Baldwin are a case in point. Baldwin, a military journalist who was awarded the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for his World War II reporting from Guadalcanal and the Western Pacific, often wrote critically of non-whites. For instance, in 1959, Baldwin wrote an article for the widely circulated Saturday Evening Post titled “Our Fighting Men Have Gone Soft.” Therein, he criticized the current trajectory of the Department of Defense, particularly the department’s then decade long integration initiative, which according to Baldwin was resulting in a “downward, not upward” trajectory in military effectiveness.107
Baldwin, of course, was not alone in thinking this way. It is well documented that segregationist resistance to integration extended through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and therefore the Department of Defense and other federal agencies were often caught in the crosshairs of the wider social and political debate over racial integration.

The Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA) maintains several documents and historical interviews in its holdings in addition to the documents hyperlinked within in this article This includes several files contained within the Alan L. Gropman Papers, Call No. 168-7061, such as the 1962 Department of Defense publication titled Integration and the Negro Officer and a historical interview with Lieutenant General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. Additionally, AFHRA maintains several World War II Era documents (not already hyperlinked in this article) pertaining to segregation that may be of interest to Airmen, the public, and researchers alike. They include but are not limited to documents such as the interracial marriage case files several black military service members during World War II, which inform the unequal treatment many black service members would continue to face until to the Supreme Court’s landmark opinion Loving v. Virginia (1967), and the February 1944 Department of Army report titled A Preliminary Report on Attitudes of Negro Soldiers.

1 The conclusions and opinions expressed in this research paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, or the United States Air Force.

2 Executive Order 9981: Desegregation of the Armed Forces, July 26, 1946, Harry S. Truman Presidential Library (Independence, MO), available at

3 See Matthew F. Delmont, Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II Home and Abroad (New York, NY: Viking Press, 2022), 25-63; Alan M. Osur, Separate and Unequal: Race Relations in the AAF During World War II (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air Force History and Museums Programs, 2000), 36, available at

4 See, e.g., West A. Hamilton, “The Negroes’ Historical and Contemporary Role in National Defense,” Hampton Conference on National Defense, November 25-26, 1940, available at

5 “Council of War,” October 8, 1775, reprinted in 2 The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary Series (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1987).

6 General George Washington, “General Orders,” December 30, 1775, reprinted in Morris J. MacGregor, Jr., and Bernard C. Nalty, 1 Blacks in the United States Armed Forces: Basic Documents (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 1977), 36. See also Patrick J. Charles, Washington’s Decision: The Story of George Washington’s Decision to Reaccept Black Enlistments in the Continental Army (Charleston, SC: Book Surge 2006), 61-77.

7 See, e.g., Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Herbert Aptheker, The Negro in the American Revolution (New York, NY: International Publishers, 1940). It is worth noting that not all the original thirteen states permitted blacks to serve within their respective militia ranks. South Carolina and Georgia, despite repeated requests by the likes of Henry Laurens, James Madison, Benjamin Lincoln, and Nathaniel Greene, each of whom urged the Southern states to accept the arming and training of black slaves to fight the British, outright rejected the idea throughout the Revolutionary War. See Charles, Washington’s Decision, pp. 131-34.

8 See generally Gary B. Nash, The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).

9 National Militia Act, May 8, 1792, ch. 33, 1 Stat. 271.
10 For those interested in learning more about black military service up through the Civil War, the National Archives provides a useful starting point. See The Negro in the Military Service of the United States, 1639-–1886, M858, 5 reels. The Library of Congress houses a separate, but related collection. See William A. Gladstone Afro-American Military Collection, available at

11 Philip S. Foner, Blacks in the American Revolution (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1976), 3.

12 See generally George Moore, Historical Notes on the Employment of Negroes in the American Revolution (1862).
13 See, e.g., 39 Congressional Globe, First Session 1839, 2774 (1866).

14 For more on the Black Codes, see Barry A. Crouch, “‘All the Vile Passions’: The Texas Black Code of 1866,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 97 (1993): 12-34; Joe M. Richardson, “Florida Black Codes,” Florida Historical Quarterly 47 (1969): 365-79; Theodore Brantner Wilson, The Black Codes of the South (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1965); James B. Browning, “The North Carolina Black Code,” Journal of Negro History 15 (1930): 461-73.

15 See generally Michael Kent Curtis, No State Shall Abridge: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Bill of Rights (Chapel Hill, NC: Duke University Press, 1990).

16 See, e.g., Caleb McDaniel, “The South Only Embraces States’ Rights as it Lost Control of the Federal Government,” The Atlantic, November 1, 2017, available at

17 See, e.g., James Oliver Norton, “Confronting Slavery and Revealing the ‘Lost Cause’,” National Park Service, available at

18 L.D. Reddick, “The Negro Policy of the United States Army, 1775-1945,” Journal of Negro History 34 (1949): 9, 18-20.

19 W.E.B. Du Bois, “Close Ranks,” The Crisis 16 (July 1918): 111, available at

20 Lee Finkle, “The Conservative Aims of Militant Rhetoric: Black Protest During World War II,” Journal of American History 60 (1973): 692, 692-93.

21 Morris J. MacGregor, Jr., Integration of the Armed Forces 1940-1965 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1981), 7, available at

22 Army War College, Employment of Negro Man Power in War (1925), 2, available at

23 Ibid., p. 4.

24 Ibid.

25 Ulysses Lee, The Employment of Negro Troops (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1966), 42-43, available at One notable example is that during the Civil War, rather than utilize the same infantry training manual used for whites, the War Department created a separate training manual for blacks. See U.S. Infantry Tactics for the Instruction, Exercise, and Manueveres, of the Soldier, A Company, Line of Skirmishers, and Battalion; for the Use of the Colored Troops of the United States Infantry (New York, NY: War Department, 1863).

26 Carter G. Woodson, The Negro in Our History (Washington, DC: Associated Publishers, 1922), 527.

27 Delmont, Half American, pp. 25-63.

28  Finkle, “The Conservative Aims of Militant Rhetoric,” p. 694.

29 James G. Thompson, “Should I Sacrifice to Live ‘Half-American?’,” Pittsburgh Courier (PA), January 3, 1942, p. 3.

30 Ibid.

31 See, e.g., Westbrook Pegler, “The Guiltiest of All Agitators Are those who Pretend to Fight Against Group Hatreds,” Albuquerque Tribune (NM), November 15, 1943, p. 8; Westbrook Pegler, “Class Prejudice,” Tampa Tribune (FL), July 1, 1943, p. 4; “Mr. Westbrook Pegler and the Negro Press,” Jackson Advocate (MS), May 9, 1942, p. 8.

32 Memorandum from General George C. Marshall to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, “Report of Judge William H. Hastie, Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War, dated September 22, 1941,” December 1, 1941 (“The Army cannot accomplish…a [racial] solution, and should not be charged with the undertaking. The settlement of vexing racial problems cannot be permitted to complicate the tremendous task of the War Department and thereby jeopardize discipline and morale...The problems presented with reference to utilizing negro personnel in the Army should be faced squarely. In doing so, the following facts must be recognized: first, that the War Department cannot ignore the social relationship between negroes and whites which has been established by the American people through custom and habit; second, that either through lack of educational opportunities or other causes the level of intelligence and occupational skill of the negro population is considerably below that of the white; third, that the Army will attain its maximum strength only if it is personnel is properly placed in accordance with the capabilities of individuals; and fourth, that experiments within the army in the solution of social problems are fraught with danger to efficiency, discipline, and morale.”); Letter from General George C. Marshall to Senator H.C. Lodge, Jr., September 27, 1940 (“The War Department has been deeply concerned by unmistakable evidence of an extensive campaign being conducted at the present time to force a change in [our segregation] policy. The present exceedingly difficult period of building up a respectable and dependable military force for the protection of this country is not the time for critical experiments, which would inevitably have a highly destructive effect on morale—meaning military efficiency.”). See also Memorandum from Colonel John R. Deane, War Department General Staff, to William H. Hastie, Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War, July 14, 1942 (“For the War Department to attempt the solution by regulation or fial of a complicated social problem which has perplexed this country for a number of years is bound to produce diversions that may go so far as to affect the full effectiveness of our war effort. The intermingling of the races in messing and housing would not only be a variation form well established policies of the Department, but it does not accord with the existing customs of the country as a whole.”).
33 See, e.g., Memorandum from Colonel Elliot D. Cooke to the War Department Inspector General, “Special Mission Performed for the Chief of Staff in Connection with Colored Troops,” June 25, 1942. See also MacGregor, Integration of the Armed Forces 1940-1965, p. 42.

34 Memorandum from the War Department’s Military Intelligence Division, G-2 to the War Department’s Assistant Chief of Staff, G-3, “The Negro Problem in the Army,” July 17, 1942.

35 Ibid.

36 A February 1943 opinion poll conducted by the black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, is illustrative. The poll asked black citizens: “Do you feel that the negro should fight against segregation even where it is the accept pattern of the community?” The respondents overwhelmingly answered “yes” to the question (89.1%), including a super majority of Southern blacks (86.6%). See “Citizens Will Continue to Fight Segregation: Poll Shows South, North Agree that Jim Crow Must Go,” Pittsburgh Courier (PA), February 20, 1943, p. 4.
37 Selective Training and Service Act, September 16, 1940, ch. 720, 54 Stat. 885.

38 The change in War Department Policy can be found in newspapers across the country. See, e.g., “Dept. to Utilize Services in Defense Program on ‘Equitable Basis’,” Gazette and Daily (York, PA), October 10, 1940, p. 2. The change in policy also appeared as a War Department memorandum. See Memorandum from War Department Adjutant General’s Office to Commanding Generals of All Armies, Corps, Areas and Departments and Chiefs of Arms and Services, “War Department Policy in Regard to Negroes,” October 16, 1940.
39 Ibid.

40 Ibid.

41 Executive Order 8802: Reaffirming Policy of Full Participation in the Defense Program by All Persons, Regardless of Race, Creed, Color, or National Origin, and Directing Certain Action in Furtherance of Said Policy, June 25, 1941, available at

42 See MacGregor, Integration of the Armed Forces 1940-1965, pp. 20-24; see also Alan L. Gropman, The Air Force Integrates 1945-1964 (Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, 1978), 6-7, available at

43 This was apparently intentional. As Secretary of War Stimson noted in his diary, “[T]he Army had adopted rigid requirements for literacy mainly to keep down the number of colored troops…” Phillip McGuire, “Desegregation of the Armed Forces: Black Leadership, Protest and World War II,” Journal of Negro History (1983): 147, 148 (quoting Stimson diary entry for May 12, 1942).

44 “Dept. to Utilize Services in Defense Program on ‘Equitable Basis’,” Gazette and Daily (York, PA), October 10, 1940, p. 2. President Franklin D. Roosevelt received a significant amount of criticism from the black press for approving the War Department’s segregationist policy. For President Roosevelt’s response, see Statement by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, undated 1940, available at

45 Ibid. See also Letter from General George C. Marshall to Senator H.C. Lodge, Jr., September 27, (1940) (“It is the policy of the War Department not to intermingle colored and white enlisted personnel in the same regimental organization…to ignore [this policy] would produce situations destructive of morale and therefore definitely detrimental to the preparations for national defense in this emergency….The existing policy has been proven satisfactory over a long period of years.”).

46 Victor H. Cohen, Classification and Assignment of Enlisted Men in the Army Air Arm 1917-1945 (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Historical Division, 1953), 120 (quoting letter from General Henry “Hap” Arnold to Senator Robert F. Wagner, October 8, 1940), available at

47 William H. Hastie, “On the Negro in the Army,” September 22, 1941.
48 War Department, Research Branch, Special Division Services of Supply, Attitudes of Enlisted Men Toward Negroes for Air Force Duty (November 1942), 1-3.

49 War Department, Research Branch, Special Service Division Services of Supply, Attitudes of White Enlisted Men Toward Sharing Facilities with Negro Troops (July 1942), 1-5.
50 George Gallup, “Many in South Dissatisfied with Way Administration Handles Negro Problem,” Tampa Bay Times (FL), August 28, 1943, p. 4.

51 Ibid.

52 Memorandum from the War Department’s Military Intelligence Division, G-2 to the War Department’s Assistant Chief of Staff, G-3, “The Negro Problem in the Army,” July 17, 1942, 7. See also Memorandum for the Assistant Chief of Staff, “Negro Civilians & Military Personnel Alexandria, Louisiana, and Vicinity,” May 8, 1942.
53 Letter from General George C. Marshall to Senator John H. Bankhead, August 6, 1942.
54 Memorandum from William H. Hastie, Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War, to Lieutenant General Henry “Hap” Arnold, July 3, 1942. Months later, Hastie resigned due to the War Department’s continual failure to adequately address many of the racial disparities faced by black service members. For Hastie’s editorial following his resignation, see William H. Hastie, “Only One Branch is Open to Us,” Pittsburgh Courier (PA), February 20, 1943, pp. 1, 4.  For an extended version of this editorial as published by the NAACP, see William H. Hastie, On Clipped Wings: The Story of Jim Crow in the Army Air Corps (1943), available at
55 Memorandum from Colonel Elliot D. Cooke to the War Department Inspector General, “Special Mission Performed for the Chief of Staff in Connection with Colored Troops,” June 25, 1942.
56 Ibid.

57 MacGregor, Integration of the Armed Forces 1940-1965, pp. 39-45; Osur, Separate and Unequal, pp. 37-40.

58 See, e.g., Letter from Henry L. Stimson to New York Representative Hamilton Fish, February 19, 1944, available at

59 Memorandum from Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers, Headquarter European Theater of Operations, to Commanding General Eighth Air Force, “Racial Problems,” October 25, 1943.
60 Memorandum from General Henry “Hap” Arnold to Chief of the Air Staff, April 28, 1944. See also Memorandum from General Henry “Hap” Arnold, “Racial Difficulties within the Army Air Forces, undated 1944.

61 For a useful guide concerning the War Department’s policies on race at the start of 1944, see J.S. Leonard, “Digest of War Department Policy Pertaining to Negro Military Personnel,” January 1, 1944, available at

62 War Department, Command of Negro Troops, Pamphlet 20-6 (February 29, 1944), 1.
63 Ibid.

64 See generally War Department, Leadership and the Negro Soldier (October 1944), available at

65 See, e.g., Memorandum from Truman K. Gibson, Jr., Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War, to the War Department Adjutant General, June 20, 1944.
66 “‘Negro Solider in History’ Highlights Huachuca Course,” Mississippi Enterprise (Jackson, MS), February 24, 1945, p. 1.

67 War Department, The Negro Soldier (Orientation Films, 1944), available at
68 War Department, Don’t Be a Sucker (Educational Files, 1945), available at
69 War Department, Army Talk: Prejudice!—Roadblock to Progress, Issue 70 (May 5, 1945), reprinted in full in War Week (May 1945), pp. 11-15, available at

70 Memorandum from Major General W.F. Tompkins to Commanding General, Army Air Forces et al, “Participation of Negro Troops in the Post-War Military Establishment [with Enclosures),” May 23, 1945.
71 It appears that the study was also prompted because of congressional pressure. See, e.g., Letter from Illinois Representative William L. Dawson to John J. McCloy, Assistant Secretary of War, February 28, 1944, available at

72 Memorandum for the Chief of Staff, “Participation of Negro Troops in the Post-War Military Establishment,” undated. The committee was instructed to provide these recommendations at the request of John J. McCloy, Assistant Secretary of War. See Memorandum from John J. McCloy to the Advisory Committee on Special Troop Policy, “Participation of Negro Troops in the Postwar Military Establishment,” September 1, 1944.
73 See Memorandum from Major General W.F. Tompkins to Commanding General, Army Air Forces et al, “Participation of Negro Troops in the Post-War Military Establishment [with Enclosures),” May 23, 1945.
74 The Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA) maintains copies of many of the Army Air Forces historical reports titled “Participation of Negro Troops in the Post-War Military Establishment.” They are contained with the Alan L. Gropman Papers, Call No. 168-7061.

75 See generally Headquarters I Troop Carrier Command, “Appendices for ‘Utilization of Negro Personnel Within I Troop Carrier Command,” July 1945.
76 I Troop Carrier Command, “Utilization of Negro Personnel Within I Troop Carrier Command,” July 1, 1945.

77 Memorandum for the Chief of Staff from Lieutenant Colonel Hippert, “Participation of Negro Troops in the Post-War Military Establishment,” September 17, 1945, 20 (emphasis added).
78 Ibid., p. 12.

79 Ibid., pp. 13-14.
80 Ibid., pp. 26-28. See also Major General C.C. Chauncey, Deputy Chief of Air Staff, “Summary Sheet: Participation of Negro Troops in the Post-War Military Establishment,” October 8, 1945.

81 Memorandum from Lieutenant General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, Assistant Chief of Air Staff, to General Henry “Hap” Arnold, “Negro Training Program,” October 16, 1945.

82 Memorandum from Truman Gibson, Jr., Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War, to John J. McCloy, Assistance Secretary of War, August 8, 1945, available at

83 Ibid.

84 Memorandum from Lieutenant Colonel Davidson Sommers to John J. McCloy, Assistance Secretary of War, August 8, 1945, available at

85 Ibid.

86 Memorandum from Thomas T. Handy, Deputy Chief of Staff, to Lieutenant General Alvan C. Gillem, Jr., “Utilization of Manpower,” October 4, 1945, in War Department Special Board on Negro Manpower, Policy for Utilization of Negro Manpower in the Post-War Army (November 1945), 4 (hereinafter Policy for the Utilization of Negro Manpower in the Post-War Army).

87 Unsigned Memorandum, undated, Policy for the Utilization of Negro Manpower in the Post-War Army, p. 34. See also Memorandum from Lieutenant Colonel D.R. Le Master to Ninth Air Force, “Participation of Negro Troops in Post-War Military Establishment,” undated 1945 (“Utilization of Negro soldiers in future emergencies in assignments calling for great skill is not generally recommended.”).
88 Gillem Board Final Report, Policy for the Utilization of Negro Manpower in the Post-War Army, pp. 91-93, 155-57.

89 Ibid., pp. 98-104. See also James C. Evans and David A. Lane, Jr., “Integration in the Armed Services,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 304 (1956): 78, 80.

90 See, e.g., Remarks of Howard C. Petersen, Assistant Secretary of War, at Luncheon for Negro Newspaper Publishers Association, March 1, 1946, available at

91 Circular No. 124, Utilization of Negro Manpower in the Postwar Army Policy, April 27, 1946.
92 This is not to say the War Department did not try. On April 12, 1947, the War Department published Army Talk 170, which sought to educate military members on the particulars of Circular No. 124. See War Department, Army Talk, Issue 170 (April 12, 1947), available at

93 Gropman, The Air Force Integrates 1945-1964, p. 72.

94 Delmont, Half American, pp. 263-76.

95 Ibid., p. 282.

96 Ibid., pp. 281-82.

97 President’s Committee on Civil Rights, To Secure These Rights (December 1947), available at

98 Delmont, Half American, p. 284.

99 Letter from Robert K. Carr to President’s Committee on Civil Rights, June 10, 1947, available at

100 Ibid.

101 Ibid.

102 Harry S. Truman, Special Message to Congress on Civil Rights, February 2, 1948, available at

103 Executive Order 9981: Desegregation of the Armed Forces, July 26, 1946, Harry S. Truman Presidential Library (Independence, MO), available at It was not long after Truman issued Executive Order 9981 that the Department of the Army put out its study titled The Negro in the Army: Policy and Practice. See James C. Evans, The Negro and the Army: Policy and Practice (July 31, 1948).
104 For the Department of Defense’s interim efforts, particularly as reported to the Fahy Committee, see Freedom to Serve: Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1950), available at For the Fahy Committee’s materials and correspondence, see Records of the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, Record Group 220, Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, (Independence, MO), available at

105 See, e.g., United States Air Force, A Report on the First Year of Implementation of Current Policies Regarding Negro Personnel, July 9, 1950.
106 Clarence Mitchell, “The Status of Racial Integration in the Armed Services,” Journal of Negro Education 23 (1954): 203, 204-6.

107 Hanson W. Baldwin, “Our Fighting Men Have Gone Soft,” Saturday Evening Post, August 8, 1959, pp. 13, 82, 84.

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