Half American Cover

Half American

The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad

Matthew F. Delmont

Viking, New York, 2022, 400 pages

Book Review published on: April 19, 2024

During World War II, while battles and campaigns raged, the Black freedom struggle for civil rights waged as well, both at home and abroad. The United States fielded a Jim Crow army to fight fascism while practicing it themselves, according to African American activists and soldiers in the 1940s. In Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad, Matthew F. Delmont “aims to tell the definitive history of Black Americans and World War II” (xii). This is a tall order for any book, and while Delmont falls short of that lofty aspiration, through a series of vignettes he weaves the thread of limited citizenship experienced by African Americans and, more specifically, service members during World War II. Each chapter provides a glimpse at the struggles African American service members faced while doing their duty to the country that lynched, abused, and subjugated them and their communities.

Delmont’s narrative begins with the Black men who volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. The choice to start with voluntary military service for a foreign country before World War II sets the tone for the rest of the book, in that both the story of World War II for African Americans begins before 1942 and that “the stakes of fighting fascism were clear to Black Americans” (24). From here, Delmont turns to the conversations before 1941 regarding Black military service as well as employment discrimination associated with the growing defense industry. The book continues throughout the war years, to include the Tuskegee Airmen, the Red Ball Express, the 92nd Division, and soldier activism in the Army. Delmont concludes with the heartbreaking return home for Black service members to Jim Crow America, as well as the long legacy of their military service and activism while in uniform.

This book is ideal for a novice in the field of African American military history and more specifically Black military service in World War II. Delmont’s flowing narrative will maintain interest and keep the pages turning due to accessible and clear writing. However, his broad scope also means that not many topics received their deserved in-depth examination, which will leave the reader wanting more. For example, his retelling of the Port Chicago explosion and resulting mutiny of Black sailors, or Black volunteers in early 1945 for what would become integrated infantry units due to combat casualties in the European theater, were but two of the many topics that felt rushed. The book will grab the reader’s attention on these topics, but they will need to look elsewhere for a more thorough discussion on these historical events.

Half American is relevant and useful to the security community but not in the way that would be expected. While not operational military history, Delmont emphasizes the social and political influences on military service and how that impacts the soldiers who wore the uniform for the U.S. military. As such, it also sheds light on some current controversies surrounding race and military service such as the recent base renaming and ban on Confederate flags on military installations. Clearly, the subject of the book is relevant to how decisions and actions continue to have an impact decades later. Just for that reason alone, Delmont’s work is a helpful addition to the field of popular military history but not yet the final word.

Book Review written by: Amanda M. Nagel, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas