An overview of Black Quartermaster, Transportation, Air Defense, Medical, Chemical and Engineer units that were involved in combat during World War Two
Service Units Around the Word
The Employment of Negro Troops
U.S. Center of Military History, Washington, DC
Most Negro service units never got close to the enemy, but some did, as elements of landing forces and through attachments to divisions and other combat units engaged at the front.
For the most part Negro units in Pacific landing forces were quartermaster, port, and engineer types, attached to divisions, engineer special brigades, construction groups, or boat and shore battalions. These units usually reverted to garrison forces once an island was declared secure. For the invasion of Angaur in the Palaus on 17 September 1944, for example, the assault echelon contained one white and one Negro engineer aviation battalion and one Negro port company among other service units needed for immediate use on the beaches. One port company and a platoon of a quartermaster service company were attached to the 81st Division for its landings; a Dukw (amphibious truck) company was attached to the assault forces. The first echelon contained a quartermaster service company, an engineer service company, and a laundry truck company. The technical, bombardment, and antiaircraft units in these echelons were white.
When assault forces departed Humboldt Bay, New Guinea, on 13 October 1944 to take part in the Leyte landings on 20 October, the 394th Port Battalion’s 609th Port Company had one platoon with each of the three battalions of the 34th Infantry, each aboard a different ship with the battalion to which it was attached. While the ships were under fire, the three elements of the 609th assisted in unloading troops and equipment. The three platoons finished their tasks in record time. Two then proceeded to shore where the infantry had advanced about two hundred yards in from the beach. The third platoon moved to a Navy ship and discharged cargo until nightfall. Through the night, the port troops received intense small arms and automatic weapons fire, suffering their first casualty other than men wounded in raids at Humboldt Bay.
The next morning the two platoons on shore went back into the bay to help the third platoon complete its unloading task. For the next three days, while enemy planes raided the harbor, the entire company, except the headquarters, lived and worked on the Liberty ship D. Fields, working five hatches from sunrise to sunset and using every available man, including cooks and kitchen police, who, since they had to be aboard to feed the men, pitched in between times. A burning Japanese bomber, hit by American antiaircraft fire, went into a dive and hit the ship while the company’s gangs were working the hold, causing additional casualties. Two days later, when the company had returned to the beach, a typhoon blew in, injuring two more men. While men of the unit were salvaging cargo in another ship already damaged by enemy bombs, a hatch exploded; of the six men in the hold two were killed, one later died, and two others were severely burned.
The 609th Port Company remained on the beach through December, unloading, sorting, and delivering supplies through continuous air raids. On 10 December a nitroglycerin explosion of unknown cause demolished its entire camp area, killing and wounding several men. Despite air raids that brought more losses and despite poor lighterage, the unit averaged two to three hundred tons for each eight-hour period.
In the Iwo Jima landings, beginning on 19 February 1945, the 442d and 592d Port Companies and the 471st, 473d, and 476th Amphibian Truck Companies were assigned to the Garrison Force but attached to the V Amphibious Corps (Marine) for the assault. One port company remained attached to corps; the other went to the 5th Marine Division. One Dukw company was attached to the 13th Marine Regiment, one remained attached to corps, and the third was attached to the 4th Marine Division with the primary mission of hauling ammunition and cargo for the 14th Marine Regiment and evacuating casualties from the beaches. The 592d Port Company, divided into three groups, landed in the fourth wave and began unloading small boats as they arrived on the beach; three of its crane operators went to the 5th Pioneer Battalion where they operated eight-ton cranes on the beach. The Dukw companies, carrying ammunition and supplies between ship and shore and returning to ships with wounded from the beaches, were given full credit by the Marine Corps for their work in the Iwo Jima landings.
For the larger landings in Europe Negro units were but a small part of the forces scheduled for the initial landings on 6 June 1944. The First Army’s assault forces on D-day at OMAHA Beach had less than 500 Negroes out of 29,714 troops. These were one section of the 3275th Quartermaster Service Company and the 320th Antiaircraft Balloon Battalion (VLA) (less one battery). In the force of 31,912, landing on UTAH Beach, approximately 1,200 were Negroes–troops of the remaining battery of the 320th Balloon Battalion, the 582d Engineer Dump Truck Company, the 385th Quartermaster Truck Company, and the 490th Port Battalion with its 226th, 227th, 228th, and 229th Port Companies. In the follow-up forces arriving later on D-day and on the following days there were more of the needed service troops, including quartermaster truck companies attached to divisions, the100th Ordnance Ammunition Battalion, which was to supply ammunition to the First Army across Europe, amphibian truck companies to work across the beaches and, later, at heavily damaged ports like Cherbourg and Le Havre, and medical sanitary companies for the evacuation of the wounded to the United Kingdom.
Occasionally, special purpose units were employed in landings. At Salerno, the first Mediterranean assault landing to use smoke screens extensively, Navy and Army units laid screens on and off the beaches over an area twenty miles long to protect landing craft from enemy fire. In the D-day assault on 9 September 1943, a detachment of the 24th Chemical Decontamination Company, equipped with M1 smoke pots, and Navy personnel with generators mounted in boats screened the Paestum beaches where boats were being unloaded. During the following days the unit operated thirty-six naval mechanical generators ashore. The men laid a smoke haze daily at twilight to conceal anchorage and unloading areas from enemy bombers and screened the beaches during alerts. Smoke generally covered an area of twenty to thirty square miles. Not a single ship in the smoke cloud at Paestum was hit by enemy bombs. The 24th, with other smoke companies, moved to Naples to maintain the smoke screen there. For the Anzio landings on 22 January 1944 the 24th was attached to VI Corps to provide smoke as needed. Equipped with eight Navy generators and a quantity of smoke pots it went ashore, laying its first screen on 24 January. More generators were brought in later. A British smoke unit took over the operation of smoke pots on 8 February, leaving the 24th free to operate mechanical generators, now thirty-six in number. These units ran the antiaircraft smoke screen until 24 February, when the 179th Smoke Generator Company, a white unit, arrived to extend the line to Nettuno. At Arzio, the smoke operators lived the life of front-line infantrymen, with foxholes and caves dug, the Fifth Army chemical officer reported, so that “a German shell would have to execute a corkscrew to get at them.” For its work at Anzio the 24th Decontamination Company received one of the first four Fifth Army plaques and the first awarded to a chemical unit. This company later operated chemical depots.
The first platoon of the 387th Engineer Battalion (separate) landed in the initial wave at Anzio, going ashore from LCT’s at 0400 on 22 January 1944 with the advance shore party two miles south of Nettuno. The remainder of its Companies B and D, after sitting through two air attacks on an LST offshore, landed in the afternoon, dug foxholes, erected shelter tents, and began unloading supplies. The rest of the battalion, though arriving on D-Day, had to wait, as corps troops, until the next morning to land. With hand tools, they worked on the maintenance of the overburdened roads. One sergeant blazed a shorter trail through mine fields for the medics and directed their removal of wounded soldiers. The men of the 387th unloaded ships into Dukw’s and handled supplies on the beaches through many weeks of day and night air and artillery attacks. They used a large graph, posted daily, to spur unloading. For seven days the 500 men of the battalion averaged 1,940 tons a day, all handled by hand. Gradually the companies of the battalion were released from port duties. They moved to construction, operation of the engineer depot, maintenance of the runway at Nettuno airport, and operation of quarries. At times they were attached to white engineer combat and aviation units. This battalion, described by the Associated Press in a dispatch of 29 February 1944 as having been under “more fire than any other Negro unit in the Fifth Army,” remained at the Anzio-Nettuno beachhead for five months. It lost four officers and eleven enlisted men killed, three officers and fifty-eight enlisted men wounded, and received three silver stars for gallantry during the period. During the attack on Rome it maintained the Nettuno-La Ferriere and, later, the Anzio road. It operated an asphalt mixing plant, salvaged steel, repaired submarine cable, operated trash and rubbish dumps, unloaded Bailey bridges, and furnished bulldozers, air compressors, and motorized graders to various jobs, all in heavily mined areas. For a separate battalion, intended to do only rudimentary labor, the 387th was working ahead of itself. While attached to the Negro 92d Engineer General Service Regiment for operations on 9 June 1944, one of its companies removed its first Bailey bridge. The movement of the 387th, with all the impedimenta gathered during the past few months for its varied jobs, was now difficult. “When you fill all the vehicles, you have loaded all the equipment, but have about 1005 men left over,” the battalion described it. It returned to Anzio at the end of June. There it took over the work of the white 540th Combat Engineers, a unit with which it had worked during the beachhead days. Then it had repaired bombed water and sewage systems; now it built and removed Bailey bridges. The battalion’s companies began to work independently at new and different duties. Two of these companies, never having heard of a bridge train, were told late in June, “You are now a bridge train!” They became bridge companies for the American IV Corps and the French Expeditionary Corps. The companies had to learn quickly the nomenclature and the loading method for all Bailey and treadway bridge parts, train thirty new drivers for 2 l/2-ton trucks, and train eight new drivers for six-ton Brockway bridge construction trucks (vehicles that mounted hydraulic cranes for lifting and placing bridge parts). Additional mechanics to maintain this equipment, which was already in poor condition, had to be found. The companies trained them. These companies delivered bridges to combat engineers, a job on which one officer and two enlisted men lost their lives. Another company took over the Fifth Army Bridge Depot on 5 July, learning all new terms, handling all types of stream crossing equipment, and learning to repair pneumatic floats, assault boats, and floating Baileys. When two other depots opened, the company operated these, acquiring first one and then two Italian engineer companies to do the bulk of the hand-loading and unloading. These depots moved by leapfrogging, following the combat units of Fifth Army. At Florence, in November 1944, one depot was flooded; the company in charge then issued Bailey bridge accessories from an assault boat.
Though they were neither trained nor equipped for it, truck and troop-transport units attached to divisions had frequent contacts with the enemy and sometimes joined in the fighting. Some of these units were attached so long to the same divisions that they were treated as organic units. Units to which these companies were attached often had misgivings about them. They wondered if the truckers would continue their hauling when the going got tough. Some found justification for their misgivings, but the commander (Brig Gen Charles Lanham, Cdr, 22nd Inf Regiment, 4th Infantry Division) of an infantry regiment motorized by the attachment of two Negro truck companies-companies that were “not hand-picked; they were just plain, ordinary soldiers like all the rest of us, sweating out a job that was going to be long, hard, dirty, and bloody” described their actions as part of a special task force attacking German positions south of St. Lo when, shortly after daylight, the regiment struck the enemy:
“As daylight neared, confusion mounted. Our columns clogged in endless traffic jams, bogged down in bomb craters, crawled through detours over broken fields, struggled across improvised stream crossings. All around us the night erupted with flaming towns. German artillery and bombs added to the confusion. Every once in a while a huge German tank would pound out of the darkness and cut into our column, thinking it his. Running fights ebbed and flowed about us. As daylight broke, we were literally cheek by jowl with the Germans-in the same villages, in the same fields, in the same hedgerows, in the same farm yards. A hundred sporadic fights broke out-to the front, to the flanks, to the rear, within the columns, everywhere. It was early that morning that I first became aware of the fact that our Negro truck drivers were leaving their trucks and whooping it up after German soldiers all over the landscape. This, I might add, is not hearsay. I personally saw it over and over again in the early hours of that wild morning. But in addition to my own personal observation, many reports reached me throughout the day of the voluntary participation of these troops in battle and their gallant conduct.
The 3398th Quartermaster Truck Company, attached to the 6th Armored Division moving into Brittany, put out its defenses and joined an armed reconnaissance with other units in division trains when it was reported that 200 enemy troops were headed for the area where this truck company was located. Late in the afternoon eight German planes attacked the trains area. Two officers and two enlisted men of the truck company teamed up to capture a pilot parachuting from one of the three planes shot down. The company’s convoys were attacked thereafter by enemy planes, and trucks were struck by shrapnel and shellfire. The 57th Ordnance Ammunition Company, during the pursuit across France, found itself engaging sixty-five of the enemy at Peronne when no other American units were in the area. It killed fifty and captured the other fifteen, its members receiving two Croix de Guerre, one Silver Star, and one Bronze Star for the exploit.
Another truck unit, the 666th, supplying the 101st and 82d Airborne Divisions over “Hell’s Highway” to Eindhoven and Nijmegen, Holland, had trucks destroyed and drivers killed and injured by bombing. Carrying troops in support of the 82d Airborne Division in February 1945, it had several trucks shelled near Schmitt, Germany, with losses of infantrymen and drivers. Enemy shells and bombs were not this unit’s main concern. It considered its greatest difficulties to be shell fragments, glass, bullets, and cartridge cases exposed in roadways when warmer weather brought thaws. In one 24-hour period the company had over a hundred punctures on its forty odd vehicles. The 666th carried forward 2,800 tons and 17,350 soldiers for 188,587 vehicle miles over icy and snowbound roads between 1 January and 31 March 1945. For its “outstanding accomplishments” it received a formal commendation from III Corps.
Medical ambulance companies were often as close to the enemy and as closely associated with forward units as the truck companies. The 588th Medical Ambulance Company, attached to the 66th Medical Group, worked in such close support of the 7th Armored Division as it spearheaded the XX (“Ghost”) Corps drive across France that its ambulances were an integral part of the division so far as rations, gasoline convoys, communications, priorities in bridge crossings, and bivouac sites were concerned. Armored divisions and their medical companies moved so fast that the length of the ambulance haul to the rear was usually double that of ambulances working with infantry divisions.
Early in the Battle of the Bulge, on 20 December 1944, the enemy attacked the 7th Armored Division’s Trains near Samree, Belgium. The division quartermaster, with troops of his own section, Negro troops of the attached 3967th Troop Transport Company, and white troops of a platoon of antiaircraft guns from Battery D, 203d Antiaircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion, threw up a defense and held the enemy off for about four hours while awaiting expected help from the 3d Armored Division located to the north. Medium tanks dispatched to relieve the quartermaster never arrived. The antiaircraft gunners lost their weapons to enemy fire, but not before they had knocked out two enemy tanks and run out of ammunition. The quartermaster and antiaircraft troops finally had to pull out. After the Battle of the Bulge was over and the 7th Armored Division had a lull sufficient for training programs, each unit of the trains, including the 3967th, was given a 57-mm. gun and instruction in its use. Both Negro and white quartermaster units in the Bulge did what they could to hold off the enemy.