Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall had a daunting problem to solve: staffing the Army for a global war. Working with a reluctant Congress in 1940, the visionary Marshall instituted an unpopular peace-time draft for military service. One million men were conscripted into the Army, and one year later their service was extended. Before the end of their second year the United States had entered World War II.
Forever the pragmatist, General Marshall found or created opportunities for members of minority groups to serve in regular or special units. America in the 1940s was still a segregated society, and discrimination existed widely. Marshall was not intent on social engineering, but he did want to use anyone who wanted to serve. He had a world war to win.
As Marshall grew the Army to 8,000,000 in uniform by war’s end in 1945, he encouraged all able bodied men and women to serve. (By comparison active Army strength in 2015 was about 450,000.) Women, in particular, found Marshall’s constant support during WWII.
Starting with the formation of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in 1941 by Congressional act, he made this unit a full member of the Army in 1943 as the Women’s Army Corps and selected Col. Oveta Culp Hobby to lead it. Women served in support roles in the Navy as WAVEs and in the (Army) Air Corps as WASPs. About 1.2 million women served in all services during WWII.
Marshall crossed traditional boundaries to create special units formed along racial and ethnic lines. The famous Tuskegee Airmen grew from the needs for more airmen in fighter units. As chief of staff, Marshall was directly involved in the establishment of the military program for aviation at the Tuskegee Institute. Correspondence between Marshall and Dr. Frederick D. Patterson, president of the Tuskegee Institute, shows that Marshall expressed an interest in developments at the Tuskegee Institute throughout the war and offered his support to help the program succeed. Four hundred and fifty of the pilots who were trained at Tuskegee served in North Africa, Sicily and Italy from April 1943 until July 1944 when they were transferred to the 332nd Fighter Group in the 15th Air Force.
Native American “code talkers” were deployed to the Pacific by the Army and Marine Corps to use native languages for coded communication. Code talking, however, was pioneered by Cherokee and Choctaw during World War I and was used effectively during the Meuse Argonne offensive that Marshall planned.
Other Native American code talkers deployed by the Army during World War II included Lakota, Meskwaki, and Comanche soldiers.
In January 1943 General Marshall approved recommendations from the War Department to form all-Nisei combat units. This recommendation included reopening selective service to Japanese Americans. In an effort to avoid confusion, Nisei members of the 100th Battalion, 442 Regimental Combat Team fought with distinction in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany. Twenty-one members of this unit received the Medal of Honor, making it the most highly decorated unit in the history of the Army. Some 6,000 Nisei served in the Pacific theater, but their exploits were not well known. Part of this stems from the fact that there was no single Japanese-American unit in the Pacific. The Nisei were scattered throughout other units. Also because most of those serving in the Pacific were working for the Military Intelligence Service, their roles were classified.
Several years later Marshall as secretary of defense during the Korean War instituted the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, DACOWITS, and it still exists. The Committee is composed of civilian women and men who are appointed by the secretary of defense to provide advice and recommendations on matters and policies relating to the recruitment and retention, treatment, employment, integration, and well-being of professional women in the Armed Forces. Historically, DACOWITS’ recommendations have been instrumental in effecting changes to laws and policies pertaining to military women.