Throughout American history
until the end of World War I, the Navy had enlisted Negroes for general service, and Negro sailors had served and fought with credit throughout the fleet. After the First World War, however, the Navy halted Negro enlistments; and when they were opened again in 1932, Negroes were recruited only for service in the messman's branch.
This was the situation at the beginning of World War II and it continued until six months after Pearl Harbor. The Selective Service Act of 1940 provided that "in the selection and training of men under this Act, and in the interpretation and execution of the provisions of this Act, there shall be no discrimination against any person on account of race or color." This provision had no immediate effect in opening up general service ratings to Negroes, however, because the Navy continued to rely on voluntary recruiting until February 1943.
Consequently the Navy continued its peacetime policy of restricting Negroes to the messman's branch on the ground that "the enlistment of Negroes (other than as mess attendants) leads to disruptive and undermining conditions." In response to public inquiries, the Navy issued a statement explaining that "the policy of not enlisting men of the colored race for any branch of the naval service but the messman's branch was adopted to meet the best interests of general ship efficiency . . . . This policy not only serves the best interests of the Navy and the country, but serves as well the best interests of [Negroes] themselves."
After Pearl Harbor, however, the Navy was subjected to considerable pressure from Negro organizations to expand its utilization of Negroes. The Navy at first continued to insist on the exclusion of Negroes from general service, arguing that Negroes were not as adaptable or efficient as whites, and that segregation on shipboard was not feasible.
After several exchanges of memoranda, the President finally wrote to the Secretary of the Navy that the matter "should be determined by you and me." Consequently on April 7, 1942, the Navy announced that effective June 1 Negroes would be enlisted for general service as well as mess attendants. But these volunteers, the Navy made clear, would receive basic and advanced training in segregated camps and schools, would be utilized in segregated units, and would be limited in assignment to shore installations and harbor craft. Negroes in general service ratings would not be billeted in seagoing vessels, but would be used principally in construction battalions under the Bureau of Yards and Docks, in supply depots, ordnance stations, and yard (harbor) craft