Fit for the fight
History textbooks often point to President Harry S. Truman’s 1948 Executive Order 9981 as the moment when racial discrimination was abolished in the U.S. Armed Forces. However, while the executive order stipulated an end to such segregation, military leaders delayed its implementation.
When the Korean War began in 1950, the Navy and Air Force had begun integrating their ranks, but the Army remained rigidly segregated, and many leaders openly disparaged the fighting ability of Black soldiers. In response to Truman’s order, Secretary of the Army Kenneth Royall insisted that African Americans were “fearful, unreliable and lacked the manly virtues of the warrior,” making them “unfit for the fight.”
“The Army is not out to make any social reforms,” said Army Chief of Staff Omar Bradley, who resolved that “the Army will not put men of different races in different companies. It will change that policy when the nation as a whole changes it.”
Despite this resistance, the Korean War came at a time when the role and percentage of African Americans in the military was on the rise. In the wake of World War II, as white GIs were happy to get home and resume their lives, the military – despite continued segregation – provided economic opportunities for Black troops and a haven from the most oppressive aspects of Jim Crow society.
South Carolina’s Leroy Williams recalled that “having no resources to go to college, I convinced my mother to let me volunteer for the Army” when he graduated from high school in 1947. For men like Williams, the military was viewed as a path to upward mobility that life in postwar America simply did not provide for them.
Many Black World War II veterans, like Ransom Wayman, re-enlisted in the Army after finding limited opportunities at home. Shot six times and captured by the Chinese in Korea, Wayman later would still consider the Army the best job he ever had.
As a result of continued Black enlistments, while the U.S. military quickly decommissioned between 1945 and 1947, African Americans’ presence in the Army increased from 10% to 16% over the same period. Truman’s 1948 executive order also inspired many Black men to join, believing the military would provide an equality of opportunity the greater American society lacked.
“Black men who enlisted in late 1948 and early 1949 expected to join an integrated military,” wrote historian Kimberly Phillips. “They heard about President Truman’s executive order, and they read about the military’s opportunities in the Black weeklies ... but they found a rigidly segregated Army” and “discovered that racial equality did not begin in the barracks or on the battlefield.”
The increased percentage of Black soldiers, many of whom were stationed in Japan and other areas of occupation in the Far East, meant that many of the first troops to arrive in Korea were all-Black units. Among the first full-strength battalions to arrive on the Pusan Perimeter in the summer of 1950 were the 24th Infantry Regiment of the 25th Division (of Buffalo Soldiers fame) and the 159th Field Artillery Battalion, which were joined to form the 24th Regimental Combat Team. As had been practice in the Army since the creation of the all-Black units in the Civil War, both were commanded by white leaders, with a mix of white and Black officers commanding subordinate elements.
While a number of the Black officers were combat veterans, many of the white officers – including the commander of the 24th Infantry Regiment, Gen. Horton White – had never led troops under fire. One veteran of the 24th, Al Brooks, believed the 24th was a “penal regiment for white officers who had screwed up. This was their last chance.”
A number of all-Black units took part in the United Nations’ first victory of the war, at Yechon on July 20, and were initially widely praised for their efforts. Gen. Douglas MacArthur said the 24th “fought a splendid delaying action against overwhelming odds ... (and) is making every yard the red Army gains increasingly more costly.”
However, long-seated prejudice against the fighting abilities of Black troops persisted, and even their successes were downplayed. Only weeks after the victory at Yechon, high-ranking officers declared there had been no real battle there, and asserted that the men of the 24th accomplished little more than securing an abandoned village. The downgrading of the successes of Black troops, along with the amplification of their failures, was a long-standing trope among Army leadership. Going back to their inception during the Civil War, all-Black units were regularly criticized from some sectors of Army leadership for not performing as well as white troops, with the most damning accusation that Blacks were susceptible to fleeing in front of the enemy.
An official Army War College study following World War I concluded that while “the Negro is physically qualified for combat duty ... he has not the physical courage of the white,” and “he simply cannot control himself in fear of some danger in the degree that the white can.” During World War II, members of the all-Black 92nd Division – the only all-Black infantry division to serve in Italy – were accused of abandoning their posts under fire, which resulted in demotions, transfers and even courts-martial. Overall, 378 enlisted men and
17 officers of the 92nd were tried in general courts-martial. The NAACP legal team, led by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, successfully appealed a number of those cases.
During the Korean War, Marshall again investigated claims of Black cowardice and defended African American soldiers accused of wrongdoing by the Army. He remarked that the charges “little varied from war to war. First come reports from the front of some heroic deed done by Negro soldiers ... and then suddenly the reports change. As if in a concerted effort to discredit the record of Negro fighting men, the tales we begin to hear are of incompetency, failure and cowardice – accounts which would make it appear that Negroes are not capable of combat duty and should be restricted to labor battalions.”
While most charges of Black cowardice in the U.S. military were unsubstantiated, such attacks dogged Black units throughout their history, and resurfaced again following a disastrous retreat by U.S. forces in late November 1950 at Kunu-ri. One white battalion commander, Melvin Blair, accused the African American and Turkish units of running “like rabbits” from the fight, a statement that was publicized widely back in the United States and later repeated in the official Army history of the war.
African American newspapers repudiated this account, quoting soldiers who blamed Blair’s ineptitude, not Black cowardice, for the disaster at Kunu-ri. Thomas Pettigrew, a Black warrant officer who was present at Blair’s command post when the Chinese attacked, described Blair as “hysterically and incoherently giving orders” to defend the post and denied that Black units had run.
While there certainly are a number of documented instances where both Black and white troops broke and ran in Korea, historians have concluded that Black troops performed no worse than white soldiers at Kunu-ri or anywhere else during the early months of the war, and that the criticism of Black units by white officers, such as Blair, might have been to deflect criticism of their own troops or themselves.
Nevertheless, the belief that the 24th “bugged out” dogged the reputation of the unit. Blair “bloodied the nose of the Negro” by implying that the 24th had cowered in the face of danger, according to Pittsburgh Courier correspondent Frank Whisonant, who asserted that Black troops were always blamed when things went bad, while the white officers got credit for any successes.
Ironically, the criticism of Black units by officers, as well as manpower demands put on the military during the Korean War, finally helped to bring about an end to segregation in the Army. After reports of poor performance by Black troops at the outset of the war, in September 1950 Maj. Gen. George Kean requested that the 8th Army remove the
all-Black 24th Infantry Regiment from the battlefield, because it had shown itself “untrustworthy and incapable of carrying out missions expected of an infantry regiment.” However, he was clear to point out that, unlike the assessment of others in Army leadership, the problem was not with Black soldiers but with segregated units.
Indeed, the first soldier to earn the Medal of Honor in Korea was a member of the 24th, Pfc. William Thompson. By this time, a number of military leaders concluded that all-Black units performed poorly not because they were Black but because they were segregated – often led by underqualified white officers (often Southerners, who Army leadership had historically put in charge of Black troops), who had been demoted to positions of leading Black units because of poor performance elsewhere. As a result, training, leadership and morale were all lacking in many all-Black units. Kean called on the Army to disband the 24th and reassign its men to other divisions, a request that was initially rejected.
Beginning in September 1950 there were some limited experiments in integration in the Army. Black tank commanders, gunners, gun loaders and drivers began serving with the 89th Medium Tank Battalion, and Black infantrymen in the 27th and 35th regiments of the 25th Division. The demand for manpower also helped bring about a more robust demand for integration from politicians in Washington who increasingly saw the segregation of the Army as inefficient and costly.
MacArthur rejected such calls, arguing that it was not practical to undergo such dramatic changes in the middle of a war. His dismissal by Truman in April 1951 for insubordination removed the final obstacle to integration. His replacement, Lt. Gen. Matthew Ridgway, declared segregation to be “wholly inefficient” to military effectiveness, as well as “both un-American and un-Christian,” and moved quickly to disband all-Black units and reassign their men. While “the Jim Crow barriers began to crumble under Gen. Douglas MacArthur,” reported Chicago Defender correspondent Alex Wilson, “it was Gen. Matthew Ridgway who in a forthright manner ordered an end to Army segregation in the Far East.”
However, while Black troops were supportive of integration, they were upset that only their divisions were retired, with all Black soldiers assigned to previously all-white units. Of the four historic all-Black regiments created after the Civil War – the famed Buffalo Soldier units – the all-Black 9th and 10th Calvary Regiments were deactivated in late 1950, and the 25th Infantry Regiment was broken up into battalions before being inactivated.
Finally, in October 1951, the last of the all-Black units, the 24th Infantry Regiment, was disbanded and its members reassigned. The decision to retire the historic all-Black regiments instead of integrating them, struck African American soldiers as a final slap in the face by the military. They disputed the Army’s rationale that due to incompetence on the battlefield the all-Black units had to be retired. Curtis Bolton, who served with the 24th and was a prisoner of war for three years, said, “I know that we fought as well as any other unit did, and the information has been distorted and stories too that are not true .... I would like for the records to reveal and tell the true story of the 24th.”
Thomas J. Ward Jr. is an award-winning historian and assistant dean in the School of Arts and Sciences at Farmingdale State College in New York.