Black Korean War regiment gets tarnish off record

July 26, 1995|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Sun Staff Writer

For more than four decades, veterans of the U.S. Army's last all-black unit were shamed by their country's official history, which characterized them as cowardly and inept soldiers during the Korean War.

Yesterday, only days before the unveiling of the Korean War Memorial in Washington, the Army finally sought to soften that blow, rewriting its official history to attribute the 24th Regiment's failings in combat to the mistrust, hostility and confusion caused by racial segregation.

"Racial segregation," yesterday's report by the Army's Center of Military History said, created a "lack of mutual confidence and respect between the black soldier and his white commanders [that] had all but destroyed the sense of oneness, mutual dependency and self-worth in black units that are the chief constituents of good military performance."

The report, a summary of a 600-page book now being printed, is the conclusion of a years-long effort by the 24th Infantry Regimental Combat Team Association, which had pushed the Army to review its official history of the Korean War. That history details the regiment's many troubles in Korea, which resulted in numerous court-martials for desertions and cowardice.

While the Army's new report, the product of 400 interviews as well as trips to Korean battlegrounds, confirms the occurrence of those incidents, it also emphasizes the regiment's many acts of bravery. The report, "Black Soldier, White Army," recognized "displays of honor, commitment, selflessness and heroism that are in keeping with the best traditions of the United States Army."

"The Army feels like we have done the right thing," said Lt. Col. James Sullivan, an Army spokesman. "We're ready to move on from this chapter."

Some veterans of the 24th were pleased with the findings. "We were no better, nor were we worse than any other infantry regiment in the entire U.S. Army," said Edward L. Grandy Sr. of Woodlawn, the regimental association's parliamentarian.

That was exactly the conclusion reached by Thurgood Marshall, later a U.S. Supreme Court justice, who went to Korea on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1951 to investigate the court-martials involving the 24th. He said black soldiers were being treated far more harshly than their white counterparts because of their race.

Yesterday's report said that the lapses of the 24th were, "in part, the product of injustices that had afflicted the black soldier from the beginning of the American republic."

Blacks served in the U.S. Army ever since the battles on the Western plains in the early 19th century, but always in segregated units. Although they fought honorably, the report noted, they were never able to overcome white prejudices and judgments that they were lazy, cowardly and of low intellect. Their accomplishments were minimized, their failures emphasized.

The 24th regiment was organized in 1866 and fought in the Indian wars and the Spanish-American War. After World War II, it was part of the 8th Army occupying Japan. Training had diminished, equipment was in short supply, and drug and alcohol abuse and venereal disease were flourishing. In addition to all that, the 24th was continuing to labor under the humiliation of segregation, the report said.

Resentment of black officers deepened as they watched less deserving white officers promoted. They also knew that white commanders often ended up in the 24th only because they had "screwed up."

The report said the enlisted men were also keenly aware of the prejudice among many of their white officers.

"Underneath," the report said, "hostility and frustration lingered, to break forth only when the units faced combat and their soldiers realized their lives depended on officers they could not trust."

The regiment was called into Korea in the summer of 1950. After initial success at Yechon, troubles began for the regiment. Under heavy enemy fire, desertions escalated, but, the report said, the officers failed to stem them. Instead, they ascribed the poor performance to race.

"Some units became so accustomed to withdrawals that their men began to abandon their positions at only the sound of firing or after receiving minor enemy sniper or mortar fire," the report said.

A number of routs ensued, which the report attributed to tactical errors made by commanders, to casualties among key personnel and to inexperience among reserves. Yet, the officers continued to lament the inferiority of their black troops, which only increased the mistrust in the regiment. They also failed to recognize the many times the 24th was able to hold the line against ferocious assaults.

In late September 1950, Maj. Gen. William Kean, commander of the 25th Infantry Division, issued his recommendation to disband the 24th regiment, calling the all-black regiment "untrustworthy and incapable of carrying out missions expected of an infantry regiment."

It would take another year before the regiment could be replaced, a year, the report notes in which the unit performed ably though without credit.

Rather than simply integrate the regiment, as happened with other segregated units, it was eliminated.

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