Army Does Right by a Black Unit

July 30, 1995|By MIKE ADAMS

Last week, the U.S. Army issued a report that lifted the burden of shame carried by Korean War veterans who served in the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment.

For more than 40 years, these veterans were dogged by the Army's official account of their service in Korea -- an account punctuated by reports of incompetence, insubordination and cowardice. But just days before the unveiling of the Korean War Memorial in Washington, the army finally admitted that its racist policies were to blame for the 24th's failures. The unit was poorly trained, ill-equipped and led by white commanders with less than stellar records, the Army conceded.

The report's findings provide a disturbing epitaph for the 24th and all the black soldiers who served and died for a segregated America.

In Korea, the 24th produced two Medal of Honor winners: Pvt. William Thompson, who died while single-handedly fighting a large enemy force, and Sgt. Cornelius H. Charlton, who led three charges against an enemy position. But their heroics were overshadowed by reports of the unit's ineptitude.

The 24th's problems were deeply rooted in this nation's racial history. In 1869, Congress created the 24th and three other black units. Because whites in the East and South did not want black troops near their communities, the units were scattered on the Western frontier.

While stationed in the West, the 24th's duties included fighting Indians and protecting border towns from marauding Mexican bandits. The men of the 24th performed this boring and sometimes ignominious duty well, with fewer desertions and courts-martial than white units. They often took abuse from white settlers -- the people they were sent to protect.

In 1898, the Spanish-American War broke out. Believing that black soldiers were immune to heat and tropical diseases, the Army sent the 24th and the other black regiments to staging points in Florida to await transportation to Cuba.

The arrival of the black soldiers angered local whites. Racial tensions festered. The situation climaxed when some drunken members of a white Army unit amused themselves by using a 2-year-old black boy for a marksmanship contest. The boy was wounded as his mother watched helplessly. Enraged, the black soldiers lashed out at white soldiers and the eating places and other businesses that refused to serve them.

Three white soldiers and 27 blacks were seriously wounded in this 12-hour disturbance, known as the "Tampa Riot."

The 24th distinguished itself during the fighting in Cuba and later in the Philippines.

But the incident that earned the 24th the undying enmity of the Army occurred in Houston on Aug. 23, 1917, when the 3rd Battalion mutinied and killed 16 whites during a three-hour shooting rampage. The riot was the climax of several months of harassment the soldiers suffered at the hands of white civilians and police.

A series of courts-martial followed and 110 black soldiers were convicted of mutiny. Nineteen men were hanged and the rest received prison terms.

The courts-martial generated thousands of pages of testimony, from which a clear pattern emerges: The men were poorly led by their white commanders, who allowed tensions to fester until they exploded in violence.

Questions about the fairness of the courts-martial still persist. The Army was under extreme pressure from Southern congressional leaders to make an example of the unit and it is quite likely that some innocent men were punished during the rush to judgment.

Mike Adams is the editor of The Baltimore Sun's Perspective section.

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