Ex-guardsman relates history of first black unit

Military: Proud service in an era of segregation is recalled.

February 10, 2005|By Andrew G. Sherwood | Andrew G. Sherwood,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County historian Louis Diggs reminisced about his Army service during the Korean War era in a discussion yesterday at the Pikesville library about Maryland's first African-American National Guard unit.

The presentation was part of the Friends of the Library program designed to open the library to speakers and the community.

Diggs said he joined the Maryland National Guard five days before the Korean War broke out in 1950, when he signed up for the 726th Transportation Truck Company of the all-African-American 231st Transportation Truck Battalion.

Diggs has written a book, tentatively titled Forgotten Road Heroes, focusing on the activities of this battalion and its predecessor unit from 1879 until 1955. "This battalion has been around since 1879, has helped serve in the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II," he said, "and in Korea, where I served."

The unit was composed of former slaves and black Civil War veterans who formed a military club in 1879 called the Monumental City Guards. The group wanted to become a part of the Maryland National Guard, but the state would not allow it, Diggs said.

National Guard generals did not want black soldiers, Diggs said, but after an inspection of the men they decided to include them as a separate unit, stationed at Baltimore's Richmond Market Armory.

This unit was ordered to duty in the Spanish-American War but not allowed to go to Cuba. Instead, it was stationed at Pimlico, Diggs said.

In World War I, the unit worked with the French army. It remained on active duty in the United States during World War II, he said.

"Things changed in 1947," Diggs said, "when the unit became a truck battalion."

The battalion was sent to Korea to drive the heavy trucks the Army used to carry supplies.

Diggs described a monthlong boat journey to Pusan, South Korea, in an old Liberty ship, the Sgt. Sylvester Antolak.

The unit hauled napalm bombs to forward airfields, and ammunition and other supplies to the troops.

"I was so young at the time when we were driving these huge trucks," Diggs said, "and I remember having a hard time reaching the gas pedal or clutch while trying to navigate the rough terrain."

Much of the travel was scary, Diggs said. A lot of the roads were up mountain paths, and the travel had to be done at night.

"The jobs that African-Americans did in the Army those days consisted mostly of fulfilling the service role," Diggs said, "like driving trucks, acting as unit cook and other roles."

The unit was integrated in Korea in 1951, Diggs said, adding that the battalion remained integrated when it returned to the United States. In 1956, Diggs said, the Maryland National Guard integrated its other units.

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