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Integrated under fire

President Truman demanded military desegregation in Korea, and it worked. Then the war ended.

Published July 21, 2003

[U.S. Army (Nov. 20, 1950)]
Sgt. 1st Class Major Cleveland, a weapons squad leader, points out North Korean positions to his machine gun crew.

[AP photo (Jan. 9, 1956)]
Police Lt. Beavers Armstrong places a segregation sign in front of a railroad terminal in Mississippi.
[AP photo (Feb. 13, 1951)]
Gen. Douglas MacArthur pins the Distinguished Service Cross on Sgt. Curtis Pugh of Columbus, Ga., in 1951 for heroism during the Korean War.

It was a time when some Southern whites would break a plate rather than use it after a black man. On the troop ship to Korea in 1951, David Young Sr. of St. Petersburg was shocked when a white soldier took a swig of his Pepsi-Cola.

"They'd eat right off your plate," Young, 73, recalled, still sounding amazed. "You were just two people."

Back home in Florida, Young was unable to eat or go to school with white people, or even use the same public restroom.

In Korea, he and other black soldiers were reluctant pioneers, drafted from sleepy, segregated towns like Live Oak, Lake City and Jacksonville and shipped halfway around the world to break color barriers they could only dream of breaking in America.

The Korean War marked the first war since the American Revolution that black and white soldiers fought alongside one another, thanks to President Harry S. Truman's demand to integrate the troops.

Although official segregation in the South would endure another decade, the military's integration gave African-Americans a tempting taste of equality, and allowed them to disprove common racist assertions that black soldiers were less courageous and competent than whites.

The experiment also aided integration in society as a whole, making the notion more palatable and practical for many political leaders, experts say.

"Truman, he saw something a lot of people didn't see: When you're divided in a country, you don't get your best talent in that country," said Harold Coleman, 74, of Jacksonville, who served in the 503rd Field Artillery, 2nd Infantry Division.

His integrated unit was captured during the 1951 winter offensive into North Korea, and he spent 21/2 years as a prisoner of war.

"By me being in the service, it gave me that much more ability to realize that we should be free, and free to do whatever we want, and free to succeed," Coleman said. "It made me feel we that should be integrated, that . . . we should not be held back the way we were."

African-Americans had served and died during the Civil War, World War I and World War II, but in segregated units. Truman sought to change that in 1948, when he ordered the armed services to end discrimination.

Meaningful desegregation in the Army, the largest branch, wouldn't come for three more years, but there was a growing realization that a segregated military was inefficient and demoralizing.

African-American voters in Northern urban centers also were gaining political power, and they bluntly told the president and the Democratic Party leaders that integrating the military was key to winning their support.

Several all-black or mostly black units persisted throughout the Korean War, but segregation began dissipating soon after the war began in June 1950, as white units suffered casualties and black soldiers were needed to replace them.

By the armistice in July 1953, an estimated 600,000 African-American troops had served during the Korean War, and more than 5,000 had died, the Army says. Two were awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.

Dr. Gerald Lyn Early, a professor of English and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, argues that the successful integration of the military in Korea encouraged the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation ruling, Brown vs. Board of Education, and helped change attitudes about race.

Had the military failed, integration overall would have suffered, said Early, author of When Worlds Collide: The Korean War and the Integration of the United States, a book due out next year.

"It was a major institution, it was a major sociological force, and by 1954 we could look back and say that the integration of the armed services, while not complete and not perfect, went better than most detractors and most critics thought it would," Early said.

The military was conservative, with a strong contingent of top leaders from the South. But when it came to integration it also had a big advantage: Orders are orders, and soldiers have to follow them.

Most veterans interviewed, including black men from Chicago, rural Florida, Georgia and Pennsylvania, said they were largely accepted by the white Army, and generally treated the same as white soldiers. But there were exceptions.

As the only black soldier assigned to the intelligence section of the 1092nd Combat Engineers in 1951, Young wasn't allowed to sleep in the intelligence section's tent.

Instead, he slept with guys from the motor pool. When he was named mail clerk for his entire 700-man battalion, he blamed racist superiors for not promoting him above private second class, the lowest rank. He eventually made corporal.

"Some of the (white) fellows that went over with me went all the way from private to sergeant, and I couldn't even get a rating," he said.

But black and white veterans say it helped that American troops faced a common enemy in the Communist fighters. Misery also builds cohesion, and the brutal realities of war made race nearly irrelevant.

Nathaniel Brunson's job was to find targets for the heavy artillery, until he got shot, and he once strung 2 miles of telephone cable through the mountains to restore communications to his unit, dodging North Korean patrols along the way.

"When people were getting killed and shot up and everything, we all got to stick together," said Brunson, 71, of Jacksonville, who was discharged in 1952 after being shot in the left hip. "The (South) Koreans would look at my face and . . . look at a white guy's face and say "Y'all no same-ah same-ah.' And I'd say yeah we are, we're all 3rd Division, 58th Artillery.

"It was all right. We fought together, got shot up together. Threw hand grenades in the water to catch fish together."

The first time Freddie Darling ever worked alongside white people was on the crew of his 90mm cannon with the 1st Marines in Korea, as a black man in a mostly white unit. He had been promoted to corporal, and white privates had to listen to him.

"They were all right to me over there. They were all right," Darling, 71, of Jacksonville, said over the blare of a gospel radio station. He lost his hearing firing the big guns. "You don't know whether you're going to come back home or not, so you got to go with the program. You got to stick together. Everybody was scared."

Albert Korringa Sr. saw integration from the other side: He was one of 16 white soldiers assigned to an all-black transportation company near Pusan, South Korea, in 1951.

A black sergeant picked him up at the port and drove him to his new unit. Around lunchtime, the company commander, a young black captain, called all 100 men into formation.

He introduced the newcomers, and said everyone would be treated equally.

"We were just kind of, not scared, but curious when we got there, not knowing what we were going into," said Korringa, 75, a retired truck driver who lives in Silver Springs. "It was a little different at first, but I was raised in Chicago, and I had worked with blacks before. . . . They treated us very well."

Today, nearly 20 percent of U.S. troops are African-American, and the military is frequently cited as a model for merit-based advancement. Even 50 years ago, integration made the military a viable career for African-Americans, providing an avenue for education and training.

Army veteran Sam Kicklighter of St. Petersburg used the GI Bill to attend Bethune-Cookman College, a historically black school in Daytona Beach. David S. Mason, 70, of Palm Harbor, a gunner in the 9th Field Artillery, 3rd Infantry Division in Korea, saw three brothers and two children choose military careers.

Arthur Morgan, 71, of St. Petersburg, parlayed his experience in the signal corps of the Army's 955th Field Artillery, 3rd Infantry Division, into a career at GTE.

"It was a good deal for young black men, because you'd find that quite a few weren't educated, and it helped them along a good bit," Morgan said. "You could earn an education in there, or like me, you could learn a trade."

Coleman spent most of his military career as a prisoner of war after his artillery battery was overrun in February 1951. There was nothing good about being in a North Korean prison camp, always hungry, and always fearing death. But as he watched the white soldiers having to obey their captors or face a beating, he couldn't help but wonder.

"In the United States, there were a lot of things I couldn't do because of my color. I saw the treatment (white soldiers) were getting, and I just said to myself, "You reckon they know how a black man feels sometimes?' "

Beatings were common, and the Chinese guards often withheld food as punishment for American offensives, or when Allied bombers attacked a nearby village. For the first six months of his imprisonment, Coleman shared a 12-by-12 cell with about 15 white men, and his skin was never an issue.

"We were all on the other side of the Chinese," Coleman said. "Regardless of what color you were, everybody tried to stick together. We were like brothers then."

Many veterans of Korea feel they never got the recognition they deserved when they returned home. It was especially bitter for black soldiers from the South, where segregation was the law.

Even as vets, they describe having to order from separate counters at restaurants. Many counties prohibited African-Americans from voting.

Kicklighter, 72, a retired Pinellas County schoolteacher, still chafes at the memory of the bus ride from Jacksonville to his hometown of Lake City. He spent the war in the Army's mostly black 239th Transportation Company, building an air base in the Arctic Circle, then manning a supply base in Alaska.

"The bus driver asked me to sit in the back," Kicklighter said. "Many, many (black) GIs had been to Germany, to Korea, to Panama, but when they came back they were out."

The Army had taught them to fight, but most weren't in position to wage war back home. Many had been drafted out of high school, or from the family farm, or from low-wage service jobs. Some used the GI Bill to attend college, but most returned to low-wage jobs as well.

Young, the mail clerk for a combat engineering battalion, applied for a similar job with the U.S. Postal Service when he came home to Lake City in 1952. Instead he was offered a job loading trucks.

"I could have gotten the same job when I got back as when I went over there. That's all that was offered," said Young, 73, who moved to St. Petersburg in 1956 and worked at the city pumping station for 39 years.

"Because you're a veteran and been to Korea and served your country, you should get a little more respect. But it didn't change none. Not in Suwannee County anyway."

And even on the troop ship back to the United States after his tour of duty, the affinity many white soldiers had felt for their black colleagues on the way to war "fell apart, just like pages of the book," Young said. "They went right back the way they were before they went there."

[Last modified July 21, 2003, 01:33:07]

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