The following is an excerpt from David P. Cline’s Twice Forgotten: African Americans and the Korean War, an Oral History.
Journalists began to call the Korean War “the Forgotten War” even before it ended. Without a doubt, the most neglected story of this already neglected war is that of African Americans who served just two years after Harry S. Truman ordered the desegregation of the military. Twice Forgotten draws on oral histories of Black Korean War veterans to recover the story of their contributions to the fight, the reality that the military desegregated in fits and starts, and how veterans’ service fits into the long history of the Black freedom struggle.
This collection of seventy oral histories, drawn from across the country, features interviews conducted by the author and his colleagues for their American Radio Works documentary, Korea: The Unfinished War, which examines the conflict as experienced by the approximately 600,000 Black men and women who served. It also includes narratives from other sources, including the Library of Congress’s visionary Veterans History Project. In their own voices, soldiers and sailors and flyers tell the story of what it meant, how it felt, and what it cost them to fight for the freedom abroad that was too often denied them at home.
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Joining the military could mean a number of new experiences for African American soldiers and sailors, especially when it came to crossing the lines of Jim Crow. For many, their first experiences of novel racial laws and customs took place on the trains and buses that conveyed them to training camps. For those reared in the South, the experience of enlisting in the military and traveling across the country for training might mean leaving behind some of the trappings of segregation; however, this wasn’t always as comforting or welcome as one might expect. The North and West offered up unfamiliar encounters that could be anything from disorienting to downright frightening. For those going the opposite direction who had been reared with fewer legal restrictions, the experience could provoke a range of emotions from shock to anger. As one editorialist wrote in the Chicago Defender newspaper in 1952, “To be ordered out of a seat on a train or bus or street car and forced into a separate segregated section simply because of the color of your skin is one of the most humiliating experiences in the life of a colored citizen.”
Soldiers and sailors using civilian transportation, as they often did when traveling to and from bases, were exposed to the varieties and vagaries of local laws and customs. In one 1953 incident in Columbus, South Carolina, two full years before Rosa Parks made her famous stand against the segregated buses of Montgomery, Alabama, a Black soldier sat next to a white female on a public bus, causing the bus driver to call in local police. However, the other African American soldiers on board collectively resisted, refusing to turn over one of their number, and so the police officers arrested all forty-eight of them. The many humiliations inherent in Jim Crow could quickly escalate into outright violence and the so-called bus incidents that profoundly influenced Truman’s decision to issue his executive order actually occurred on all manner of conveyances and continued to take place after the executive order had been issued. Violent assaults of veterans and soldiers traveling in uniform indeed continued long after the military had largely desegregated, with such events continuing throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. Retired US Air Force lieutenant Thomas Williams testified before a 1954 congressional committee investigating interstate travel that he had received ill treatment from both civilian police and the military. Police officers in Alabama, he said, told him, “You’re lucky we didn’t beat your brains in for refusing to move back behind the white folks. Now we’re pretty fair because if a white man had insisted on sitting back with the cullud folks, we’d a beat his brains in just as quick.’’ Williams, at the time a pilot in training at Craig Air Force Base in Alabama, was arrested—in defiance of federal law outlawing segregation on interstate transport—on his way from Florida back to Alabama when he refused to sit in the segregated section of a Coastal Stages bus. The military was not typically quick to defend its own if the accused was Black and in some cases added to the victimization; Williams reported that he was ultimately relieved of his air force duty for “his persistent temerity in protesting such un-American treatment.”
The excerpts below deal with a variety of such experiences but begin by exploring why African Americans enlisted in the first place, given that they would likely serve in segregated units. The segregated military—before and for some time after Truman’s executive order—severely curtailed African Americans’ chances for advancement, available duties, and indeed civil rights. Why join? Why did African Americans participate in the military? The variety of answers together paint a common picture: although the military was racially segregated and offered only small measures of equality and opportunity, it was still preferable to what one could often find on the home front. As Ike Gardner from Lynch, Kentucky, recalls, “I enlisted in the army because I didn’t want to go in the coal mines.” An African American serving on a navy vessel might sleep in segregated quarters and be allowed only to be a cook, or a Women’s Army Corps (WAC) member might have to train and sleep separately, but he or she could earn a paycheck and eat three meals a day. Eddie Wright, raised in a sharecropping family, adds, “Everything I did in the military was better than what I experienced in the fields in Georgia.” James Wiggins, also from Georgia and who served with the 24th Infantry Regiment in Korea, had never seen a milk carton before his basic training. “And also that is when I took my first shower,” he adds, “because being from Augusta in the South, we had that #10 washtub that we took our bath in.” African Americans weren’t just escaping poverty in the military; even though it was segregated, the Jim Crow military itself rarely presented the true threats that made up daily life in the South. Bill Peterson remembers, “I think I said, ‘I’d rather go to Korea, because at least you issue me a rifle and I’m allowed to use it. Now, if I went to Biloxi, Mississippi, it might be used on me.’”
For those Korean War veterans whose service first came during World War II, the situation then was even more acute, but the answers to the question “Why serve?” were quite the same. Although the service was segregated and offered Blacks few choices and little equality, it still offered steady pay, a possible pension, job training, the chance to leave a life dominated by poverty and cruel discrimination, and, importantly, the opportunity to participate in a deeply symbolic aspect of American life, even if in a limited way. As we will see, enlistment during World War II could be a patriotic act or part of the cultural tide of the moment, but it could also stem from dissatisfaction. Serviceman James Gilliam may have enlisted on a sudden whim out of anger that he was held back from job advancement while a less hardworking white colleague was promoted, but that situation symbolized the deep inequalities of the status quo. Gilliam’s decision to quit his job was as much an act of defiance and agency as it was a fit of pique.
JAMES H. GILLIAM SR., WILMINGTON, DELAWARE
I’m James H. Gilliam Sr. I was born in Baltimore in 1920, which means that I’m eighty-five years of age as of August the 6th. I remember Pearl Harbor vividly, [learning about it] over the radio and [in] the paper. And the interesting thing about that, I don’t get the feeling that that incident, as important as it is to history, I don’t really get the feeling that it impacted the people of color community to the same degree that it affected the Caucasian community. Because it was at that time you had a real segregated military force. I think the Black community kind of felt this rejection very keenly. But that was pretty much the pattern of life at that time. The only branch of service where you had what I would call a reasonable chance of [Black people] advancing was the army, [where] there was some breakthroughs after World War I. At that time [in the navy,] I was not aware of any [Black] people outside of the mess department. And if you got a promotion, you might go to the top of the enlisted ranks by acting right and acting good. Certainly nothing in the Marine Corps. And also, at that time, you had the United States Army Air Force.
Interestingly enough, I was not drafted into the military. I went there as a result of a fit of anger about my treatment with the Old Age and Survivors Insurance, which is now a key part of the Social Security Administration. [I worked] in the insurance division there [with a white guy,] and he was taking all the credit and getting all the promotions. And interestingly enough, what was happening was brought to the conscious level [for me] by a young white worker from West Virginia who looked at me and said, “Jim, why are you helping this guy to look good? Let him go for himself.” She had a real impact on me. And when I stopped doing things [for him], the overall supervisor called me over to his desk and he said, “You’re not being cooperative. You have no team spirit.” So I told him to go to hell. I got so annoyed, when I went out to lunch, I just went right over to the recruiting station and joined the army.
It was around that time there was some ripples going about this group in Tuskegee becoming regular army people, and to promote that, they had a road interview team. I was still in college, and this interview team came to Morgan College and interviewed those people who indicated an interest in becoming affiliated with a unit like that. I was one of the people selected, but I never went beyond that point simply because they discovered I was color-blind, you know. But they offered me an opportunity to still become an officer.
David P. Cline is professor of history and director of the Center for Public and Oral History at San Diego State University, and author of From Reconciliation to Revolution: The Student Interracial Ministry, Liberal Christianity, and the Civil Rights Movement.