By Col Eddie Boxx,USAF (ret)
When Texas Governor Alan Shivers shared a meal with African American troops in Korea, it illustrated a major phase of racial equality in America. Texas, like the U.S. military, eventually accepted desegregation, but the 1950s were tumultuous years for African Americans. The Korean War stands as a turning point in race relations. By the war’s end, the U.S. military was integrated but it was just the beginning of the civil rights movement at home – fueled in part by the 600,000 African Americans who served in the armed forces during the Korean War.
The Korean War — flanked by World War II in the 1940s and the later Vietnam conflict in the 1960s — remains America’s “Forgotten War.”
Eminent Texas historian T.R. Fahrenbach writes about the ignominy of the conflict in the seminal This Kind of War :“Not until long afterward was it even dignified by the name of ‘war’— the governmental euphemism was Korean conflict — and it rapidly became the most forgotten war in American history.
There was little in it, from near-disastrous beginning to honorable but frustrating end, that appealed to American sensibilities.” In David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter, the acclaimed military historian S.L.A. Marshall called it “the century’s nastiest war”. Secretary of State Dean Acheson stated sourly, “If the best minds in the world had set to find us the worst possible location to this damnable war politically and militarily, the unanimous choice would have been Korea.”
It was an unforgiving place with frigid weather and mountainous terrain identified by the fitting names of its bloody engagements: Frozen Chosin, Heartbreak Ridge and Murderer’s Valley. In one Seventh Division battle for the aptly named Pork Chop Hill, a platoon had started with 135 men and by the end of the fighting, returned with only 14. It was that “kind of war,” where 33,000 service members would ultimately be killed — including 5,000 African Americans.
On July 26, 1948 two years before the start of the Korean War, President Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces but, in reality, by the time the North Koreans invaded South Korea in 1950, the US military still adhered to a de facto segregation policy. Meaning all units were supposed to have been integrated, but in actuality some were not after commanders delayed the order.
The 24th Infantry Regiment exemplified this ongoing resistance in the army. Known as the “Deuce Four,” The 24th had been commissioned by congress in 1869 and later became “Buffalo Soldiers” post-Civil War on the American frontier. Almost a century later, not much had changed as the enlisted soldiers were still all black led by mostly white officers.
Initially the 24th Infantry Regiment participated in the defense and later break out of the Pusan Perimeter (one of the darkest hours of the war when the invading Communists pushed the US and their allies to the bottom of the peninsula). Additionally, the unit included the only two African American Medal of Honor winners of the conflict: Pfc. William H. Thompson and Sgt. Cornelius H. Charlton. However, the controversial court martial of Lt. Leon Gilbert Jr. who was black (his regimental commander was white) focused nationwide attention on segregation and racism in the U.S. Army.
By October 1951, the 24th Infantry Regiment was disbanded as other integrated units began to prove white and black soldiers could fight effectively together in combat.
One of these success stories was the 31st Infantry Regiment of the 7th Infantry Division (soldiers of the 7th “Bayonet Davison” are pictured with Governor Shivers). Then colonel and later three-star general, Bill McCaffrey took over after the preceding commander was killed at the famed Chosin Reservoir.
During the ensuing retreat south after the Chinese entered the war, McCaffrey placed three black soldiers in every squad out of sheer necessity to replace the wounded and killed white soldiers. Later, when challenged by his commanding general as to why he took it upon himself to integrate the regiment, McCaffrey simply replied, “But general, it is working.”
By the time a truce was called in July 1953, hundreds of African Americans had held command billets and were included in premier units including navy and air force squadrons.
Ensign Jesse L. Brown became the first African American aviator in the history of the Navy. He was killed in action Dec. 4, 1950, while flying close air support missions at Chosin Reservoir. Second Lt. Frank E. Petersen Jr. became the Marine Corps first African American pilot and flew with Attack Fighter Squadron 212 (Devil Cats). Air Force Capt. Daniel "Chappie" James Jr. flew more than 100 missions in the P-51 Mustang and F-80 Shooting Star and became the first African American to reach four-star rank in the armed services. The war had proven white and black Americans could eat together, sleep in the same tents, fly together and meld into an effective combat fighting force.
Back home, the fight for racial integration had just begun when the Supreme Court in 1954 rendered the influential Brown v. Board of Education decision. It declared separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional.
Dr. Gerald Lyn Early, a professor of African-American studies, argues that the successful integration of the military in Korea encouraged the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling.
“Had the military failed, integration overall would have suffered,” Early said. “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.”
In his 1954 fact-finding visit to Korea, Gob. Shivers would have seen a brown, treeless landscape and a battered civilian populace devastated by three years of total war.
The mess hall photo was probably taken at Camp Casey near the Demilitarized Zone located 40 miles north of the capitol of Seoul. South Korea has since become an economic power and the country today proudly displays thick, replanted forests and modern cities as evidenced by the current 2018 Winter Olympics. However, one thing has not changed in the last 65 years: Black, White and Latino Texans still deploy to Camp Casey and remain the vanguard of freedom on the Korean peninsula.
The Korean War stands as a milestone to a long struggle of equality and 1954 was just the beginning of public school desegregation in America. The “Mansfield Crisis” near Fort Worth would occur in just two years to be followed by the “Little Rock Nine” in 1957. This culminated with President Eisenhower sending in the 101st Airborne paratroopers to protect black students attending the formerly all-white Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. The Korean War and the implementation of the Brown v. Board of Education decision meant racial segregation in America was finally beginning to come to an end.
To learn more about Texas integration, Governor Shivers and civil rights, please schedule a tour at the Governor Allan Shivers Library and Museum in Woodville. Allan Shivers was raised in Tyler County and became the second longest serving governor and one of the most influential politicians in Texas history.
The historic Robert A. Cruse home built during the “Gilded Age of Timber” in 1881 houses Governor Shivers’ personal collections.
Col Eddie Boxx, USAF (ret) served in Korea in 2002-2003 as a Seventh Air Force planner and lived on Hill 180 – hallowed ground and the site of the U.S. Army’s last bayonet charge in the winter of 1951.