Black Americans In The US Military From The American Revolution To The Korean War: The Korean War

General Douglas MacArthur, who now commanded the U.S. occupation of Japan, originally regarded the surprise attack launched by North Korea on June 25, 1950, merely as a border war. MacArthur had severely underestimated the size of the invasion force of the NKPA, or North Korean People’s Army. The NKPA invaded past the 38th Parallel, the original border set at the end of World War II, in order to quickly capture and unite South Korea with the North. By June 29th it became evident that the ROK (Republic of Korea), and U.S. forces could not push the NKPA back to the 38th Parallel, and had no tanks, artillery or anything that could slow down the North Korean Soviet model tanks. The Eighth Army blamed its failures on the Republic of Korea troops, while the 25th Infantry Division blamed its failures on its Black troops, according to Lietenant Colonel Charles M. Bussey. (Buckley, p. 349) General MacArthur cleverly devised an invasion plan that gained the U.N. and U.S. forces all of Korea, up to the Yalu River, the border with China. General MacArthur’s view on the conflict as a “Holy War” (US State Department) in which the U.S. should unleash Chaing Kai-shek and launching nuclear strikes on the Chinese mainland. MacArthur continuously ignored the chain of command and wrote to Speaker of the House Joe Martin saying the United States could only win by an all-out war, and this meant bombing the Manchurian bases. Rather than succumb to MacArthur’s desire for nuclear war, President Harry S. Truman fired the General.

Truman replaced MacArthur with General Matthew B. Ridgway, who strongly opposed segregation of forces. His effort to desegregate met strong opposition from Major General Edward M. Almond, a vilified racist. Almond would reintegrate already integrated units and deny approval of medals for Black soldiers. Still, the 24th Infantry achieved the first victory of the war, and the first medals of Honor were awarded to Black soldiers from this unit. The victory came after the invasion of Pusan, at the town of Yechon, on July 20, 1950. The victory gained national prestige, shown in newspapers all over the U.S., though not remembered for long. In an official Army history of the first six months of the Korean War, South to Naktong, North to the Yalu, Roy Appleman denies that a battle took place at Yechon. However, the commander of the 25th Division, Major General William Kean, awarded Black officer Charles M. Bussey for his achievements in this battle. Bussey had noticed a large group of North Koreans disguised as peasants, trying to outflank the 24th. Wounded twice, Bussey was still able to stop them cold, mowing down 258 of these soldiers. Lieutenant Colonel John T. Corley also firmly upholds the battle at Yechon.

Air power was a key to U.N. and U.S. successes in the Korean War. Initially the U.S. Air Force had been preparing for long-range nuclear attacks on their two main Cold War foes, China and the Soviet Union. The Korean War was only a proxy war, supplied by China and the U.S.S.R., but only backed by Chinese troops and fighter pilots. In order to reduce the communist forces’ supplies without provoking an all out war with China and the Soviet Union, supply routes within Korea could only be bombed. These attacks, known as “air interdiction,” were successful:

Although strategic bombing did not yield any apparent results, air interdiction was more successful, especially as there were very few roads or railroads leading from the north to the south. The raids focused on NKPA’s supply routes to stop the flow of reinforcements and supplies. In the beginning, NKPA tanks were particularly easy to find as they were not escorted by anti-aircraft guns.When the tanks traveled at night, they left their headlights on. The interdiction effort was successful: NKPA gas tanks on the front lines went empty and troop rations were reduced from rice, fish, meat, and vegetables to merely rice. When the chief of staff of NKPA’s 13th Infantry was captured in September 1950, he testified that "half of our personnel had lost the stamina necessary to fight in mountainous terrain."

General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. also highlights the importance of air power in the Korean War, since it slowed the first North Korean advance and helped the retreating U.S. and later “prevented the expulsion of United Nations forces.” This later was confirmed during the peace negotiations, the chief North Korean delegate, General Nam Il, told the U.N. team that "without direct support of your tactical aerial bombing alone your ground forces would have been completely unable to hold their present positions."

In 1950, the Air Force had 25 black pilots in integrated fighter squadrons led by Captain Daniel "Chappie" James Jr., of the 36th Squadron, 5th Air Force. In World War II, James flew under General Donald M. Davis in the 477th Bombardment Group. James decided to join an integrated unit after World War II in order to prove that he was one of the best pilots in the U.S. Air Force. In the Philippines, he trained in the 12th Fighter-Bomber Squadron and ranked highly among all officers: First in rocketry, second in bombing accuracy and also one of the top ground gunners. Despite early hatred expressed by other White pilots, James skills and cheerful personality gained the respect of the entire squadron.

In the Korean War, James showed his exceptional skills and eventually flew unarmed reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines. This was a task reserved for the best pilots and most trusted pilots. He provided low-level air support for ground troops, eliminating anything enemy, including supply trains and Russian T-34 tanks. James’ most famous battlefield success of the Korean War came in October of 1950, when he provided close air support to forces in Namchonjom, North Korea. Using up all of his ammunition, James killed over one hundred North Koreans and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Another example of a successful Black airman was First Lieutenant Dayton Ragland. Ragland was the first Black to shoot down a North Korean fighter jet. Later he was shot down and imprisoned, but survived and returned to South Korea in July of 1953 during an exchange of prisoners. Still, Blacks had not yet been completely accepted as skilled airmen. James and Ragland were regarded as the few good Black pilots. The commanding General of the Far East Forces, Lieutenant General Earle E. Partridge, focused on mistakes made by two Black aviators that were serving as airborne controllers. They had accidentally directed air strikes on friendly targets. Rather than focus on punishing these individuals, General Partridge declared all Blacks ineligible for the job of airborne controller.

The gradual integration of the U.S. military set in motion the changes that would be made throughout American society. In some areas of the U.S., racism remained a problem, especially in towns with military bases located in the South.

Written by David Omahen

See also:

The American Revolution to 1808
The War of 1812
The Civil War
The Indian Wars
The Spanish American War and the Philippine Insurgency
The Brownsville Incident and Teddy Roosevelt
World War One
The Spanish Civil War
World War Two
The Korean War
Conclusion and Bibliography