DoD Salutes African American Korean War Veterans
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, Va., July 24, 2001 DoD honored African American Korean War veterans here July 23 in a three-part commemoration starting at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
A wreath-laying ceremony at the tomb was followed by tree planting and a plaque dedication at another site on the grounds. The two ceremonies included remarks by South Korean Ambassador Song-chol Yang, Korean War veteran retired Army Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton, and Army Secretary Thomas E. White.
Veterans retired Army Lt. Gen. Julius Becton (left) and former sergeant Robert W. Fletcher chat about their experiences during the Korean War. Fletcher spent 33 months as a POW. Photo by Rudi Williams.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Becton, who entered active duty in 1944 as a private and retired in 1983, said many African Americans 51 years ago were already in Korea, en route or alerted to go.
"All of us were soldiers in a segregated Army, notwithstanding the fact that President Truman had signed his Executive Order 9981 two years earlier integrating the armed forces," he said.
"Some of us didn't have the foggiest idea where Korea was," Becton said. "Others of us were veterans of World War II, and some too old. Some of us were youngsters and untested, but entirely too many of us were not ready for the rigors of combat."
The 24th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, arrived in Korea by July 13, 1950. The unit was comprised of all black enlisted and many junior officers and mostly white senior officers, Becton noted.
He arrived with the 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Division shortly thereafter. Becton said the all-black 3rd Battalion, with its white commander and executive officer, was immediately sent on a separate mission to Pohang -- in order to prove itself.
"During the battle inside the Pusan Perimeter, its subsequent breakout and crossing the Naktong River, the 3rd Battalion proved its mettle," Becton said. The real test came in November 1950 near Kuneri, North Korea, when the Chinese entered the war. The two black regiments were put to their severest test.
"Many of the men we honor today paid the supreme price during that period," Becton said. "We went to Korea as a segregated Army and came out with the realization that our diversity could be a combat multiplier. Clearly, the 24th and 9th Infantry Regiments laid the foundation for much of the success our Army has experienced in the follow-on 50 years.
"I'm delighted that the black Americans and the 'Forgotten War' are finally getting the recognition so richly deserved," Becton said.
"More than 600,000 African Americans served in the Korean War, and for their contributions, my country will be eternally grateful," Yang said. "We will always remember what you sacrificed for our country, for peace and for the Free World."
He said the sacrifices and contributions of African Americans during the war enabled Korea to achieve freedom and stability.
"With their sacrifice and courage they cemented the foundation of Korean American friendship," the ambassador said. "They paid dearly for peace and taught us that freedom is not free. The Korean War has often been called the 'Forgotten War.' Let me assure you, however, that in the minds and hearts of the Korean people the American veterans of the Korean War will never be forgotten."
White called the Korean War a new dawn for African Americans in the armed forces. He too noted Truman's 1948 executive order stipulating equal treatment and opportunity in the armed services without regard to race.
"But then Lt. Becton's commander couldn't have cared less," White said. "He said 'Gentlemen, as long as I'm the commander here there will be no change.' That was the general response of the overall military establishment. The services procrastinated, and it took the Korean War and a looming disaster on the battlefield to bring about the change."
White said the U.S. military that went to Korea in 1950 was essentially a segregated military looking squarely at defeat, overwhelmed and beaten back to a small corner of South Korea called the Pusan Perimeter.
"At that point the leaders had no choice and the system of segregation simply broke down," he said. "With casualties mounting, African American soldiers were sent to fight alongside white soldiers at the front line.
Korea made integration of the armed forces a reality, White said. Suddenly, he continued, black and white soldiers fought together in common cause, sharing hardships and sacrificing their lives for each other in the face of an overwhelming enemy. White said tens of thousands of African Americans served in the Korean War and more than 5,000 fell.
"We've taken too long to recognize their sacrifices," White said. "Today, we pause to remember, because a nation that forgets its heroes will not itself be long remembered."