African-Americans Continue Tradition of Distinguished Service
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 1, 2007 African-Americans have a long tradition of honorable and distinguished service in America’s armed forces, going back 231 years to the nation’s birth -- and even before.
For example, Crispus Attucks was among a group of outraged colonists protesting English rule who died from British soldiers’ bullets during the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770. Two other people also were immediately killed, and two others died of their wounds as a result of the encounter.
Attucks’ name is the only one Americans commonly remember as among the victims of the shooting. A monument honoring him was placed on Boston Common in 1888.
Five years after the Boston Massacre, Peter Salem was among many African-Americans who fought with other American colonists against the British over possession of Breed’s Hill outside Boston. Commonly and mistakenly known as the “Battle of Bunker Hill,” the engagement was fought on June 17, 1775. It was one of the first military engagements of the Revolution.
Salem survived that battle and mortally wounded the British commander who led the fourth and last charge that secured the hill. Salem was commended for his enterprise and courage at Breed’s Hill and during subsequent engagements. On a citation signed by 14 senior officers, he was described as “a brave and gallant soldier” who “behaved like an experienced officer.”
It’s estimated that 5,000 African-Americans fought on the patriot side during the American Revolutionary War that spanned from 1775 to 1783.
About 180,000 African-Americans wore Union blue and earned praise for their military skill during the American Civil War, fought 1861-1865.
Early in the war, U.S. government skepticism over African-Americans’ fighting abilities had kept them mostly off the battlefield. That would change later in the war, when emerging manpower shortages coerced the Union to enlist thousands of African-American troops for front-line duty.
Union soldiers of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Regiment achieved military respect on July 17, 1863, by routing a Confederate force after two hours of hard fighting at Honey Springs, in present-day Oklahoma.
“I never saw such fighting as was done by the Negro regiment,” Union Commander Gen. James G. Blunt wrote after the Honey Springs battle. “The question that Negroes will fight is settled. Besides, they make better soldiers in every respect than any troops I have ever had under my command.”
African-American troops fighting for the Union distinguished themselves again at the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, Va., which was fought on Sept. 29, 1864. After being pinned down by Confederate artillery fire for 30 minutes, the African-American division of the U.S. 18th Corps charged the enemy’s earthworks and rushed up the surrounding slopes. The division suffered massive casualties during the hour-long engagement. Of the 25 African-Americans who received the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, 14 were so honored as the result of their service at Chaffin’s Farm.
America expanded westward after the Civil War ended, and soldiers were needed to protect settlers and the railroads from Indian attacks. Although Lt. Col. George A. Custer’s 7th Cavalry Regiment is known for its fights against the plains Indians, the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry Regiments also gained fame for their exploits against the Indians, both on the plains and in the southwest.
Established in 1866, the 9th and 10th regiments were made up of African-American enlisted soldiers who were usually commanded by white commissioned officers. The Indians respected the African-American cavalrymen and called them “Buffalo Soldiers” for their fighting prowess.
Army Lt. Henry O. Flipper graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on June 14, 1877, the first African-American to do so and the U.S. military’s first African-American commissioned officer. Flipper was assigned to the 10th Cavalry Regiment, where he earned praise for his selfless, capable service. Yet later, Flipper was accused of embezzling government funds. He was tried and judged not guilty of embezzlement, but was dismissed from the service for misconduct in December 1881. After an inquiry, the Department of the Army cleared Flipper of all charges on Dec. 13, 1976, and he was honorably discharged.
During the course of the Indian Wars fought from 1866 to the early 1890s, 13 enlisted men and six officers from the 9th and 10th regiments and two African-American infantry units earned the Medal of Honor.
During the Spanish-American War, African-American soldiers with the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments and the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments fought alongside Lt. Col. Teddy Roosevelt and his volunteer unit of “Rough Riders,” and defeated Spanish troops at the Battles of Kettle Hill and San Juan Heights, Cuba, on July 1, 1898.
Five African-American soldiers earned Medals of Honor for their heroism during the Spanish-American War. Many African-American households proudly acquired prints featuring resolute, African-American troops charging up San Juan Hill with Roosevelt and his volunteers.
African-American troops again served with distinction during World War I, fought between 1914 and 1918. Although U.S. military units remained segregated by race, African-Americans eagerly volunteered for military service following America’s entry into the conflict in April 1917. By the war’s end in November 1918, more than 350,000 African-Americans had served with the American Expeditionary Force on the western front in Europe.
Soldiers with the U.S. 369th Infantry Regiment were known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” and served on the front lines for six months, longer than any other African-American regiment in the war. They fought and won alongside the French against the Germans during the pitched battles at Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood. The 369th’s documented exploits on the western front earned it world respect; 171 of its officers and men received the Legion of Merit. And members of the unit were the first Americans to be awarded the French Croix de Guerre for valor.
African-American soldier Cpl. Freddie Stowers also heroically served with the U.S. 371st Infantry Regiment in France during World War I. Despite two wounds, Stowers continued to lead his men during an attack on German trenches on Sept. 28, 1918. The enemy positions were ultimately taken by the Americans. Stowers died from his wounds. He was recommended to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions, but the nomination paperwork was allegedly misplaced.
In 1991, President George H.W. Bush presented the Medal of Honor to Stowers’ relatives in recognition of the corporal’s exploits in France 73 years before. Stowers became the only African-American who served during World War I to be awarded the nation’s highest military honor.
America was again engaged in a global war after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. African-American serviceman Navy Ship’s Cook 3rd Class Dorie Miller distinguished himself during the Pearl Harbor attack and won the Navy Cross. Miller voluntarily manned an anti-aircraft gun and shot down four Japanese planes, despite his lack of gunnery training.
During World War II, more than 1 million African-Americans answered the nation’s call, despite the continuance of segregated units and discrimination. Civil rights leaders of that time saw military service as a way for African-Americans to achieve long-denied rights and respect.
African-Americans served with distinction in units such as the 761st Tank Battalion, the 555th Infantry Parachute Battalion, the 99th Pursuit Squadron, and the 332nd Fighter Group. The 3rd Army’s march across Europe under Gen. George S. Patton after D-Day was facilitated by African-American quartermaster troops who drove supply trucks for the “Red Ball Express.”
Benjamin O. Davis Sr. became the first African-American general officer in the regular Army and the U.S. armed forces when he was promoted to brigadier general on Aug. 1, 1941. Davis was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his work as inspector of African-American troop units during the war. In 1954, Davis’s son, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., would become the first African-American general in the U.S. Air Force.
Yet, at first, there were no African-American Medal of Honor recipients from World War II. After an Army study, that oversight was rectified on Jan. 13, 1997, when President Bill Clinton presented Medals of Honor to families of seven World War II-era African-American servicemen. One, Army 1st Lt. Vernon Baker, was the only recipient still living and present to receive his award. The other six soldiers received their medals posthumously.
Near the end of World War II, an Army survey conducted in May and June of 1945 asked white officers and noncommissioned officers about the performance of about 2,500 African-American troops who had volunteered for combat duty in the European theater of operations. More than 80 percent of leaders interviewed said that African-American soldiers had performed very well in combat. And, 69 percent of officers and 83 percent of the NCOs queried said they saw no reason why African-American infantrymen should not perform as well as white soldiers if both had had the same training and experience.
A majority of officers in the survey also approved of integrating African-American platoons within white company units. However, many senior military leaders at that time remained reluctant to move toward total integration.
Other surveys conducted by the U.S. government after the war cited the unfairness and inefficiency of having segregated military units. President Harry S. Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights’ landmark report, titled, “To Secure These Rights,” condemned racial segregation wherever it existed and specifically criticized the practice of segregation in the U.S. armed forces. The report, issued on Oct. 29, 1947, recommended legislation and administrative action “to end immediately all discrimination and segregation based on race, color, creed or national origin” in all branches of the U.S. military.
Truman decided to end segregation in the armed forces and the civil service by administrative action through an executive order, rather than by legislation. On July 26, 1948, he signed Executive Order 9981. It states: “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the president that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.” The order also established a presidential committee on equality of treatment and opportunity in the armed services.
The Korean War erupted in June 1950 and somewhat slowed the implementation of Truman’s order. However, more than 600,000 African-Americans served in the armed forces during the war. Two African-American Army sergeants, Cornelius H. Charlton and William Thompson, earned the Medal of Honor during the conflict, which ended in 1953.
“Project Clear” conducted by Johns Hopkins University and released in 1954, studied the effects of segregation and integration in the Army both in the United States and in Korea. The report concluded that racially segregated units negatively affected Army efficiency, while integration enhanced military readiness. By the end of 1954, the last all-African-American unit had been disbanded, while African-American enlistment in the military grew.
In June 1961, the Defense Department issued a directive designed to eliminate off-post discrimination. By 1963, commanders were made responsible to ensure that their troops were treated fairly by off-post landlords.
During the Vietnam War (1962-75) African-Americans continued to join the armed forces in large numbers. Many volunteered to join the prestigious and high-risk airborne and air mobile helicopter combat units.
Future Air Force Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Jr., a graduate of the African-American pilot training program conducted at then-Tuskegee College, later Tuskegee University, Ala., during World War II, flew 78 combat missions into North Vietnam. James later became the first four-star African-American general in the U.S. armed forces. There were 20 African-American Medal of Honor recipients during the Vietnam War.
African-American enlistment into the U.S. military jumped with the advent of the all-volunteer force in 1973. African-Americans made up about 17 percent of the military’s enlisted force when the draft ended in 1973. By the early 1980s, African-Americans made up nearly 24 percent of the enlisted force.
And when the United States and its allies pushed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait in 1991, the most-senior officer in the U.S. military was an African-American, Army Gen. Colin L. Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell later served as Secretary of State in President George W. Bush’s administration.
And today, African-Americans continue to answer duty’s call as members of the U.S. armed forces during the war against global terrorism. During a recent Army commemoration of the work and birthday of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., guest speaker Andrew J. Young Jr. remarked that the U.S. military fulfills King’s dream of equality and social justice for all by its practice of promoting people based on individual merit, rather than by ethnic makeup.
Servicemembers “appreciate the diversity of this nation, and you fight to defend the freedoms and opportunities of all of our citizens,” Young said at the observance. “And that is what makes the military a leader in our society.”
(Information for this article was compiled from U.S. military documents, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration material and other sources.)