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Blacks Must Legitimize Contributions in Korean War, Vet

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 7, 1996 – By his own admission, Ernest K. "Ernie" Shaw is a softspoken, mildmannered fellow, who grew up milking cows, slopping hogs, herding cattle and doing all the other things farm boys do. But don't let his demeanor fool you. Shaw can rise to the occasion whatever it is.

The replica Silver Star Medal he wears around his neck attests to that. The Korean War combat veteran earned the nations third highest award for gallantry near Mungdungni, Korea. At that place, better known as Heartbreak Ridge, 1st Lt. Ernie Shaw had commanded a platoon in the 31st Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division.

"I was cited for destroying a bunker, leading a flamethrower team and rallying my unit to attack when they were prepared to hold," the softspoken hero said.

In fact, his platoon was pinned down by intense enemy small arms, automatic weapons and mortar fire. Shaw suffered leg wounds from shrapnel on Nov. 1, 1951, but refused to leave the firing line.

"There were about 240 men in my company," he said. "I had five wounded or killed in my 40man platoon. I was one of the first black officers to have a mixed command, and we (African Americans) were expected to do the best we could under all circumstances. So we didnt make big of a lot of things that occurred; we just kept the faith and kept going.

"It was touch and go because we had to prove ourselves beyond a reasonable doubt," Shaw said, reflecting on the vicious fighting on the bonechilling battlefield in Korea. "It went OK for many of us, but some didn't get back. I happened to be one of those who made it back, that's why I came here from Houston." Shaw was in Washington last July for the dedication of the Korean War Veterans Memorial.

The Korean War was the first time U.S. military units were integrated. "As the fighting escalated, white combat units began to take many casualties. It was indeed popular for military commanders to replace whites killed and wounded with other whites, as had always been the practice before the advent of equality of opportunity and treatment," according to "Black Americans in Defense of Our Nation," written in 1991 by the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civilian Personnel Policy and Equal Opportunity)."

"The only alternative was to have black troops and black units fill in the gaps that had been created by white casualties," the book continues. "Thus, integration was being implemented in a manner that had not been imagined in the past." African Americans served well in Korea, proving beyond a doubt they could fight as well as whites, the book notes.

Shaw said the Korean War was the first American war since the SpanishAmerican War in 1898 that African Americans were credited by the United States for their battlefield heroics. Five black soldiers and one sailor were awarded the Medal of Honor during the Korean War.

Army Pfc. William Thompsons "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity" on Aug. 6, 1950, near Haman, Korea, resulted in his becoming the first black man to receive the Medal of Honor since 1898. Army Sgt. Cornelius H. Charlton was the second, for heroism on June 2, 1951, near Chipori, Korea. Both awards were posthumous.

It was also during the Korean War that Ensign Jesse L. Brown became the first black to receive the Navy Distinguished Flying Cross, Shaw pointed out. Brown, the first black Navy combat pilot, was killed by enemy ground fire.

"We must never forget those people who were privates, corporals and sergeants," Shaw said. "They had to take orders and do what they were told without equivocation. Most of them did, and many of them were black. Many of them didn't get back."

For every person who experiences combat infantry, air, Marines, Navy "there are at least 20 other people behind him who deserve equal credit," he said. "There were a lot of men who paid more than I did and were unsung. So I'm here for them, too, and for my daughter."

"Since they were making an effort to integrate the forces, they took 100 black officers from predominantly black colleges and officer candidate school graduates and sent us to Korea as replacement officers," said Shaw, a 1950 graduate of Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University.

The Korean War marked the second time Shaw was on active duty. He first joined the Army April 9, 1945, and was serving in Manila on July 4, 1946, when the Philippines became an independent country.

Slowly walking around the new Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, which features statues of 19 weary, wary ponchoclad ground troopers, Shaw said, "It's outstanding. It's fantastic. And it represents the reality of what it was like in Korea. I see a soldier carrying SCR 300 [field radio], a platoon leader. The men [statues] are primed to hold where they are as if a flare went off. This looks like a real patrol."

Noting that the Korean War is often referred to as the "forgotten war," Shaw said, "I dont think AfricanAmerican veterans were more forgotten than white veterans." But he also believes the neglect is more insidious to blacks, partly because so many young African Americans are unaware of what took place before the military was integrated by the Truman executive order.

"Some are not quite clear on what transpired. Of course, this could very well get lost to history unless it's documented," he said. "It's up to African Americans to thread their own needles and make people aware of what we contributed.

"For instance, I discovered that the AfricanAmerican gentleman who was over me when I was commissioned as a lieutenant was killed in action," Shaw said. "But theres no record of his picture, just the fact that he died.

"So it's up to us to legitimize the role African Americans played in Korea, as well as preceding wars," Shaw said. "And the Korean War needs to be documented as the first one where we were given the opportunity and responsibility for leadership as platoon leaders. That's where the rubber hits the road." Most of the fighting done by military units has been by privates, corporals, sergeants, lieutenants and captains."

Many African Americans have gained far higher ranks since Korea, he said, "But unless those at lower ranks are highly acclaimed and acknowledged, the ones who paid the supreme price won't be recognized properly."

Shaw decided to get out of the Army after the war because "I wasnt a career soldiertype. I was a farmreared person from Terrell, Texas [30 miles east of Dallas]. So after getting discharged, I tried to put the war behind me. But I had a problem with it. I had succumbed to a chronic stress disorder that was associated with the internal concussion I suffered from artillery and mortar bombardments. I went into denial and had flashbacks. Then I went into therapy to get the meat out of the coconut. Ive worked around it, through it and in spite of it. "

He worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as an agronomist. Shaw became a county agent working with farmers. He worked as an agronomist for four years in Liberia, West Africa. Hes now a retired agriculture agent and professor at Prairie View A&M University.

"Some of my best moments were in combat in Korea," Shaw said. "That seems like a tremendous irony, but at that time I felt I could be all I could be without any relationship to race. Some of the feelings are indescribable, but it was all about capacity, capability and perseverance. I was in a bear fight, and I won.

"Since we were the first AfricanAmerican officers in integrated outfits, it was important for us to prevail and conduct ourselves with courage," Shaw said. "How we conduced ourselves would impact on how those who followed us would be treated and used."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageErnest K. “Ernie” Shaw displays his Silver Star Medal medallion following dedication ceremonies at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington. “It’s up to blacks to thread their own needles and make people aware of what we contributed during the Korean War,” said Shaw. Rudi Williams   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSilver Star Medal recipient Ernest K. “Ernie” Shaw was pleased to see a statue of an African-American among the 19 sculptures at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington. “Our contributions in the Korean and other wars could get lost to history unless they're documented,” Shaw said. Rudi Williams  
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