|Retired Army Sgt. 1 st Class Dan LaMar and his friend, Lillie R. Brown, pose on the Washington Mall after the dedication of the Korean War Veterans Memorial postage stamp on July 27, 2003. Photo by Rudi Williams
He also wanted to escape the blatant discriminatory practices in Macon, Ga., during the early 1950s.
Shortly before his 17 th birthday, LaMar tried to dupe a Navy recruiter into thinking he was 18, but the recruiter wasn’t fooled. So the desperate teenager waited impatiently until a few days before his 18 th birthday before signing up for the Marines.
But, to LaMar, the Marines were too slow in accepting him. “They didn’t want me right away, so I joined the Army,” said the 71-year-old retired Army sergeant first class.
That was in February 1951, about eight months after North Korean troops opened fire with artillery and mortars on South Korea across the 38 th Parallel. LaMar hankered to show his mettle on the battlefield, but he was instead assigned to the 599 th Field Artillery at Fort Bragg, N.C. The unit was made up entirely of black men, except for the white first sergeant and commander.
To his disappointment, instead of heading for the battlefield in Korea, LaMar’s unit went to Germany in December 1952. Still yearning to fight for his country, he re-enlisted and volunteered for combat in Korea. But to his disappointment again, he didn’t arrive there until June 23, 1953.
“The war was over and the cease-fire went into effect on July 27, 1953, at 10 o’clock at night,” said the then-aspiring combat soldier.
First assigned as a rifleman with the 32 nd Infantry Regiment, 7 th Infantry Division, LaMar later became a truck driver. “When the war was over, I went to a tank company – 73 rd Tank Company,” he said.
He didn’t get a chance to fire a single shot at the enemy, but something happened during his overseas tour of duty that he’ll never forget.
“When I first went to Germany, they sent me to Schwabisch-Gmund, about 28 miles east of Stuttgart, with the 599 th Field Artillery,” LaMar noted. “That’s where the black and white units were integrated. Then they sent me to Hanau, Germany, with the 4 th Infantry Division, 20 th Field Artillery.
“I felt strange when we integrated,” he continued. “Before we left Germany for Korea, they gave us classes on how to get along with each other. But when I first got to the unit, I felt strange, even though the white soldiers seemed to try to reach out to me.
“It seemed that after they learned a little bit about you, they’d go back to their old ways of treating blacks,” LaMar said.
“Things were so bad back then that black and white soldiers were always fighting each other,” he said. “When we went to town there was a place we called ‘The 38 th Parallel’ because blacks were on one side and whites on the other side. And we had some terrible fights.”
LaMar said whenever white soldiers saw black soldiers with German women, they’d call the African-Americans nasty names and try to start trouble. “There wasn’t any use in me going to the first sergeant or company commander, because they (were) white, too!” he exclaimed. “They treated us so bad that I actually hated white folks during that time.”
But hating people wasn’t part of his psyche. “I decided that there has got to be a better way,” LaMar said. “So I changed my attitude toward whites, because I had some compassion in me. My father taught me how to stand straight and my mother taught me compassion.”
Over the 1950s and 1960s, LaMar said, foul attitudes toward African-Americans in the military slowly melted away and were replaced with more congenial and respectful relationships among different ethnicities.
The Korean War was the beginning of a new era for African-Americans in the armed forces. By the end of the war, more than 600,000 African-Americans had served in all combat and combat-service elements in the military, including the U.S. Coast Guard. More than 5,000 died in combat, according to military historians.
The Korean War wasn’t the only time LaMar was involved in desegregation efforts. “I was one of the first Army troops to arrive when we integrated ‘Ole Miss’ (the University of Mississippi) in 1962,” he noted. “It was like D-Day (the June 6, 1944, Normandy, France, invasion) when we arrived at Ole Miss – everything was burning and smoking. I can’t explain how I felt when I went into that building.”
The college town of Oxford, Miss., erupted in violence when James Meredith tried to become the first African-American to register at the all-white university. The campus was stormed by a segregationist mob. Officials ordered African-American soldiers, including LaMar, to hide in the back of the truck as they headed to the campus to protect Meredith.
“They said they wanted to keep us from getting confrontational with the white people,” LaMar said. “But we all refused to get into the back of the truck. That was the only time in the Army that I refused to obey an order. A message from the Pentagon said we didn’t have to move to the back of the truck.”
Meredith was the first African-American to gain admission and graduate from the University of Mississippi. Troops and U.S. marshals were sent to protect him, because racists were threatening to lynch him. More than 160 marshals were wounded, 28 by gunfire, and two bystanders were killed.
Meredith graduated in 1963, and was shot by a sniper on June 5, 1966, during a March Against Fear from Memphis, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss. He survived.
“I was one of the first blacks to stay in the dormitory at Ole Miss,” LaMar noted. “We moved from there to Sen. Stennis’s summer home, where we made our headquarters.” Mississippi Sen. John Stennis served in the U.S. Senate from 1947 to 1988.
“I was in charge of feeding all the news reporters and people from Washington,” LaMar said, “because I cooked for the general.”
LaMar chuckled when he talked about how he became an Army cook. He said every time he pulled KP (kitchen police) while doing on-the-job training in the signal wire section, the cooks marveled at his pots, pans and dishwashing expertise. They always asked him if he’d like to be a cook, he recalled.
“No! No! Not me!” LaMar said he would exclaim. “I thought cooks were sissies.” But his white first sergeant and company commander eventually talked him into changing his mind.
“Me, coming from Georgia, I don’t know if it was fear, or what, but I was a little shy because of my experiences with white people,” he said. “So I agreed to become a cook.”
The decision turned out to be a good one for him. He discovered that he had a special knack for preparing culinary delights. It wasn’t long before he was tapped to become the general’s cook, a capacity in which he served for different generals throughout his career.
Retiring after 20 years of service in March 1971, LaMar went to work as a food service manager for Washington’s Veterans Affairs hospital. A few months later, the District of Columbia School System hired him as a regional manager for food service.
He also attended the University of the District of Columbia and American University, majoring in food science, but was forced to drop out in his junior year after he was diagnosed with cancer.
“That devastated me,” said LaMar, who retired from the school system on disability in 1981. “It took me awhile to straighten myself out.”
Nowadays he is a volunteer cook at Tacoma Park (Md.) Baptist Church. He also sings in the church choir. “I help people in any way I can,” he said.
“I enjoy helping people and I like to travel,” said LaMar, who has nine sisters and three brothers. “I don’t do it much anymore, but I used to go on a lot of space-available trips to Europe. And I love to fish.
I like to do anything that makes me happy,” he said with a hearty laugh.
The twice-married father of a son and three daughters said his son is a retired Air Force sergeant. His grandson, his great-grandson and his great-grandson’s wife are soldiers and have served in Iraq. His granddaughter spent four years in the Army Reserve before switching to the Air Force.
LaMar’s father ran a barber shop where he cut only white men’s hair. “He cut white people’s hair, and I had a lot of intermingling with them,” LaMar noted. “I shined shoes at the barber, too. Through the week I worked on our farm, and my father let me shine shoes on Friday and Saturday.”
LaMar said his father taught him how to cut hair when he was about 14. “I used to go in the back and cut hair free,” he said. “Also, in high school, I took up shoe repair. My father owned a shoe shop, too.”
LaMar said he learned an important lesson from his father in those days that he only realized later. “My father used to tell me that I was a white boy, too,” LaMar noted. “But I didn’t understand that until I got older. What he was trying to tell me is that I was just as good as anybody else.”
LaMar said he was at the dedication of the Korean War Veterans Memorial during dedication week in July 1995, and also attended the dedication of the Postal Service’s Korean War Memorial Commemorative stamp on July 27, 2003.
“I went to the memorial both times, because I knew a lot of guys who would be there,” LaMar said. “I feel at home when I get with those guys. I just love to be around the military.”
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service