The Untold Story: How Korean War Brought about the First Desegregation in American History

CompanyC

The Company C of the 24th Infantry Regiment after their surrender to the Chinese army

 

In 1951,second year into the Korean War, when the all Black Rangers from 2nd Company boarded a plane for their historic combat jump at Munsan-ni, one Ranger made the comment that “it took the Chinese to integrate the American Army.” http://secondrangerinfantrycompany.com/preface.htm . This comment came from the Black soldiers’ own personal experience of the desegregation in that War.

These Black Rangers from 2nd Company were the first and last all-Black unit for the army in that War. At the outbreak of the Korean War, the US army was rigidly segregated. There were about 100,000 Black soldiers in the army in Korea, serving in 14 all-Black units. Amongst them was the 24th Infantry Regiment, the largest of the fourteen all-Black units in the Far East Command, the other Blacks were mostly serving in service area for the army. The Blacks in the army could not eat on the same table with the Whites, share domes with the Whites, or entertain together with the Whites. They were often sent to the most dangerous spots and starved when food supply was insufficient.

But second year into the War, as if all of a sudden, this segregation system was officially abolished. “In October 1951, the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment, a unit established in 1869, which had served during the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II and the beginning of the Korean War, was disbanded, essentially ending segregation in the U.S. Army.” All Black soldiers were integrated into the White units. And all of these happened in fighting with the Chinese army.

It is particularly interesting considering that prior to Korean War, even if the US President did not make desegregation happen in the army. In 1948, US President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 which directed an end to the official policy of segregation in the military. However, the Order was never implemented by the army. The army commanders resisted this Order, and the Order itself allowed the army to take an unspecified time that it deemed necessary to make the change: “This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale”. The army’s commanders took full advantage of this time provision to ignore the Order. Thus the army kept its segregation system intact, and remained as one of the most segregated sectors in the America.

So what did the Chinese do in Korean War that made the US army desegregation happen? And so made the Korean War (1950 to 1953) the last American conflict involving segregated units of the arced forces?

The most commonly accepted reason for that in American society is that due to shortage of manpower, the white combat units’ casualties could only be replaced by the Black soldiers. From this explanation it seems what the Chinese and Koreans did was only brave war fighting so as to cause never seen before casualty to the US army. But there had been war times before Korean War in that the US army also had significant casualty, and replacement with Black soldiers never happened. That is how the segregated system worked in that White units’ casualties would only be replaced by whites, and vise versa to the Blacks units. The shortage of manpower certainly played a role, but not the sole reason for the change of US army’s racial policy in its organizational system.

There is another story that has never been told. It’s from the Chinese army’s side – it was a battle in that the Chinese deployed a political maneuver that used the American segregation and racism to make a whole 114 people’s Black combat unit surrender without a real fight, so the battle ended up a big victory for the Chinese and a big lesson for the US about segregation and racism, which directly resulted in the US abolishing the segregation completely in the US army, triggering the eventual desegregation of the entire US.

 

The Chinese and Black Americans’ encounter in that War is rather dramatic. At that time in the US army, among the 25th Division’s 3 infantry regiments was the Army’s last black 24th Infantry, the largest black unit to serve in Korea. This Black Regiment used to be famous for its fearless fighting spirit and outstanding performance during the previous wars. But things changed in the Korean War.

 

The first encounter of the Chinese with the Black soldiers turned out very bazaar and disastrous for the Chinese. One night the Chinese soldiers went out to ambush a US army camp site. They quietly surrounded them and sneaked in, but just before they were about to open fire, they were shocked to see outside the sleeping bags were all black heads. The Chinese soldiers at that time were mostly undereducated young men from countryside, who were kind of superstitious, and had never had the knowledge that there are Black people in this world, let alone seen one. So the sight of the Black heads astonished and scared them so much that they started yelling loud “Ghosts! Ghosts!” and ran away without a single shot.

 

When they put themselves together, someone said maybe they are just the Black soldiers that they overheard of. So still shaken, they went back to complete their task. But they met with heavy fire from the Blacks – their loud yelling had woke up the Black soldiers who prepared themselves with machine guns for the attack. The Chinese ran again, the Blacks ran after the Chinese, and the Chinese suffered a big casualty.

 

Rumors and myths began to circulate in the Chinese army about those different looking Americans who were scary warmongers, and the rumors even reached the highest rank commanders. If the first encounter story was not officially recorded, but only told by the Chinese soldiers, the fear of the Black troops by the high rank commanders was officially documented in the Chinese army’s official Korean War Record.

 

In , 1950, the then one of the most famous Chinese armies – the 38th Army, was sent to attack the S. Korean army in … While the troop was marching towards …, the highest commanders received a telegraph – “A Black Regiment is there in …”. The commanders halted the march, then moved very slowly. When they got there, the Korean troops were already gone, and to their surprise, there was no Black Regiment in   at all.

 

Corp Commander of the 38th Army, Liang Xingchu, was admonished and scolded by the highest commander of the Chinese Army to Korea – General Peng Dehuai. General Peng even punched on the table when scolding Liang, and asked why they could fight White troops but could not fight Black troops. Now the Chinese armies knew whatever they just had to fight with the Black troops.

 

They began to fight with the 24th Regiment bravely. Things changed. Soon they realized the Black soldiers were only different looking Americans. Things changed. Here are some interceptions of the Wiki description on the 24th Infantry’s encounter with the Chinese army: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/24th_Infantry_Regiment_%28United_States%29#Korean_War

 

On November 30, the 3/24th was at Kunu-ri, on the division’s open right flank, with Chinese troops behind it. With the help of air support, the battalion extricated itself, losing one soldier killed, 30 wounded and 109 missing. Overall, the 24th Infantry lost one-fifth of its officers and one-third of its enlisted men in the withdrawal across the Chongchon.

On another day,

… While climbing up steep terrain, however, the 1/24th reportedly collapsed under Chinese fire and withdrew in disorder… Many soldiers of the 24th ran away from the fight, tossing their weapons and equipment aside. A derisive poem throughout the U.S. Army stated: When them Chinese mortars begins to thud, the Old Deuce-Four begin to bug.[2]:216

Many of those Black soldiers ended up surrendering themselves to the Chinese. They explained to the Chinese that the Whites did not treat them as real Americans anyway. So the Chinese learned about racism in the US and in its army and had a lot of sympathy towards the Blacks.

 

The bad performance of the 24th Regiment was not new to their superior – Maj. Gen. William B. Kean, commander of the 25th Division, because it started early on in that war fighting the North Korean armies, even before the Chinese army entered Korea.

Kean was so enraged that he declared that the 24th Infantry Regiment constituted a threat to the security of his division and requested its replacement with another regiment. The request was ignored by General McArthur because the army needed manpower.

 

Then the decisive battle took place on Nov. 27, when the Chinese 39th Army encountered the 24th Black Regiment in Yunshan. The Chinese army’s Company 4 of the 347th Regiment chased and surrounded the Company C of the 24th Black Regiment. The Blacks attempted to break out twice, but got beat back.

 

In the dawn of next day morning, when the Chinese commanders of the Company 4 found out in telescope that this was a Black unit, with only about 3 or 4 White officers, they decided not to attack. They gathered some Chinese soldiers who could speak little English, and began to use a speaker to ask the Blacks to surrender.

 

Two Blacks walked out from the bush holding a white flag. But when few Chinese soldiers stood up and happily went out to meet them, the Blacks opened fire, a Chinese squad leader was fatally shot, few others wounded. The Chinese got mad and returned fire, another Chinese Battalion aided the Company 4, the Blacks incurred quite some casualties.

 

Then the Chinese ceased fire again when the Company 4 commanders saw from the telescope the Blacks began to panic. They reported the situation to their Battalion commander, Battalion commander reported to the Regiment commander, and Regiment commander reported to the Division commander … the Battalion commander came, English translators and officers in charge of “political training” were also sent there.

 

A powerful “political campaign” started. The Chinese said on the speaker that –

 

“Our American Black brothers, we know the White imperialists made you fight the war, as long as you put down the weapons, we guarantee you your safety!”

 

“The oppressed Black brothers! You are discriminated in the US, and segregated even in the US army. We Chinese army will treat all Black and White captives the same!”

 

“Black soldiers and officers! Don’t be cannon fodder for the Wall Street, surrender, now!”

 

“Black soldiers and officers! We will welcome your surrender! We Chinese army never kill captives, we guarantee you food and cloths!”

 

Finally a tall Black walked out from the bush. He held a piece of white paper, on it was a US soldier hands up picture, the soldier was painted Black. Also on the paper was the total number of the Company C.

 

This was the Company commander. The Chinese commanders began a conversation with him: “How many people you have?”- He answered: “Total 148.””What’s your army code designation?” — “Company C of the 24th Infantry Regiment, Division 25 of the US Army.” “What’s the meaning of ‘Company C”? – “Means the third Company”. “Why did you fake surrender?”– “We Blacks didn’t want to continue fight but the White officers wanted to. Now we are hungry and surrounded by you, time to put down the weapon.” “OK, now ask your brothers all come out.”

 

The Company C commander began to persuade his soldiers – “Brothers, all come out! Even I came why you still there!” More panics but soon the Blacks began to walk out. They wrapped themselves in blankets, and some were on canes. This was the first time for most of the Chinese soldiers to actually see the Blacks in person. The Chinese described their first impression of Blacks as “all tall and big”, the only thing white on them are their teeth, and it’s a big wonder how their teeth were so white.

 

Among them were the 3 White officers who walked with their heads bent very low as if trying to hide their identities. They were the Platoon leaders for all the 3 platoons in Company C. From this time on, they never had their privilege like before – Whites eat first, then Blacks eat, Blacks and Whites they all had to eat together in the Chinese captives’ camp.

 

The whole Company, 114 soldiers surrendered to the Chinese, including 3 White officers. The Chinese casualty was 1, the Blacks 33.

 

This event received heavy press coverage at that time in both China and US. It is called “a major debacle” of the Korean War by US army historians.   The US government was so shocked and ashamed for it was the only time since the American Civil War that a whole large combat unit surrendered to enemy. Particularly the fact that the Chinese deployed a political maneuver that used the American segregation and racism to win the battle without a real fight made the army commanders realize that this was “a defeat from within”, that the segregation and racism would do harm to the nation’s interests when faced with strong enemies.

 

The Americans ain’t no fools. They learned the lesson right away, and quickly determined that segregation in the army must be completely abolished to prevent such event from happening again.

 

3 months after that battle, Maj. Gen. William B. Kean of the 25th Division made a report request that the all Black 24th Regiment be disbanded and the whole army be integrated. Department of Defense approved the request. 8 months from that battle, the US army in Korea was desegregated. And within months the whole US army was desegregated.

 

This was the very first desegregation in American history. The Chinese army “inadvertently” changed American history, and changed the life course of people of colors in America.

 

Had the Chinese army not been powerful enough in fighting the War, the Black troops never needed to surrender; had the Chinese army not had their sympathy towards Blacks and their Communist agenda about “people of colors”’ brotherhood, but simply shot most of the Blacks dead when they faked surrender – then in White men’s history book there would have only been simply another record of “Negros’ incompetency for war” for that battle.

 

And even further, this lesson motivated the US government to desegregate the whole American society, starting with the schools. As soon as the Korean War ended in 1953, the US government in a landmark United States Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), abolished school segregation. 10 years later the civil rights movement started.

 

The US army’s desegregation triggered the slow process of desegregation in the whole society. Its pioneer role to the Civil Rights Movement has been officially acknowledged by the academics and even by officials in the US Department of Defense. Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Washington, the Deputy Director of Department of Defense in 2013 wrote an article entitled: “The U.S. Military Led the Way to Ending Segregation in America As African Americans Fought in Integrated Units During Korean War.” The article says: “The U.S. military, and specifically our nation’s involvement in the Korean War, was the beginning of the end of institutionalized segregation in America and helped create an environment that led to President Johnson signing legislation and the Supreme Court rendering decisions that called for the fair and equal treatment of all citizens.” Another African American scholar, Gerald Early, also contends that “the Korean War was a driving force behind integration efforts during the early years of the civil rights movement.” He “argues that the successful integration of the military in Korea encouraged the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 school desegregation ruling, Brown vs. Board of Education, and helped change attitudes about race. Had the military failed, integration overall would have suffered.” And he concluded: “If for no other reason, this fact alone makes the Korean War one of the most important conflicts this country ever engaged in.”

 

The Black soldiers of the Company C had a very good experience with the Chinese, so that many say they felt like normal human beings now and had never been treated like so. When the time of exchange captives came, many of these Black soldiers requested to go to China. But the requests were declined.

 

The Chinese army made the history, but months later they found themselves facing a racially mixed enemy. Surrender of a whole large combat unit never happened again. But the Chinese army still observed the racism in mixed US army in battle field. One incident as recorded was that once in the battle, the Chinese signaled both sides to cease fire so each side could take back their deceased bodies and injured in the battle field. But after the Chinese finished their work, they waited but never saw the Americans came out to bring back their bodies. They didn’t understand until some Chinese soldiers who went out there told them that those 7, 8 dead and injured were all Blacks. And the Chinese in captives’ camps also witnessed quite some racial incidents between Blacks and White soldiers.

 

The stories cited in this article are all translated from the Chinese official record of the Korean War, except the first encounter one, that was unofficially recorded.

 

Korean War, it was a win for all parties, in the sense of political development of those involved.

ChineseGeneral

The young man on phone, Corp Commander of 39th Chinese Army whose troops forever changed American hisory

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