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Black Combat Units In Korean War Action
by David K. Carlisle

The Korean War (1950 to 1953) was the last American conflict involving segregated units of the arced forces, i.e. the US Army. 3 American infantry divisions -- the 25th, the 2nd, and the 3rd -- contained black combat units during 1950/51.

Among the 25th Division's 3 infantry regiments was the Army's last black 24th Infantry, the largest black unit to serve in Korea. (The 24th Infantry was also the Army's only 3-bn regiment in action during initial weeks of the war. Other American regiments 1st committed to action from peacetime occupation duty in Japan contained only 2 bns.) Accompanied by the black 159th Field Arty bn and the black 77th Engineer Combat Co, the 24th Infantry arrived in the Korean Combat Zone beginning 7-13. On 7-20 the 24th's 3rd Bn, reinforced by a battery of the 159th and a platoon of the 77th, was the 1st 25th Division element to go into action at Yechon. In an extraordinary 2-day action hailed around the world as the US' initial Korean War victory, the reinforced bn drove the enemy from the town and recaptured it at a cost of 2 Americans killed and 10 wounded in action to at least 258 enemy dead.

Subsequently, the 24th Regimental Combat Team:

  • Held the most vital part of the Pusan Perimeter Aug/Sep, taking and retaking Battle Mountain 19 times in 30 days
  • Led portions or 25th Division's breakout and advance westnorthward to the outskirts of Seoul mid-Sep
  • Advanced in North Korea to within a few miles of the Yalu River during late Nov, and then staged a fighting withdrawal as the Chinese entered the war astride the Chongehon River and in the vicinity of Kunuri
  • Crossed the Han River near Seoul with 2 other 25th Division regiments on 3-7-51 (an important part of what UN Supreme Commander General Matthew B. Ridgway characterized years later as "the most successful single action fought by troops under my command during either World War II in Europe, or in Korea")
  • Crossed the Hantan River northeast of Seoul alone 4-11 in the face of determined resistance from a superior enemy occupying the commanding terrain
  • Stormed the heights above Mando and ejected the enemy from fortified positions with a bayonet charge and hand-to-hand fighting with hand grenades, mid-Sept 1951. During early Aug 1950, the 9th Infantry Regiment's black 3rd Bn and the black 503rd Field Arty Bn arrived in Korea with other 2nd Division elements. Initially, the black bn, a black arty battery, a tank company, and a company of engineers were detached and withheld front frontline action and assigned to guard an airfield near Pohang. In early Sep heavy combat losses among the 9th Inf's 2 white bns led to the assignment of some 200 black soldiers as individual replacements, a practice heartily endorsed by the regimental commander, Col. Charles C. Sloane Jr. During mid-Sept, having been introduced gradually to combat action near Pohang and elsewhere, the 3rd Bn rejoined in time to strengthen the 9INF in attempting to break out from the Pusan Perimeter.

    During late Nov the last segregated 24th Division (on the right of the 25th Division) and the 1st integrating 9INF (on the left of the 2nd Division) advanced in northernmost North Korea side-by-side astride the Chongchon River. On 11-25, hit more heavily (than the 24th, the hardest hit of the 25th Division's regiments) by the Chinese, the 9INF fought extraordinarily well as 2 integrated and 1 segregated bn, the latter temporarily reinforced 2 nights running by 2 rifle companies separated from the 24th's fighting 2nd Bn. By the night of 11-29 the 9INF had been reduced to some 600 effectives as had its sister 38th Infantry. On the morning of 11-30, these 600, spearheading the 2nd Division's desperate attempt to withdraw south from Kunuri, surrounded by the enemy, were virtually wiped out and the 2nd Division was effectively destroyed. But a rebuilt 9Inf, thoroughly integrated, thereafter acquitted itself well in action after action during 1951.

    The 3rd infantry Division, complete with the black 3rd Bn, 15th Inf Regiment, disembarked at WonSan in northeast Korea in mid-Nov 1950, joining X Corps commanded by Major General Edward M. Almond, notorious for his racist attitudes commanding the black 92d Infantry Division in Italy during WW2. The division included, in addition to the Puerto Rican 65th Infantry, the black 64th Tank Bn while the Corps-level black 58th and 999th Fields Arty Bns provided supporting firepower. After acquitting itself well in a defensive role during the evacuation of Hagaru and Hungnam, the 15th's 3rd Bn excelled in early Feb 1951, and on 5-19/20 at Pungnam.

    The performance of black arty, and armor bns in Korea was consistently superior. The 25th Div's 159th Field Arty never lost a gun to the enemy, a record that few other 105-mm. gun bns could match. The 77th Engineer Combat Company -- eventually the last black combat unit of the US Army ever to engage an enemy of the US -- was perhaps the most decorated single American unit in Korean War action. 2 of its officers, 2nd Lts.. William A. Benefield and Chester J. Lenon, earned Distinguished Service Crosses during the initial weeks of the war, Benefield posthumously.

    2 24th Infantrymen, Private 1st Class William Thompson and Sgt. Cornelius H. Charlton, posthumously were awarded the 1st Medals of Honor to black fighting men since Spanish-American War days (excepting, as of Apr 1991, the Medal of Honor awarded to a heroic WW1 black 371st infantryman). Another 24th infantryman, Corporal Levi A. Jackson, the US Army's heavyweight boxing champion, was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Yet another Distinguished Service Cross wearer, 24th infantryman Sgt Curtis Pugh, is alive and well.

    The 77th Engineers' commander, 1st Lt. Charles M Bussey, was recommended for (but, apparently, wrongfully denied) both the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross before having time enough in combat to be promoted to his WW2 rank of Capt. (Bussey, a fighter pilot in the pioneering black 332nd Fighter Group, flew 70 missions and scored 2 "kills", 2 probables, and 2 damaged enemy a/c in aerial combat.) Another Distinguished Service Cross was awarded to 1Lt Ellison C. Wynn who took command of the 9Inf's integrated B Company and led it heroically until he was seriously wounded during bitter fighting in late Nov 1950, astride the Chongchon River. No account of black combat units and heroes in Korea would be complete without mentioning the late Major Richard W. Williams, S-2, 24Inf, Regiment, who served during WW2 as a pioneering officer of the black 555th Parachute infantry Bn. Or of Capt Roger S. Walden, CO, Of Company, 24Inf, the 2d longest-serving rifle company commander in frontline action in Korea (who also served during World War II as a pioneering NCO of the black 555th Parachute infantry Bn) Or, finally, of the late 1Lt. Harry E. Sutton, platoon leader, I Company, 15Inf, Silver Star at Hungnam' killed in action Feb, 1951, another pioneering black paratrooper.

    But the performance of some of these black combat units came into question, unjustly and unwarrantedly, during the war and afterward. The 24th Inf was accused, even by the late Army Chief of Staff General J. Layton Collins of "repeatedly breaking and running until the regiment was deactivated 10-1-1951" (But the late General of the Army Omar N. Bradley's co-author of "A General's Story", Clay Blair, himself a distinguished military historian, has recently informed the Army chief of military history in personal correspondence that he knows that, had General Bradley known of the true facts concerning the 24th Infantry's Korean War outstanding service, he would have rewritten portions of his autobiography in tribute to these brave American soldiers.) In early Sep 1950, the 25th Infantry Division's commander, Major General William B. Kean, recommended to 8th Army Hqs that the 24INF be relieved of frontline combat service. This recommendation was ignored by the late General of the Army Douglas MacArthur and, subsequently, the record shows that the 24INF fought at least as well as other American regiments during the remainder of its last tour of duty until deactivated 10-1-1951.

    During 1951, back in the US, the 24th's famous CO, the late Brigadier General John T. Corley, sought to dispel others criticism by pointing out that in action "exceeding in roughness" anything he had witnessed in Europe 24th Infantrymen had fought as well as his own 1INF Division soldiers during WW2. But then-Col Corley was ordered to cease demonstrating his regard for his Korean War regiment by General Mark W. Clark because, reportedly, "some people in high places" were beginning to become alarmed.

    Among some factors worth noting concerning the 24Inf's initial weeks' commitment to Korean War action are

  • On his 1st day in Korea in Jul 1950, the original regimental executive officer feigned a heart attack and cowardly had himself medically evacuated
  • There was not a physically fit/professionally competent regimental commanding officer until LtCol Corley succeeded to command on 9-6
  • During its 1st 3 months in action the 24INF experienced 13 changes (of which only 2 were casualty related) in bn commanders as compared to 1 and 3 changes, respectively, in the 25th Division's other (i.e, white) regiments.

    It is interesting to note that none of these factors nor any of the 24th Regiment's outstanding combat successes has ever been officially recorded. But it has been recorded in the 1st of the Army's 3 volume official Korean War history covering the 1st 5 months of the war (including only the 1st 4 months of the 24th's 145-month Korean War service) that black 24th Infantrymen "broke and ran", "ran away from the enemy", "threw down their weapons", "withdrew without a fight", "broke ranks", repeatedly, whereas these terms are not used in reference to other (i.e, white) US regiments whose initial weeks' combat performance was no better. Curiously, although the 1st volume was publisher in 1961 and the 3d volume in 1966, the 2d volume was not published until 1990. How, then, could a separate official history, "Integration of the Armed Forces 1940-65", published in 1982, assert that the 24Inf's overall KW performance was "poor" and the proximate factor in the decision to begin integrating 8th Army in Korea? Particularly when the 2d volume's evenhanded treatment of US combat units, black and white, in action from mid-Nov 1950, to mid-1951 (corresponding with another 8 months of the 24Inf's service) indicates that this black regiment performed its frontline combat duties as well as others.

    During 1988, responding to representations by then-Congressman Gus Hawkins (see Footnote #1) and House Armed Services Committee Chmn Les Aspin, Secretary of the Army John O. Marsh Jr. chartered a special board of review to determine the truth about the 24th Infantry Regiment in Korea. In another year or so this board will render a report to Sec of the Army Michael P. W. Stone including an unprecedented official regimental- level history, the 24INF during 1950/51.

    Written 4-19, 1991

    Footnote #1
    It will be recalled that in 1972, Congressman Hawkins caused Pres Nixon to restore to the Army's honor rolls 165 black 25th Infantrymen who wrongfully had been discharged without honor following their alleged involvement in 1906 in the infamous "Brownsville (Texas) Incident", by which time only 2 of the soldiers remained alive.

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    See also:
    The Last Black Combat Unit of the U.S. Army
    Korean War Websites