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When members of his unit attempted to visit a recreation hall near Leipzig, they were told by a sentry, No niggers allowed here. On hearing the news, their white company commander rushed out to the former country estate and demanded that his men be allowed to enter. Know who I am, the captain told the major in charge of the recreation center. We fought for this town 13 days ago. When my men come in here, you treat them with respect. Pickett then turned to his troops: You men go in there. Such instances were few and far between. Soon after V-E Day, the black platoons were ordered disbanded, and the members returned to their old units or to other all-black service units for shipment home.
Many of the men, who naturally believed they had earned the right to be treated as equals, rebelled and refused to follow orders. They demanded to be returned to the United States with their parent combat divisions. James Strawder, who had served with the 99th Division, expressed the feeling of many of his fellow African-American combat vets, saying, We expected to gain our dignity as human beings in this country when we put our blood on the line in combat. All of a sudden we were told to pack up and they put us on trucks and started moving us out, he said. I thought the whole company was going, but I found out it was nobody but us blacks.
We were being separated out of the company. I cussed and raised Cain. I was having a rage, I was so upset. I said, I knew it. All this mess was for nothing. How could they be so indifferent as to kick us out of our infantry divisions? Believing that it was a misguided order coming out of the division, the men of the 5th of K, th, sent a delegation to Frankfurt hoping to speak directly to Eisenhower and ask that the separation orders be rescinded. It was all to no avail. Strawder and his platoon eventually found themselves in a cigarette camp in France, where several hundred separated black veterans threatened open mutiny when they were ordered to take up picks and shovels and build barracks for white servicemen being processed for home.
Strawder realized how serious the situation was, noting the number of pistols and knives his fellow volunteers had in their possession. Having issued such an unjust order, SHAEF realized too late that it now faced a considerable problem. To placate these vets, the Army called in General Benjamin O.
America Wasn’t a Democracy, Until Black Americans Made It One
But for many 5th Platoon men, the promise came too late and they were sent home with different units. Some speculated that the Army separated them from their parent divisions because most of these outfits were slated for duty in the Pacific, where integration of combat units had not yet been tested and the commanders there did not want racial strife to affect combat efficiency in the planned invasion of Japan.
With black soldiers stripped from the white outfits, the remarkable combat achievements of thousands of brave black infantrymen were left out of nearly every tale told of World War II. Although they had been forced back into the shadows, the men who volunteered at the sharp end did not forget. It was not until that President Harry S. Truman forced the end of a shameful policy that was without merit, ordering all branches of the military desegregated. Volunteer Arthur Holmes believed the integration of the black platoons was a turning point.
The platoons had a lot to do with the later integration of the Army in I never believed they would put us black boys up there with white boys. I thought they would put us back with the quartermaster working in supply. While the integration of the black platoons in was a temporary measure that many in the Army believed had been forced on them, some saw great significance in the performance of those first black platoons. General Davis recognized the importance of what had occurred, saying, The decision from the High Command [to integrate the black platoons] is the greatest since enactment of the Constitutional amendments following the emancipation.
Bruce Wright, a volunteer infantryman who served with the 1st Infantry Division and later rose to become a justice on the New York Supreme Court, believed that the new policy opened a door that could never again be closed: I was doing something for a dream.
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I was living to see partial integration coming to be a matter of fact. David P. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today! In the wake of the Civil War, the West offered perceived opportunities for nearly every element of society. Other blacks came on their own to farm, set up businesses, or engage in various livelihoods, including the profession of arms. Indeed, a number of blacks, many of whom previously had been slaves, joined the Army as a potential avenue to advancement and adventure.
They saw the Army as a means to economic or social betterment. Individuals who had been displaced by the Civil War could find food, shelter, clothing and to some extent medical benefits, by entering the military. Then, too, certain veterans who had served in the Union forces, as well as other blacks inspired by what those veterans had accomplished during the war, thought soldiering was well worth continuing.
Jacob Wilks, who had spent more than three years fighting for the Union cause as a member of the th Colored Volunteer Infantry, fell into this category. Consequently, he signed on for a hitch in one of the Regular Army units formed in In other cases, young men whose fathers or family members had served in the Civil War decided to follow suit and join the Army.
George Conrad, Jr. My daddy was the only one that came back out of 13 men that enlisted…. Others thought that, after the expiration of their tour of duty, they might parlay an honorable discharge into civilian employment with the government, a goal that Samuel Harris gave as one of his reasons for enlistment.
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Mansfield Robinson went to an Evansville, Ind. The officer on duty convinced the disinterested man to take the entrance examination. Whatever the motives, the option of military service would have been moot after the Civil War had not Radical Republicans and others championed the cause of blacks entering the ranks of the Regular Army, previously the exclusive domain of whites. Eventually such opposition on Capitol Hill went down in defeat. In , Congress—for a variety of reasons that ranged from rewarding officers and the black troops they had commanded during their Civil War service to simply providing employment for large numbers of freed slaves—legislated six segregated black units, the 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments, along with the 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st Infantry regiments, into existence.
Three years later, a reorganization of the national military structure brought about the consolidation of the original four outfits of foot soldiers into two organizations, the 24th and 25th Infantry regiments. For the remainder of the century, the two cavalry and two infantry regiments comprised approximately 9 percent of the men who wore the Army uniform. During this period, they usually carried out their duties on the frontier, away from the centers of white population, supposedly because of political pressures to keep blacks from being stationed in Northern states.
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As in the Lone Star State, they occupied and maintained outposts that sometimes were isolated and lonely, and participated in the full gamut of garrison and field duties. The men drilled often and sometimes even engaged in physical fitness exercises that were beginning to come into vogue in the late-Victorian era. They stood inspection, did their turn at guard mount and similar martial duties, and paraded.
They also went to the target range. The soldiers were assigned many nonmilitary physical tasks known as fatigues—cutting ice where possible , securing wood for lumber and fuel, working as teamsters or day laborers for the quartermaster, serving as janitors in the post exchange, and picking wild berries near the fort to supplement the issue ration.
From time to time, the soldiers chased after military prisoners, chiefly deserters from white regiments, although they sometimes went in pursuit of black comrades. Field maneuvers increasingly became part of their routine, with emphasis being placed on war games. When called upon, black infantrymen also responded to disturbances that sometimes flared up in the final days of war between the American Indians and the people who came to displace them.
While the cavalry performed daring deeds recorded by newspaper reporters and artists, black infantry units faithfully played their part, too. That is not to say that the walk-a-heaps never took advantage of mounts available to them; they did, and when this happened they temporarily became mounted infantry. In Texas in the early s, Captain F. Crandal and some of the rank and file from his Company A, 24th Infantry, were using mules and horses to pull wagons when a raiding party attacked them between Fort Stockton and Fort Davis. Another time an officer and his patrol were surprised and of their mules were run off by Indians who could strike swiftly on horseback against the slower foot soldiers.
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Later in the year, black soldiers were called out as reinforcements during the Ghost Dance of , with several companies gathering at Fort Keogh, Mont. Besides forays against native peoples, African-American foot soldiers were sometimes even dispatched to quell strikes, such as those that broke out in the mines of Idaho during Two companies of the 25th Infantry at Fort Missoula, Mont. Despite that admonition, a minor incident occurred when some local civilians heckled two railroad employees who were continuing to work during the strike. The civilian withdrew.
The sentry was to be served with a warrant for arrest on a charge of assault. Another less dramatic but more unusual duty came when some of the men of the 25th Infantry took part in an bicycle experiment, an early effort to mechanize the American military. A group of adventurous volunteers in Montana peddled their way from Fort Missoula to Fort Harrison, north of Helena, then moved on to Fort Yellowstone and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, where they tested their equipment and stamina traveling across the rugged terrain there before coming home—a grueling mile journey.
The next year, this hardy team wheeled off from Fort Missoula toward St. They completed the grueling 1,mile trek, averaging 52 miles a day in the process. For the most part, brave and determined black infantrymen did everything they could to do their duty well. After reaching their destination at the end of the long day, these black soldiers threw off their equipment and began to practice their military drill.
Such indications of professionalism remained very much a part of the story of black infantrymen, as was the case with their comrades in the cavalry. Although their diligence and dedication to duty were seldom rewarded, African-American soldiers received some recognition for their higher re-enlistment rates and fewer incidents of alcoholism. Desertion ranked as an even worse personnel problem for the U. Army in the 19th century, but was rare in the black regiments. The 24th Infantry boasted the lowest desertion rate in the entire Army from through , and it shared this honor with the 25th Infantry in They are neat, orderly, and obedient, are seldom brought before court martial, and rarely desert.
One more manifestation of unit pride could be found in the excellent bands that formed part of the black regiments. The popularity of these music-makers even prompted the regiment to erect a bandstand in front of the Missoula court-house right after the 25th reported to the area. The band offered regular concerts at the courthouse on Thursday evenings, thereby cementing good relations between the civilian population and the personnel of the regiment. One time, the entire band played at the funeral of a prominent Missoula citizen, C.
Higgins, whose passing brought an estimated mourners to pay their respects. The strings additionally provided music until midnight at a domino-mask dance held in Missoula.