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African Americans in the Korean War

African Americans served in all combat and combat service elements during the Korean War and were involved in all major combat operations, including the advance of United Nations Forces to the Chinese border. In June 1950, almost 100,000 African Americans were on active duty in the U.S. armed forces, equaling about 8 percent of total manpower. By the end of the war, probably more than 600,000 African Americans had served in the military.

Changes in the United States, the growth of black political power and the U.S. Defense Department's realization that African Americans were being underutilized because of racial prejudice led to new opportunities for African Americans serving in the Korean War. 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. In the last two years of the Korean War throughout the services, hundreds of blacks held command positions, were posted to elite units such as combat aviation and served in a variety of technical military specialties. Additionally, more blacks than may have done so in a segregated military, chose to stay in the armed forces after the war because of the improved social environment, financial benefits, educational opportunities and promotion potential.

Distinguished Service

African American servicemen distinguished themselves in combat during the ground battles with the North Korean Army and in the air war over Korea. On July 21, 1950, a battalion combat team commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Pierce Jr., composed of three infantry companies and an engineer company, recaptured Yech'on.

 

Heroes in the Air War

In 1950, the Air Force had 25 black pilots in integrated fighter squadrons led by Captain Daniel "Chappie" James Jr., who was assigned to the 36th Squadron, 5th Air Force. Captain James was an exceptional fighter pilot who often flew his F-86 Sabre jet on dangerous, unarmed reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines – a task reserved for a select group of the most able and trusted flyers. James flew 101 combat missions in Korea and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross before being reassigned stateside. In July 1951, he became the first African American in the Air Force to command a fighter squadron.

[collapsed title=CLICK FOR MORE CONTENT]Second Lieutenant Frank E. Peterson Jr., was the first black Marine Corps pilot. Peterson flew 64 combat missions before the war ended. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and six Air Medals in the final months of the Korean War.

 

"Of the more than 600,000 African Americans who served in the armed forces during the Korean War, it is estimated that more than 5,000 died in combat."

Ensign Jesse L. Brown, the Navy's first African American fighter pilot to die in combat, was shot down while providing close-air support for units of the 7th Marines during the Chosin Reservoir breakout in December 1950. Brown was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for performing dangerous combat actions that resulted in his fatal crash. In March 1972, Brown's widow christened a Knox-class ocean escort ship the USS Jesse Brown.

African Americans Who Gave Their Lives During the Korean War

African American WaitingOf the more than 600,000 African Americans who served in the armed forces during the Korean War, it is estimated that more than 5,000 died in combat. Because casualty records compiled by the services in the 1950s did not differentiate by race, the exact number of blacks killed in action cannot be determined.

Numerous African Americans were awarded medals including the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star and Bronze Star for service during the Korean War. Two African Americans, Private First Class William Thompson and Sergeant Cornelius Charlton were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Thompson was killed in action on Aug. 2, 1951, at a critical juncture in the 8th Army's attempt to stop the North Korean Army's southward movement. Charlton displayed extraordinary heroism in rallying his platoon to continue its assault on a hill near Chipo-ri, just north of the 38th parallel.

The Korean War changed the face of the American military. African Americans served side by side in the same units with service members of all races and were afforded the opportunity to lead in combat.

Coast Guard

While Coast Guardsmen served in Korea and continued their duties worldwide throughout the war, it is interesting to note that in 1952, Coast Guard leadership recognized World War II Coast Guard steward Alex P. Haley for his unique writing talent and awarded him the rating of Journalist. Retired Chief Journalist Alex Haley became internationally known for his best-selling book, Roots.

In June 1950, almost 100,000 African Americans were on active duty in the U.S. armed forces, equaling about 8 percent of total manpower. In the Army, 9.7 percent of active duty service members were black, including 72,000 enlisted men and approximately 1,200 officers. In the Air Force, 4.4 percent of active duty personnel were black, including 21,000 enlisted men and 300 officers. About 6,000 African Americans, or about 3 percent of personnel, served in the Navy and Marine Corps. By the end of the war, probably more than 600,000 blacks had served in the armed forces.[/collapsed]

 

Sources
Blair, Clay. The Forgotten War (1987)
Bowers, William T., William M. Hammond, and George L. MacGringle. Black Soldier White Army (1996)
Greene, Robert Ewell. Black Defenders of America, 1775-1973 (1974)
Gropman, Alan L. The Air Force Integrates, 1945-1964 (1978)
Jordan, Kenneth N. Sr. Forgotten (1995)
Nelson, Dennis D. "A Report on Military Civil Rights," The Negro History Bulletin, (January 1953), 75-78
Shaw, Henry I., Jr. and Ralph W. Donnelly. Blacks in the Marine Corps (1975)
Sondern, Frederic, Jr. "U.S. Negroes Make Reds See Red," Reader's Digest, (January 1994), 37-42
Wakin, Edward. Black Fighting Men (1971)

 

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