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The Long Voyage
Ordinarily, the right to kill or be killed as a member of the military has Been an almost inalienable right, or more likely a duty for citizens, particularly for those without the economic clout or the class status that enables them to avoid the dangerous or onerous. The obligation has even been extended to cover resident aliens. It is one more measure of the depth of antiblack sentiment in the United States that even at the cost of a significant reduction in available manpower, military leaders and civilian officials, backed by whites in and out of uniform, traditionally limited African American service in the armed forces, denying blacks the dubious right to be exposed to enemy fire.
While other ethnic groupsJews, Italians, Irish, Chinese and Japanese Mexicans and Native Americanswere victims of discrimination by individuals, the systematized exclusions from and within military service never applied to them with a single exception. During the early days of World War II the authorities restricted deployment of those of Japanese extraction but eventually they were issued weapons and granted the privilege of combat.
The reluctance to put deadly force in the hands of African Americans accompanied by rigid segregation of servicemen and -women, lasted for some 175 years after the "shot heard round the world" signaled the labor pains of a new nation that claimed "all men are created equal." Blacks in the armed forces traditionally lived separately from whites, and when allowed to fight, bled and died separately.For the most part, the barriers that created Jim Crow education, housing, economic opportunity, and justice, and during this period usually denied men of color the right to shoot and be shot at, consigned them to haul, lift, dig, drive, and clerk.
During the battle for the South Pacific island of Peleliu in October 1944 a band of leathernecks from the U.S. 1st Marine Division, huddled in a steep ravine while above them Japanese troops occupied entrenched positions. Private First Class Ed Andrusko, who had been wounded and then healed sufficiently to rejoin Item Company, says, "It was high noon, 110 degrees, no shade, and a merciless tropical sun. The hostile defenders were now firing down on us from all sides. The cross fire was deadly and we were trapped.
"Our radioman used the last working radio to get artillery or heavy mortar support. He pleaded for immediate help and soon we heard the booming of our distant cannons. Our incoming shells whistled and exploded on the ridge above us for several minutes. Then the shells rained down on our beleaguered company. We were now being heavily shelledby our own artillery. I had no concept of time but it was eternity until our radio contact finally stopped the bombardment.
"As the message runner, I returned to the command post and reported our new losses and serious situation to the Top Sergeant. He radioed for reinforcements, for medical corpsmen, water, and as many stretcher bearers as he could get. The word came back negative. No reinforcements. No stretcher bearers. All reserve units were committed in an all-out battle throughout the island with heavy casualties. There was no help available."
Desperate for aid, the sergeant ordered Andrusko and one other marine, nicknamed "Ski," to accompany him on a dash to the beach area and recruit anyone available. Under covering fire they sprinted to the rear and vainly sought succor from other unit commands. "Exhausted from the heat, we rested near the beach in the shade of a damaged supply truck. A young black sergeant who had overheard our plight, walked up and said, 'I heard you all were looking for some troop replacements.'
"Our Top Sergeant looked a little stunned and speechless at the black, uniformed sergeant. The Top cleared his throat and asked, 'Who are you? What unit or company are you with? Are you Army, Navy, Seabees, or what?'
"'I am a U.S. Marine platoon sergeant. My men and I are all U.S. Marines.' I remembered seeing and talking to the black troops on the beach when I first returned to battle weeks before. He continued, 'My men have all finished their work on the beach. We are cleared with the division headquarters to volunteer where needed. We are Marines from an ammunition depot and have had some infantry training.'
"Our top sergeant appeared very puzzled. How could he bring in an all-black unit to rescue members of a line company that was part of the famous, all-white 1st Marine Division? It was heavily complemented with Southern officers and men, home-based at New River, North Carolina and 'the pride of the South.' This was our Division's third major campaign and the situation had never occurred before. He tried to discourage the volunteers stating they were not trained nor qualified for the terror of battle. But by now the black marines had armed themselves heavily and lined up behind their platoon sergeant who insisted we lead the way to the front lines.
"Our top sergeant said, 'Well, don't say I didn't warn you people.'
"Ski and I snickered, 'Wait till those red-neck rebels and segregating Yankees see who is coming to their rescue!'
"As we got closer to our lines, several enemy snipers fired at our rescue party. Our new volunteers withstood their baptism of fire and skillful returned fire when needed. I felt good about what we were doing, like the cavalry coming to the rescue. Or maybe it was stupidity because of the heat. I said to our grim, pouting top sergeant, 'Hey, Top, do you think we will get a medal for this rescue mission?'
"After a short silence, he said, 'You're lucky if those rebels in our company don't shoot our butts off for this! You're from New Jersey and a damn Yankee who doesn't understand what we're doing here. Now keep moving those troops up the ravine. Keep your head down, and your stupid mouth shut!' which I did.
"When we reached our mauled company area, it looked like General Custer's last stand. The top sergeant came upon our new officer in command of the company and said, 'Sir, I have a platoon of blackI mean a platoon of Marine volunteers who came to help.'
"The young, new Commanding Officer said, 'Thank God. Thank you, men. Sergeant take over. Get our wounded and dead out.'
"We gave covering fire and watched in awe as our new, gallant volunteers did their job. Some of these new men held a casualty stretcher gently in one hand as true angels of mercy. Then when necessary, they would fire an automatic weapon with the other hand, while breaking through the surrounding enemy. The grateful wounded thanked the volunteers as each survivor was brought to the rear aid station and safety. One badly wounded Southerner said, 'I felt like I was saved by Black Angels sent by God. Thank you. Thank you all!'
"The platoon of black Marines made many courageous trips to our company area for the wounded. With each return from the rear they brought back badly needed ammunition, food and water. It was nightfall when the evacuation of all the wounded was completed. The volunteers moved into our empty foxholes and helped fight off a small, night-time enemy counterattack.
"The next morning, our company commander ordered us to take the hill After several bloody hours of fighting, Item Company survivors and our black volunteers did just that. We were relieved from the gruesome mountain by a U.S. Army infantry company. As the soldiers passed, they asked sarcastically, 'Who are the black guys in your outfit?'
"Our top sergeant bellowed, 'Why some of our company's best damn Marines, that's who!'"
Ten thousand miles away in Europe, a few months later, desperate for combat infantrymen, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander for Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe, authorized recruitment of volunteers from rear-echelon troops, including African Americans. Unwilling to fully integrate the black men into infantry line companies, the newcomers formed extra platoons assigned to infantry and armored divisions fighting the Germans across the Rhône. Brigadier General H. T. Mayberry, the assistant division commander of the 99th Division, which incorporated three "Negro rifle platoons" said, "The Negroes participated in some intense fighting. They were subjected on occasion to some artillery and mortar fire. All in all the fighting in which they took part was of such character as to give them a pretty good test.
"They would go anywhere their leaders would take them. Their performance was consistently good. I watched their casualty list. They had a strength of about forty-three when they came to us and when hostilities ceased they were down to about thirty-two. We thought they fought very well. One of the platoon leaders [the black infantrymen served under white officers] said to me. 'I'll take these people anytime. They'll go anywhere I want to take them.'"
Despite the praises heaped on them by white observers, when Ed Andrusko's Marine unit pulled back, the "Black Angels" reverted to their previous status of segregated, noncombatant service troops. After the shooting stopped in Europe, the volunteer black riflemen left the white infantry divisions to rejoin segregated outfits headed either for demobilization or non- battle assignments.
The proscriptions of the military, which covered freemen as well as slaves through the Civil War, instead of relaxing after that conflict hardened following the Spanish-American War. Grudgingly and with disparagement toward almost all, the authorities in and out of uniform, granted only a small percentage of blacks the right to fight for their country during the two world wars and well into the Korean conflict, while maintaining them in a separate but unequal military.
Dismal as the history of the U.S. military experience in race relations was for so long, in the 1950s the armed forces finally banished segregation and offered full opportunity, making minorities not only eligible to suffer the ordeal of combat but also to command whites, years before African Americans achieved full statutory rights in civilian society through the Civil Rights movement.
If there is such a phenomenon as a defining moment, one occurred during the Vietnam War. In 1966, a French TV crew accompanied a thirty-three-man army platoon from the 1st Cavalry Division over a period of several weeks. The TV producer rifled the documentary, The Anderson Platoon, because the soldiers, about an equal number of black and white men, were led by Lt. Joseph B. Anderson, an African American graduate of West Point. At one point, the outfit came under heavy fire from Vietcong soldiers. As the embattled Americans awaited a helicopter to evacuate the casualties, a seriously wounded black sergeant in severe pain lay on the ground. The camera focused on a white trooper patting the distressed sergeant's hand to comfort him. When the chopper finally put down, an integrated quartet of soldiers bore the injured man off. Bleeding together, succoring one another, without regard to race, white men acting under the orders of a black, integration in the line of fire had fully arrived. But it had been a long, arduous, painful, often agonizing voyage. And the journey was actually not over.