Once let the Black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.
—Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, 1863.
African American aspirations for acceptance into the armed services are historically based partially on the notion that soldiering brings with it the rights and privileges of manhood, and in short order, entry into citizenship.
Gaining this right to bear arms brings up intriguing questions about the status of a prospective combatant in the eyes of the enemy faced on the field of battle. During the Civil War, which was largely fought over the question of slavery, the presence of Colored troops in the Union Army presented the Confederacy with a dilemma over the question of how to treat Black people when they were captured in battle. To grant them the traditional courtesy afforded detained combatants, meant validating their claims for freedom, a concept the South had taken up arms to prevent.
To address this, the Confederate hierarchy built upon the perception of the Negroes as wayward laborers, and labeled their striving for emancipation with an antiquated term called “servile insurrection.” African descendents bearing arms for the Union were thus eligible to be killed.
President Abraham Lincoln, in turn, made the pragmatic decision to “play tit for tat,” ergo, if a Union soldier of Color was executed, a Confederate counterpart would be killed; if a captured Black were subjected to bondage, a rebel prisoner would be committed to hard labor.
While this standoff improved the lot of the Union freemen, as expected, Southern attitudes (and the will to implement them) did not completely change over the course of the war. The act of acknowledging Black prisoners of war was too dramatic a concept for the South to grasp.
In this and subsequent conflicts that have transpired over the years, the image of the fighting man of color has proven to be an elastic concept, changing over time given the political climate, the nature of the conflict, and the identity of the opponent he faces.
Setting the stage for intolerance
Although Black soldiers participated in the “Great War,” or World War I, no record of P.O.W.s of color exists. At the close of hostilities however, the victorious French decided to occupy the Rhineland, the politically sensitive region bordering France and Western Germany, with Senegalese Tirailleurs, or colonial infantry recruited from West Africa. This exacerbated racial tensions in that area, the rest of Germany, and possibly set the stage for the atrocities that transpired in the next war.
Illegal killing: World War II and the Battle of the Bulge
The successful World War II landing of Allied Forces on France’s Normandy beaches in June of 1944 put the West in the driver’s seat, because the Axis Powers back peddled in the wake of the invaders’ sweep across Western Europe.
In December of 1944, desperate to position themselves so that they could force the West to sue for a favorable peace, Adolf Hitler and his minions mounted a counter-offensive hoping to catch the over-confident enemy off guard and hinder their drive towards Germany. The Axis Powers could then concentrate on the Russian menace encroaching on their eastern front.
Caught flatfooted, the Americans suffered their first major set back since they set foot on the continent, before rebounding with General George S. Patton’s miraculous maneuvering to turn the tide of battle. However, isolated components of the U.S. Army were overwhelmed by the unexpected Axis surge, and while the Germans gained tactical victories, they were not in a position to secure the Americans who surrendered. Conseuqently, rather than abandon enemy troops who could regroup to fight later in the war, the Nazis often panicked, resulting in events like the Malmédy (Belgium) massacre of Dec. 17, where 80 White soldiers were machine gunned down after surrendering—an open and shut war crime. Lesser known is the slaughter of 11 Black G.I.s from the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion on that same day in Wereth, a tiny hamlet a few kilometers away.
The majority of this segregated unit had been over run on the second day of the German advance in December, and 11 of the men were separated from the other survivors in the chaos of battle. Armed with only two rifles, they reached the Belgium hamlet of Wereth, where a Nazi sympathizer notified elements of the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH), personal bodyguard to the Führer.
The poorly-armed Americans surrendered to their numerically superior enemy, and as darkness fell, they were taken to an isolated cow pasture and shot.
A month later, in the aftermath of the battle, their bodies were found in the frozen pasture, along with evidence that the Nazis had done more than simply kill them. Investigators determined that before dying the unfortunates had been maimed and tortured, some of them having their limbs broken and fingers cut off.
The soldiers victimized in the Malmédy massacre were avenged after the war, when defendants in the German SS ranks, including three generals, were brought to trial and convicted of war crimes. Their sepia comrades however, the Wereth Eleven, as the Black servicemen came to be known, were largely forgotten after a cursory investigation until 1994, when a memorial was erected at the site of their execution.
A change in methodology
Did you ever stop to think why you should be in Korea, fighting other Colored people, while lynchings, murders and insults pile up against the Negro people at home? We say: No U.S. soldiers have any business in Korea. Korea for the Koreans. China for the Chinese. America for the Americans, Negro and White.
—propaganda leaflet geared towards Korean War era G.I.s
A few short years later America found itself in another war, with a decidedly different enemy. The Chinese and the Russians, who arguably were the principals using North Korea as a “proxy” to avoid direct conflict with the Americans and other shot callers in the West, had no extensive tradition of racial intolerance compared to the Antebellum American South, or Germany under the sway of Adolf Hitler and his New World Order.
Building upon the Marxist tenants of class exploitation as the root of societal conflict, the Communists reached out to Blacks and people of color within the United Nations contingent as fellow victims of an oppressive (capitalist) system.
All prisoners, regardless of race, taken during these hostilities were placed in “re-education” programs that sought to indoctrinate their subjects by convincing them that they were “dupes” of imperialist business concerns.
All this must be viewed in the context that Korea happened after the military desegregation of 1948. Even with these overtures of equality, or perhaps because of it, a considerable amount of friction transpired, especially on the part of Caucasians resistant to the radical change that rocked the bedrock of every social component of the American psyche during the 1950s and 1960s.
Using a tactic that would be repeated during the Vietnam era, the Communists endlessly played up the racial discord that was a staple of American life as a motivation for Black servicemen to abandon their allegiance to a system committed to keep them in servitude.
Whatever the colour, race or creed, all plain folks are brothers indeed. Both you and we want life and peace, if you go home, the war will cease. Demand Peace! Stop the War!
—Christmas card propaganda from 1951
Vietnam presented a unique environment for P.O.W.s, since most of those incarcerated were aviators who had been shot down on bombing missions over the North, primarily officers, and in turn Caucasians. Since this Southeast Asian conflict saw the highest percentage of African American participation in a military engagement, the Communists redoubled their efforts to sway this large proportion of their opposition forces away from a conflict that might have been construed as oppositional to the interests of Black aspirations.
African Americans James A. Daly and Willie A. Watkins of the Army’s 196th Infantry Brigade reported that they were given preferential treatment by the Viet Cong after their capture in 1968, to the point of receiving their own “hooch” at the South Vietnamese Prison camp in which they were held.
They also received political lectures highlighting the oppressive nature of American racism and Communist solidarity with the minority population.
One memorable story from this era involved naval aviator and native White North Carolinian, Porter Halyburton, who discussed the incident in the book “Two Souls Indivisible.”
In October of 1965, Lieutenant (J.G.) Halyburton was a radar intercept officer, or “back seater” in an F-4 Phantom from the U.S.S. Independence, when his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire deep within North Vietnam. In short order, he was apprehended by a group of villagers and transported to a prison in Hanoi.
Ever vigilant to the possibility of capitalizing on their enemy’s weakness, his captors deliberately put him in a cell with an injured prisoner, a Black man, Air Force Major Fred V. Cherry, and told Halyburton he had to take care of Cherry. The young southerner and the seasoned fighter pilot warily seized each other up. Cherry was convinced the newcomer might be a French spy bent on some nefarious agenda, while Halyburton had trouble grappling with the idea of his cellmate being qualified to fly a modern warplane.
In direct opposition to their captors’ hopes and expectations of creating dissention between the two men, Halyburton nursed the senior officer’s wounds, and they established a friendship that continued after their release. Both men received Silver Stars for their ordeal. Cherry holds the distinction of surviving 93 straight days of torture and 53 weeks of solitary confinement.
The war on terror provides another unique twist on the effects of conflict on the American psyche, because a considerable number of Black people have been drawn to Islamic tenets after becoming disillusioned with Christianity, which they come to feel it is at odds with the interests of Americans of African descent.
That said, observation has shown that the overwhelming majority of Black Americans, even those who’ve embraced the Islamic faith, have not wavered in their allegiance to the Stars and Stripes even after centuries of systemic maltreatment.
Very few service persons have suffered the trauma of confinement under the custody of our present Middle Eastern enemies. One prominent example was Specialist Fourth Class Shoshana Johnson, an army cook who was detained for several weeks after her convoy was ambushed in Iraq.
Very little is known about the Middle Eastern view of African Americans in general, but the gradual shift in terrorist activity south from the Middle East into the African continent (and the corresponding build up of an American military presence in that region) means that the relationship of the United States citizenry of color to the international community—especially those who choose to wear a uniform—could change as well.