Methodology and Sources
As the project proceeded, it became clear that what happened to the 24th was, in part, the product of injustices that had afflicted the black soldier from the very beginning of the American republic. Because of that, the authors decided to begin their story with a brief rendition of the background of the African-American soldier in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A short chapter also appears on blacks in the post-World War II Army, when many of the trends that would bear immediately upon the 24th began to come to light. Since the unit's experience as an occupation force in Japan influenced what happened to it during its early months in Korea, that portion of its story also received serious treatment.
Few historical problems are more demanding than those that accompany an attempt to reconstruct the performance of a military unit in combat. Every platoon, company, battalion, regiment, and division is a unique entity, composed of thinking human beings who act not as robots but as individuals with definite needs and beliefs. Even so, the people who compose those units, or any group, will not always behave as they might on their own. A group mind can come into play when unusual circumstances intrude, and the effects it produces-whether acts of extreme bravery or of mass confusion-may at times seem hardly rational. Much depends upon the group's self-identity and the mutual trust of its members in one another and in their leaders. If those are solid all will be well, but if they are weak, the unpredictable may occur. In addition, a group's identity can take new forms over time as circumstances and personalities change. Given those uncertainties and the many variables involved, the attributes that produce success in combat are not always discernable.
Indeed, the nature of combat is such that it is sometimes difficult even for participants to describe the events that occurred coherently and completely. Danger, confusion, and stress distract attention from the main course of the fighting. Meanwhile, perspectives vary widely, depending on an individual's responsibilities and his location on the battlefield. The view and understanding of a private will hardly resemble those of a unit commander. Each will reflect the truth of what happened in his own way. In addition, the emotional intensity of combat may deepen the natural tendency of a soldier to forget unpleasant events and to focus his attention on aspects of the fighting that appeal to his sense of self-worth. The difficulties and confusion that plague the early months of any war compound the problem where the conflict in Korea is concerned. Committed to combat on the spur of the moment, forces in the field had little time or opportunity for extensive combat interviews.
In coming to terms with these challenges, the authors had to rely upon contemporary descriptions of combat compiled by the units involved. They included daily journals, operational orders and messages, memoranda for the record, war diaries from every level of command, maps, graphs, and overlays.
These materials contained a wealth of information, but it was clear from the beginning that they could tell only part of the story. If some were beautifully detailed and honest, others were poorly formed and less than forthcoming.
To fill the gap, the authors resorted to oral history, but there were also problems with that approach. The participants in that effort, recounting their experiences in interviews, had to struggle against their own imperfect memories. Details of one combat action sometimes merged so completely with those of others that the resulting stories bore little resemblance to events that were already well established in official records.
Among the sources that proved most valuable to the study were the transcripts of interviews conducted in 1950 and 1951 by inspector general teams during the course of three official investigations into the 24th's conduct in battle. These materials had to be used with great caution because they were, at times, racially biased and self-serving. Nevertheless, they contained a wealth of information about the fighting, some of it gathered within days of the events described from witnesses who would soon be killed in combat.
Many whites in those interviews blamed their black subordinates or enlisted soldiers for every problem, and the blacks, on occasion, held their tongues or played to the prejudices of their interviewers. Statements of that sort, however, were easily balanced against the official record and against the comments of individuals who were willing to speak their minds.
In dealing with documentary materials, the authors sought to verify controversial occurrences by seeking out multiple sources for the same information. If only one source existed, the reliability of previous assertions from that source was checked, and if any doubt remained, an attempt was made to verify the account by seeking the assistance and comments of veterans who had already proved themselves knowledgeable. After that, if doubts still persisted, the information was not used. The same sort of approach applied to oral history interviews. An attempt was made in every case to corroborate stories from one source with material from others or from written records.
Where that proved impossible, the credibility of the source became a concern. Was that person in a position to know? Did he have something to gain from the statement? Was the rest of the information he provided reliable and accurate as far as we could tell? If the responses to those questions were adequate, in important cases, the material was sometimes used, but always with an explanation in a footnote.
In the same way, throughout the study, we tried to label hearsay and rumor as such. But whether or not a comment was well founded, the mere fact that a number of soldiers said substantially the same thing gave it weight as an indicator of the morale and cohesion of the regiment.
To achieve balance, the authors sought to fit the 24th into the context of what other military units were doing at the same time and in the same place. The comparison proved difficult to make, if only because all-white regiments never experienced the particular social and psychological burdens segregation imposed on the 24th. A lack of resources also figured in. Over four hundred oral history interviews went into the effort to construct a history for the 24th. A similar effort to do the same for other regiments serving in Korea at the time was impossible.
Within these limitations, the authors did manage to pair the 24th with several similar regiments, the 5th, 27th, and 35th Infantry Regiments, all of which served in the same vicinity and experienced the same sort of combat. Drawing upon the official records of those units and conducting a number of interviews with their veterans in order to determine how each fared in combat, the authors were able to delineate at least the rough dimensions of how the 24th fared in comparison with those organizations.
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