The 24th Infantry in Japan

The 24th Infantry in Japan

The 24th Infantry's service in the occupation of Japan was a model not only of the tensions that dogged all-black units in that day but also of the subtle interplay those problems could have with the many challenges the Army faced in the postwar period. On the surface, conditions within the unit seemed favorable. The regiment was well situated in its base at Gifu, and life seemed good for its troops. Down below, however, there was much that was wrong. 

To begin with, the Army itself was undergoing extreme turbulence. Personnel strengths gyrated up and down throughout the postwar period as budgets and manpower policies changed with the political winds. Training declined, equipment shortages grew, and officers who might have sought to make the military a career left the service. Training improved in 1949 but still remained inadequate. 

The Eighth Army in Japan provides a case in point. Most of its soldiers were civilians at heart, intent upon enjoying the pleasures of life in occupied Japan, where a GI's salary could pay for an abundance of readily available pleasures. In many units, black-market activities thrived, alcoholism was rife, and venereal disease flourished. But the number one transgression in the Eighth Army in the spring of 1950 was drug abuse. It spread with sometimes near abandon in many units, particularly those that served like the 24th Infantry in or near large port cities. 

The 24th Infantry, for its part, experienced the same difficulties as the rest of the Army, but it generally maintained high esprit de corps. It gained a deserved reputation for its prowess at sports and its fine marching. Its training was on a par with that of most other units, and at the beginning of the Korean War it was one of a few that had undergone some form of regimental maneuvers. While the General Classification Test scores for its men were significantly lower than for the whites in other regiments, those figures were inadequate as measures of innate intelligence. Indeed, many white officers assigned to the regiment would later insist that the enlisted men and noncommissioned officers of the unit, whatever their schooling, often knew their jobs and did them well.

Even so, the 24th remained a racially segregated regiment, and the effects of that system ate incessantly into the bonds that held the unit together. They were often hidden at Gifu, which had become an artificial island for blacks-"our own little world," as some of the men described it-but even there, discontent festered just beneath the surface calm. Unwritten but firmly held assignment policies, for example, ensured that black officers, whatever their competence, would rarely if ever command whites. Throughout the years prior to the Korean War, as a result, except for one lieutenant colonel, the senior commanders of the regiment were white. As for its field-grade officers, only the chaplains and a few majors in unimportant assignments were black.

The mistrust that resulted on both sides was largely hidden behind a screen of military conventions and good manners, but it was still there. Black officers were frustrated and resentful. They saw that most promotions and career-enhancing assignments went to white officers, some of whom were clearly inferior to them in education and military competence. Aware, as well, that few if any of them would ever rise to a rank above captain, they could only conclude that the Army considered them second class. They retaliated by developing a view, as one African-American lieutenant observed years later, that the 24th was a "penal" regiment for white officers who had "screwed up." The whites, for their part, although a number got along well with their black colleagues, mainly kept to themselves.

The tensions that existed among the regiment's officers had parallels in enlisted ranks. At times, black soldiers worked well with their white superiors and relations between the races were open, honest, and mutually fulfilling, primarily because the white officers recognized the worth of their subordinates and afforded them the impartiality and dignity they deserved. Many whites, however, shared the racially prejudiced attitudes and beliefs common to white civilian society. Although infrequent, enough instances of genuine bigotry occurred to cement the idea in the minds of black enlisted men that their white officers were racially prejudiced.

As the regiment's stay lengthened at Gifu, an unevenness came into being that subtly affected military readiness. In companies commanded by white officers who treated their men with respect but refused to accept low standards of discipline and performance, racial prejudice tended to be insignificant, and a bond, of sorts, developed between those who were leaders and those who were led. In others, often commanded by officers who failed to enforce high standards out of condescension, because they wished to avoid charges of racial prejudice, or because they were simply poor leaders, the bonds of mutual respect and reliance were weak. On the surface, all seemed to run well within those units. Underneath, however, hostility and frustration lingered, to break forth only when the units faced combat and their soldiers realized their lives depended on officers they could not trust.

The problem might have had little effect on readiness if officers had received the time to work out their relationships with their men, but competition among them for Regular Army commissions, under the so-called Competitive Tour Program, produced a constant churning within the regiment. Officers arrived at units, spent three months in a position, and then departed for new assignments. In addition, the officer complements of entire companies sometimes changed abruptly to maintain segregation and to ensure that a black would never command whites. Under the circumstances, officers often had little time to think through what they were doing. Not only were their own assignments temporary, the group of officers they commanded was also in constant turmoil. A confluence of good officers might, for a time, produce a cohesive, effective, high-performing company, but everything might dissolve over night with a change of command.

Under the circumstances, the personality of the regimental commander was vital, and for much of the time in Japan the unit was commanded by an officer who seemed ideally suited for the job. Strong, aggressive, experienced, Colonel Michael E. Halloran held the respect and support of most of his subordinates, whether commissioned or enlisted. The performance of the regiment while he was in charge was all that anyone could have expected at that time and in that place. The effectiveness of Halloran's successor is more in question. Colonel Horton V. White was intelligent and well intentioned, but his low-key, hands-off style of command did little to fill the void when Halloran departed.

It would be interesting to determine what the results would have been if the 24th had gone to war under Halloran rather than White, but the efficiency of a unit in combat is rarely determined by the presence of a single individual, however experienced and inspiring. What is clear, is that if the 24th went into battle much as the other regiments in the Eighth Army did-poorly trained, badly equipped, and short on experience-it carried baggage none of the others possessed, all the problems of trust and lack of self-confidence that the system of segregation had imposed.


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