The Korean War: Deployment and Initial Combat



The Korean War: Deployment and Initial Combat

The mistrust endemic to the 24th Infantry began to appear just as soon as word arrived at Gifu in early July 1950 that the regiment was to depart for Korea along with its associated engineers and artillery. Almost immediately, rumors began to circulate among both whites and blacks that the regiment would never go into combat because of the supposed poor performance of all-black units in earlier wars. 

Then, as the date of departure approached, white officers began to hear reports that a black chaplain had undermined the chain of command by suggesting during a meeting that it was inappropriate for men of color to fight one another on behalf of whites. Black officers received unsubstantiated word that the black commander of the 1st Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel James F. Lofton, had been reassigned to prevent him from commanding whites in combat. And, even as the unit moved from Pusan to Sangju in central South Korea, a speculative story made the rounds to the effect that the regimental executive officer had faked a heart attack rather than go into combat with an all-black unit.

Although indicative of poor discipline in portions of the 24th and a source of doubts on the part of whites about the advisability of committing the regiment to war, disturbances at Gifu and later at the port of Moji on the first leg of the trip from Japan to Korea involved only a small minority of the unit's men and said little about its readiness. In fact, on paper, the 24th was probably more prepared for combat than the other regiments of the 25th Division. It had three full battalions instead of the two characteristic of the post-World War II Army, and if its equipment was old and worn and its men nervous and unseasoned, it had, at least, exercised at the regimental level in field maneuvers. Unlike Major General William F. Dean's 24th Infantry Division, the unit also had the opportunity to introduce itself gradually to combat rather than have to face enemy fire from almost the moment it arrived. Indeed, its 3d Battalion was fortunate enough to win a small victory at Yechon, one of the first successes of the war for United Nations forces.

While hardly significant for the course of the war, Yechon could have had important benefits for both the 3d Battalion and the rest of the 24th. Once the soldier has tasted victory, so the reasoning goes, his self-confidence rises and combat becomes easier for him to face. In the case of the 24th, however, there was no time for Yechon to take root. The unit began to encounter misfortunes almost immediately, just as soon as it entered combat near the town of Sangju in late July.

There was no single reason for what happened. An aggressive enemy, old and worn equipment, inexperience at all levels, leadership failures high and low, casualties among key personnel, and a lack of bonding and cohesion in some units all played their part. There was no lack of courage among the officers and men. A number of well-trained squads, platoons, and companies performed ably. Never theless, all military units undergo a winnowing when they first enter combat. Inept officers die or move aside to make room for the more competent. Much the same thing happened in the other American regiments fighting in Korea at that time. The same reasons for failure were present and the same process occurred.

Disturbing trends nonetheless emerged within the 24th almost immediately, and no one took action to correct them. When straggling increased to sometimes epidemic proportions, the leadership of the regiment did little more to stop it than to return offenders to their units. Every occurrence made the next one easier. Some units became so accustomed to withdrawals that their men began to abandon their positions at only the sound of firing or after receiving minor enemy sniper or mortar fire. As the trend continued, the trust of one soldier on the line for the man next to him deteriorated and each became more inclined to flee.

Other units experienced similar difficulties, but what happened in the 24th was complicated by segregation and the expectations it fostered. In an attempt to lead by example, officers stayed at their posts with those of their men who were willing to hold, suffering inordinately high casualties as a result. As that occurred, mistrust between whites and blacks grew apace and rumors began to circulate among the whites about how black soldiers had abandoned a wounded white officer on the battlefield. Whites in other units picked up the stories and spread them, giving credence to the word of white officers who, in some cases, appeared to be shifting blame for what happened from themselves to their men alone. 

White stereotypes contributed to the process. In other units, commanders held officers responsible for the performance of their men and concentrated upon military causes for any failures that occurred. In the case of the 24th, military reasons meant less. Failures often were attributed to the race of the men. Blacks were afraid of the dark, so the reasoning went. They would not dig foxholes, and they lacked the native intelligence to keep their equipment in good repair. 


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