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Memories of a nearly forgotten war

South Boston News
Korean War veteran Carter / November 14, 2012
Coming so soon after World War II, the Korean War is often overlooked in the annals of American warfare. Yet for one local man, the conflict brought together strands of history — touching on Communism, racism, and the nature of modern warfare — that resonate to this day.

Jimmy Carter, a Yonkers, New York native, joined the army in 1951 at age 18. The United States had entered the fray between North and South Korea months before on June 25, 1950. America’s proclaimed mission was to stop the spread of Communism throughout the world, and in particular in Southeast Asia.

When Carter joined the army, it was still segregated despite Executive Order 9981 signed by President Harry Truman on July 26, 1948. Truman’s order called for “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.”

The Army and the armed services would become a model for the rest of the country to follow in the next decade and beyond as African-Americans finally gained full rights throughout society.

Carter said the army did not fully integrate until he got to Korea in 1951. At the instigation of General Matthew B. Ridgway — the officer in charge of the conflict after General Douglas MacArthur was removed by President Truman — the Army moved forward with troop integration in July 1951.

The sea change received a boost from a special committee named by Truman that found segregation hampered America’s war effort: “The committee concluded that military efficiency would be improved with full utilization of Blacks and that segregated units were an inefficient use of Black resources.”

Racism and integration were not on Carter’s mind once he arrived in Korea, however. He was quickly tossed a conflict that was among the most brutal of the Korean War, landing in Inchon for much of the balance of his tour.

It was in Inchon that a few months before, General Douglas MacArthur staged a daring landing that, for a time, threw the North Korean army into a headlong retreat — at least until late November 1950, when Chinese troops poured into North Korea, causing UN forces to withdraw south.

From the day Carter arrived in Korea, he said his unit was embroiled in battle. His first night, he did not even meet his commander before “being assigned a gun.”

Racism was alive in the ranks in Korea, Carter says, but the demands of fighting a common enemy sapped the power of old enmities. “Some men tried to threaten us [the black soldiers]. Some guys did not believe in integration. Mostly, a bond developed between men in the battalion, because we never knew what was going to happen next [as far as fighting],” said Carter.

“Eventually, there was a black Colonel installed as head of my battalion. Things quieted down racially after that.”

Carter speculates that another factor allowed newly integrated American forces to bond. It was, in his opinion, their first exposure to guerilla tactics — deception and ambush as opposed to mass confrontation. Since the men in his unit were not trained in guerilla warfare, Carter said they had to rely on and trust each other. Even among the South Koreans, Carter said, “It was often hard to distinguish the good guys from the bad.”

By 1954, as Carter ended his time in the Army, the last remaining all-African American units were disbanded and all enlistees, regardless of race, were accepted without a quota system. The Korean War became the turning point for African-Americans as soldiers in the United States military.

When asked why he chose to join the Army during the time of integration, Carter said, “It was part of my Christian beliefs, having been raised up in the church. I felt that I was doing something important. When I thought about things my father endured, and other relatives living in the South, it became even more important.”

Even as that fight to integrate the military was ending, soldiers returning from the war faced another struggle. Until Korea, veterans were generally treated with great respect and honor. In contrast, those back from Korea were for the most part forgotten.

U.S. involvement in the Korean War officially ended July 27, 1953 when negotiations between North Korea and the United Nations concluded. Veterans then quietly separated from the military. There was little in the way of parades, fanfare or welcome home ceremonies. Returning servicemen simply got on with their lives.

Carter returned to New York and went to work for New York Telephone. He married, raised a family, and after 31 years retired with his wife Jerry to her birthplace in Mecklenburg County. He joined, and briefly led, the Clarksville VFW Post.

The Korean War remains overlooked in history, even though the casualty rate during the conflict was higher than that experienced in the Vietnam War over a similar three-year period. While the aims of the war were unclear — Communist incursion in southeast Asia would be invoked to justify America’s involvement in Vietnam a decade later — the legacy of Korea is clear: the war marked the first time in United States history that armed forces entered into conflict with fully integrated regiments. In the beginning, 100,000 African American troops served in the war; by the end, the total had risen to 600,000.

Today, Carter says there’s another lesson to be learned from the Korean War: “I think we jumped into something before we understood the facts. We don’t always have to lead.” Nevertheless, he takes great pride in his service and the attributes of discipline and self-esteem that ascribes to the experience.

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