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Students in Kentucky taking a Common Core math test. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

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The United States is in the midst of a huge education reform. The Common Core State Standards are a new set of expectations for what students should learn each year in school. The standards have been adopted by most states, though there's plenty of controversy about them among activists and politicians. Most teachers, however, actually like the standards. This American RadioWorks documentary takes listeners into classrooms to explore how the standards are changing teaching and learning. Teachers say Common Core has the potential to help kids who are behind, as well as those who are ahead. But many teachers have big concerns about the Common Core tests. The new, tougher tests are meant to let the nation know how kids are really doing in school -- but bad scores could get teachers and principals fired.

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The United States is in the midst of a huge education reform. The Common Core State Standards are a new set of expectations for what students should learn each year in school. The standards have been adopted by most states, though there's plenty of controversy about them among activists and politicians. Most teachers, however, actually like the standards. This American RadioWorks documentary takes listeners into classrooms to explore how the standards are changing teaching and learning. Teachers say Common Core has the potential to help kids who are behind, as well as those who are ahead. But many teachers have big concerns about the Common Core tests. The new, tougher tests are meant to let the nation know how kids are really doing in school -- but bad scores could get teachers and principals fired.

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Home | Oral History Archive | Reporter's Notebook

AMERICAN RADIOWORKS
ORAL HISTORY ARCHIVE

interview with:
Norvel Phillip West

Listen to Norvel Phillip West Interview



As part of the research for Korea: The Unfinished War, American RadioWorks conducted almost 100 interviews with veterans and historians. We've made those interviews available here. Rough transcripts accompany each interview - but these are incomplete, and often paraphrase the speaker. The authoritative source should be seen as the audio recording, not the transcription. You can listen to and/or read the interviews -but please DO NOT QUOTE from the transcript.

Transcript:

Norvel Phillip West interviewed by Stephen Smith
Chicago, Illinois
January 7, 2003


{Norvel Phillip West:} My name is Colonel Norvel Phillip West. I was born in St. Louis, September 20, 1936, I was with the 45th Infantry Division, 190th Regiment, 1st Battalion.

{Stephen Smith:} What was your specialty?

{NW:} I was initially in the infantry as a rifleman. I was transferred to an engineering unit because Ive taken engineering training.

{SS:} Were you mainly in a combat role?

{NW:} Yes.

{SS:} Where were you and what were some of the actions you were involved in?

{NW:} I spent some time in the 9th Corps area, which was Sandbag Castle, Hamburger Hill, I also spent some time in the Chosin Reservoir, which is where the 25th Division was located and the 1st Marine Division and the 7th Infantry Division, but initially I was with 24th Infantry Division and 40th Infantry Division which was the national guard unit and the 45th which was the Oklahoma National Guard.

{SS:} Why did you volunteer?

{NW:} It was traditional in my neighborhood to go into the service after graduation. All my buddies had already joined.

{SS:} Did you think you were going to war?

{NW:} I had a pretty good idea Id end up in Korea because most people did. I wasnt too concerned about ducking Korea. I went into the service to take advantage of the GI Bill.

{SS:} How old were you?

{NW:} Fifteen

{SS:} So you joined illegally?

{NW:} Yes.

{SS:} What were your thoughts about the Korean War when you were fifteen years old signing up?

{NW:} I guess I didnt really have many political views. Things were different then you couldnt vote until you were twenty-one. I wasnt really politically astute, though I did a little work for the politicians, knocking on doors, passing out flyers. People were generally one-party neighborhoods. Then, everybody was a Democrat.

{SS:} St. Louis, right?

{NW:} Yes.

{SS:} What part?

{NW:} I grew up in an area called downtown on Franklin. I spent most of my youth there.

{SS:} It was a pretty segregated town.

{NW:} Yes. We had three black high schools. I went to Frishon High School.

{SS:} Why was there a tradition of entering the military, what did the military offer?

{NW:} For one thing, you were going to get drafted if you didnt go in. Most of my friends volunteered. It was tradition, and the law, that you were going to go in when you reached a certain age and your name came up on the list.

{SS:} But was it a particular path toward something?

{NW:} It offered you a chance to travel. And then you had your GI Bill coming which offered you a chance to go to college or technical school. GI Bill for houses and health benefits also.

{SS:} That was significant.

{NW:} It offered I dont know if I want to say a way out of the ghetto, but it offered you a way to do something better with your life.

{SS:} What did you hear back about Korea?

{NW:} Some of my buddies returned home and they said war is hell. There was no dreaming that you werent going to go to Korea. Maybe one out of fifty went to Germany.

{SS:} What did you hear back about race relations?

{NW:} I had some friends who had been in the 24th Infantry Regiment, and they talked extensively about black-white relations which were not so good in those days. It was a foregone conclusion that you were gonna catch hell as a black soldier in the military. I had already lived in a segregated community.

{SS:} So it wasnt going to be new?

{NW:} I wasnt going to get sticker shock about that.

{SS:} You knew that the military was integrating, so what did you think about that when you were going over there?

{NW:} It never dawned on me about the association between black and white because I went to a Catholic high school, so all my teachers were white. The city was not integrated but the school was. Integration in itself is something that was with an all-black unit you didnt have to worry about dealing with white privates, but you still had to deal with white sergeants and officers. You had to keep from getting court-martialed, do what your job was, and try to get a little rank while you were there and come back alive.

{SS:} You were there fifteen months, and the rmy had started to integrate. The unit you were in, had it been all white originally?

{NW:} Yes. The black units were deactivated, so the troops in the black units were sent to other units a few here, a few there. The unit that I was in, initially the 45th Division, came to Korea all-white out of Oklahoma. It was the law of the military to be segregated up until 48. You couldnt go to a white unit because you were identified by race. People knew who you were.

{SS:} Til Truman came along.

{NW:} Right.

{SS:} How did you get to be sergeant so quickly?

{NW:} I got to be E6 Sergeant in three years.

{SS:} What did you do?

{NW:} I guess I was a good soldier, and I had some special training that paid off.

{SS:} What were some of the special actions you were involved in?

{NW:} Toward the end of the war, near the last month or so, the North Koreans were making a big push to recapture some of the 38th parallel. We got hit on a regular basis by a mass of troops.

{SS:} The last actions?

{NW:} Yah, I guess the most significant one would be Pork Chop Hill. The last big push.

{SS:} And you were there?

{NW:} Yes.

{SS:} Tell me your story of Pork Chop Hill.

{NW:} All the hills in Korea were the same, but Pork Chop Hill was more important because it was part of the 38th parallel. Push here, push back. Push here, push back. It got to be a real big issue, in Korea and back in the States.

{SS:} How long were you there?

{NW:} Til the war ended, til they stopped firing at each other, and then I was responsible for deactivating a lot of mines.

{SS:} Did you see action at Pork Chop Hill?

{NW:} Yah, I was there. I was in a bunker.

{SS:} Tell me what it was like to be there.

{NW:} Not like Vietnam, Korea was stagnated. The American troops was along the 38th parallel on one side, North Korean on the other. Most of the action was on patrol. You were hoping you didnt bump into any Koreans at night and they were hoping they didnt bump into an GIs. Somebody had to go out there every night. What they called probing. Most of it was out in no mans land. Every once in a while youd have some fire thats how I got my decorations. We got involved in some firefight. The unit was cut off. I was able to get them out single-handedly. I was able to flank the North Koreans and bring substantial fire on their positions.

{SS:} What weapon?

{NW:} M-1 and a .45, generally the bigger guys carried the BAR.

{SS:} You said you get over there and try not to get court-martialed. Was there any concern your actions were watched more carefully?

{NW:} Not necessarily watched more carefully, but you had a lot of southern white guys and northern white guys who didnt think the service should be integrated, so you were always at risk of getting in a fight. They had no qualms about calling somebody a nigger. You could get into a scrape and get court-martialed.

{SS:} Did you talk to buddies about that was there a conversation about how that worked?

{NW:} Most of my buddies had already been in Korea and back to the States. They saw things different because theyd been in segregated units and then integrated. In my case, I was never in a segregated unit.

{SS:} When you were in command of white units, were there any problems?

{NW:} I never had that problem. I was a private so long I thought I never was going to get a stripe. They had a freeze on in terms of promotions. But when the rank opened up I started getting promoted right away.

{SS:} How did your experience in Korea change how you saw civil rights issues?

{NW:} It gave me a sense of direction. I wanted to better myself as an individual, and that opened my eyes to some bigger horizons and goals.

{SS:} You stayed in the military?

{NW:} I stayed affiliated with it. I got out, went to college, and went back and served in Vietnam.

{SS:} Did you see combat there?

{NW:} Yes. One way those wars were different in Korea there was a line, in Vietnam there were no lines, or they were all over the place. Another way it was different, is I was a more mature individual. In Korea, everybody was a private.

{SS:} In Korea, you were a grunt.

{NW:} Yes, and in Vietnam I had a little more prestigious position.

{SS:} How did Korea and the military change the lives of African Americans?

{NW:} Guys like in my case, who had grown up in a segregated environment after I came back from the service I could see things changing. The world was changing. Schools were integrated in my hometown. The facilities like shows or restaurants were integrated. It was a different world when I came back. Things had did like a 180 degree turnaround.

{SS:} But St. Louis was still a pretty racist place to live.

{NW:} I think integration there was a pretty smooth incident. The Catholic schools had already integrated in 1951, and the public schools integrated in 1954. Later in life I learned that Catholic schools werent restricted by law to be segregated, they just did it by policy.

{SS:} I guess Im saying that while the formal integration may have been smooth, the attitudes of white people took a while to change.

{NW:} You had ghettos, and all the black people stayed in one part of town, white people in another, so you didnt really bump into each other.

{SS:} Some guys weve talked to have had hard feelings about how they were received as returning vets. Some have talked about racist incidents, or were angered by the lack of reception.

{NW:} That was the case. There was a small reception for returning Korean veterans. They figured everybody was coming home anyways, so they marched them down Madison Avenue.

{SS:} You didnt march?

{NW:} No, I just got on the train and came home.

{SS:} That was in 54?

{NW:} The only reception you got was the USO giving you donuts and coffee. And people were ducking that.

{SS:} When you got home, did you think people understood what youd been through?

{NW:} I dont think they cared. They were just glad I got back. Theyd already heard about Korea. They were just surprised to see all my stripes. Whooo, sergeant!

{SS:} What do you think the American people should know about the Korean War?

{NW:} I think it was a time when young American men learned to live with each other and brought some of that back to the States with them. The whole monkey-tail thing was dispelled. You next to one white guy in the bunk next to you, another white guy on the other side. There were always more whites than blacks, so integration kind of swallowed them up.

{SS:} What about the guys from the 24th Infantry Regiment? Said to have been. -

{NW:} Ran off and left their colors? They had a racist commander as I understand it later. They werent the only people running. Everybody was running, any unit close to the Yellow River when the Chinese came across. The only thing you could do was cut and run.

{SS:} Did you hear stories about them before you went?

{NW:} I had buddies in those units.

{SS:} What did they say about it?

{SS:} They said everybodys running. The Army changed its philosophy about how to move to the rear. They pushed the American troops right to the Chinese sea. The only thing they had left was to jump in the water. The 24th Regiment traditionally had been a black unit. They were activated at the same time, right after the Civil War. That was the only black unit left. Now, integration would have taken care of the 24th Regiment. The executive order had already been put out to integrate the service, but the commander said these troops cant fight, etc. Lets break this unit up. He broke the unit up because of proficiency, not because of integration, and thats why they got a big stigma cast, and they just had that removed the last four or five years.

{SS:} They got a lot of bad press.

{NW:} Thats because of the commander. He was saying these guys cant fight. People always look for a scapegoat. They had all kinds of units, but this was the only black infantry unit. Most of the others were service units.

{SS:} Anything else we should know about?

{NW:} I guess we just made it from day to day there. The worst thing was the weather.

{SS:} Did you know why you were fighting?

{NW:} No, they said it was a police action or whatever, but war is hell, and its still a war.

{SS:} Do you think it shouldve been fought a lot of people died?

{NW:} We had a situation then to fight communism at all costs, and that was one of the last bastions of communism. We thought we forgot about some of the other communist countries. Technically it was a democracy on one side, communism on the other. We had to go to the aid of the democratic process.

END

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American RadioWorks | Hearing is Seeing
Students in Kentucky taking a Common Core math test. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Greater Expectations

The United States is in the midst of a huge education reform. The Common Core State Standards are a new set of expectations for what students should learn each year in school. The standards have been adopted by most states, though there's plenty of controversy about them among activists and politicians. Most teachers, however, actually like the standards. This American RadioWorks documentary takes listeners into classrooms to explore how the standards are changing teaching and learning. Teachers say Common Core has the potential to help kids who are behind, as well as those who are ahead. But many teachers have big concerns about the Common Core tests. The new, tougher tests are meant to let the nation know how kids are really doing in school -- but bad scores could get teachers and principals fired.

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