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Home | Cold War Turns Hot | The Armed Forces Integrate | What the Experts Say

The Armed Forces Integrate
By Stephen Smith and Sasha Aslanian

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National Archives and Records Administration
Better Than the Coalmines

From the first weeks of the Korean War, the remarkably high casualty rate among American soldiers began forcing historic change inside the U.S. military. Americans were killed and wounded at double the rate in the later Vietnam War. Combat units became so short-handed, military leaders resorted to something they'd long resisted: sending large numbers of African American soldiers to fight alongside white soldiers.

According to the prejudice of the time, blacks made cowardly, undisciplined soldiers. With few exceptions, they were barred from combat in World Wars I and II. Blacks had served as cooks, truck drivers and supply clerks - usually in segregated units. In 1948, President Truman ordered the armed forces to integrate. Many senior commanders simply ignored the command. When the Korean War started, the military was still deeply segregated. Blacks signed up anyway, seeing a better chance of getting ahead in uniform than in civilian life.

Former soldiers explained their reasoning: "My name is Ike Gardner and I'm from Lynch, Kentucky. I enlisted in the Army because I didn't want to go in the coalmines."

"Eddie Wright. Everything I did in military was better than what I experienced in fields in Georgia."

"I'm William F. Peterson. Most people call me Bill. And I think I said, 'I'd rather go to Korea, because at least you issue me a rifle and I'm allowed to use it. Now, if I went to Biloxi, Mississippi, it might be used on me.'"

Next: Unprepared Soldiers Are Overwhelmed