The Folklore Project
Deceased in 2011
The Day You Discover Race Doesn't Matter
By Langley Chavis
In the early 1950s, the U.S. Army began integrating its troops — while they were at war. Away from home, cold, under fire, and forced to face strangers and enemies, both white and black soldiers had to come to terms with their own prejudices fast. Each man had hours to decide to overcome a lifetime of deeply held beliefs and fight side by side with people they would never even have spoken to before. They would have to defend each other, take orders from each other, and, when the moment came, trust each other with their lives.
Below is an excerpt of a memoir written by one soldier, Langley Chavis, an African-American (first row, fourth from the left). He is 20 years old in the photo. Chavis later reenlisted as an officer, became a pilot, and retired from the U.S. Army in 1983 as colonel. Chavis wrote this in 2008, three years before his death in 2011.
In 1951, I was with L company, 3rd Battalion, 15th Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division in Korea. I joined the unit on 24 December 1950 at Pusan. This was an all-black battalion except for the officers, chaplain, and the two medics, who were white. This was not a problem at that time because there were very few black officers, and none of the black officers was given a command assignment. So it was normal that black units were commanded by white officers.
Before we crossed the Han River in Spring 1951, we got a new officer as our platoon leader. This new officer was Lt. Reese, a black officer from Prairie View University, Houston, Texas. This was the first time I had served under a black officer. Another black officer was assigned to the battalion who was named Lt. London.
About early October 1951, we were pulled off the front to a rear assembly area. At this time, we were told we were going to the rear to integrate with a white unit. This news was received with mixed emotions. First of all, we didn’t want to break up our unit. We thought that we were a better fighting unit than the white units. Second, we felt like we would be given all the “ash and trash” jobs. Next, we thought we would lose our leadership positions such as squad leader, platoon sergeant, and first sergeant. But we had no choice in the matter, and neither did the whites. I believe the white soldiers didn’t want to integrate, either.
The exchange took place as scheduled, with the final unit being 60 percent white and 40 percent black. For the next seven to 10 days, there were two campfires in the area. There was one fire with whites singing country-western, and one fire with blacks singing spirituals.
The assignment of positions was done mostly by rank, so there were some blacks left in leadership positions. I retained my position as squad leader. Our platoon sergeant became the assistant platoon sergeant.
Lt. Reese was transferred to another unit. I never saw him again.
There were no conflicts between the black and white troops. Everybody was over-polite to each other and very careful of what we said and how we said it. In the all-black unit, it had been very common to hear one black soldier call another black soldier “nigger,” but now, you never heard anyone use the N-word. Additionally, the blacks used to call white troops crackers, honkies, rednecks, and peckerwoods. Now, everyone was on guard to not say the wrong thing, including the whites. I don’t know this to be a fact, but I think the whites probably called us names equivalent to the names we called them.
Then, we got the word we were going back to the front. The night before we moved out was a different night all together. No singing took place on either side. I knew then that going into combat affected everybody regardless of skin color. None of us had any advantage over the other because of skin color. I realized that combat was the great equalizer. The enemy didn’t give you a break because of your skin color. You had an equal chance of getting shot. For some reason, I found a little pleasure in thinking about the equalizer.
The unit went on the attack on the northern side of the Chorwon Valley. That’s when the real integration took place. Both white and black soldiers quickly learned that bravery or cowardice was colorblind. There were good soldiers and poor soldier in both races, white and black.
On one occasion, our platoon was to run a patrol at night to set up an ambush at one of the entrances to the valley. My squad was the point squad, and I was leading the patrol. I took the lead myself because I felt I was best qualified to lead at night. I was proceeding cautiously but making progress. I would walk several steps and stop to listen. Soon the white platoon sergeant came running up and said, “What the hell are you doing? Get this squad moving faster!” Just as he said that, we heard a stick crack ahead of us. I immediately gave the signal to take cover and pulled him down on the ground with me. Within a minute or two, a patrol walked right into our midst, and I halted the three-man. Fortunately, it was an American patrol that was returning. This very well could have been an enemy patrol just like we met the night we crossed the Han River. At this time, I believe the platoon sergeant developed a new respect for my judgment. He told me “Good going. Continue on the way you want to do it.” We continued the patrol with no more interference from the platoon sergeant.
When we got to the pass where we were supposed to set up the ambush, we positioned the troops in position to wait for the enemy. I told the platoon sergeant that we needed to put someone in the pass to capture an enemy if they came. He immediately asked me what I suggested. I told him I would get down in the pass, and he asked for someone to volunteer to get in the pass with me. The person who volunteered was an 18-year-old white soldier from West Virginia. I believe his name was Chester Grant.
The enemy did come that night. We engaged in a heavy firefight. Fortunately, not one of our guys got wounded or killed. When we got the order to withdraw, Chester and I came straight out of the trail in the valley while the others came down the ridge line. We married up in the valley and returned to our lines.
After debriefing, I went to my hole, and I began to do some serious thinking. It was that night that I am sure I lost all the racial prejudice I had ever felt. I realized it didn’t matter the race of the man that got in the pass with me, but more important was that he was there of his own free will. That he was putting his life on the line for me. We needed each other, because he depended on me just as much as I depended on him. I also thought about the person flying the planes and the person firing the artillery, or driving the trucks delivering the mail and the food and the bullets. It was not hard to conclude that no one race could do it all and we had to rely on the other.
It seemed that many others had the same realization that I had that night, because it felt like I was in a different unit the next day. We all started sitting together in small mixed groups of four or five when we ate our rations or played cards. Yes, I think the effect of combat cured us all of some old, long-term bad habits. We were now a unit that all could be proud of.
The Bitter Southerner thanks Chavis’ daughter, Shaun, for sharing her father’s story with our Folklore Project.