Sunday, May 24, 2009

By Edward L. Posey
Savas Beatie, $24.95, 336 pages

Edward L. Posey’s remarkable account of “the war within a war” fought by black Rangers during the Korean War is a disturbing but compelling read. Seldom numbering more than 100 and usually less, the 2nd Ranger Infantry Company (Airborne) fought two very different wars in its short, violent existence.

Against their communist foe in Korea, the Rangers fought valiantly and skillfully, using their bayonets viciously in close-quarters combat. And against the racism buried deep within the U.S. Army, the Rangers fought back with a public, defiant dignity that would not be subdued.

The opening salvo of the second war began on July 26, 1948, when President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 calling for “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion, or national origins.” Though the executive order called for rapid implementation, only the Air Force and Navy integrated its personnel before the Korean War broke out two years later.

Thus it was that when the call for Ranger volunteers went out four months after the outbreak of hostilities, all black volunteers stepping forward came from the still-segregated paratroop battalions within the 82nd “All American” Airborne Division. It was from this genesis that the all-black 2nd Airborne Rangers were formed.

These volunteers were in fact “triple volunteers” for hazardous duty. Already paratroopers sworn to jump into harm’s way, they now volunteered for the even more dangerous Ranger duty, knowing the sole destination for all Ranger companies was front-line combat in Korea.

Proud and sensing their place in history, the black volunteers were quick to assume the legacy of the U.S. Army’s all-black “Buffalo” regiments that served with such distinction in the North American Indian Wars of the previous century. Their pride would serve them well in Korea, but it was also a vulnerability that allowed racist slurs to cut deep even before they left homeland America.

The deepest cut came soon and from within when, after a tactical misjudgment in their daunting training, the Ranger training brigade commander snarled at the assembled officers, “You people won’t fight when you get to Korea!” The slur was taken in silent rage but not forgotten, for short months later the same brigade commander received a stack of valor citations awarded the Buffalo Rangers, mailed without comment from somewhere in Korea.

For all the indignities they endured, the black Rangers had allies among white officers and soldiers, and Mr. Posey gives them due credit for speaking out. For example, when a number of white officer candidate school graduates at Fort Benning, Ga., were offered the much-coveted assignment to an airborne unit, the entire group refused to accept the career-enhancing selection unless the only black graduate in their class was also included (they prevailed).

So too did the all-white 4th Airborne Rangers accept without reservation their “Buffalo” kin in the 2nd Company. The unspoken truth about the huge U.S. Army is that it’s always been a collection of proud tribes, each determined to outdo the other and even more determined to mark the fire hydrants with their dominance.

Death was still a stranger when the young Rangers came through Japan en route to Korea. As one of the Rangers recounts, “Most of us were rather carefree and happy as we looked for women and drink … [we] had no idea what we were getting into.” As it was, the Rangers’ arrival in Japan coincided with the worst, the longest retreat in the history of the U.S. Army.

Immediately upon deployment to Korea the Buffalo Rangers were employed as a “fire-brigade” for the hard-pressed 7th Infantry Division, their company passed from one regiment to the next whenever and wherever the situation became desperate. It was a cruel introduction to combat, and within two weeks the Rangers were reduced to 61 percent of their arrival strength.

In March 1951, the 2nd Rangers made history when they conducted the first all-black Airborne Ranger combat jump into Munsan-ni, some 24 miles north of Seoul. For paratroopers, a combat jump is the Super Bowl of their careers, an ethos verified by more than one previously wounded Airborne Ranger in Korea as he slipped away AWOL from his hospital bed to jump at Munsan-ni with his Ranger brethren.

Despite their undisputed courage and combat prowess, the Ranger companies were, however, being misused as regular infantry by field commanders desperate for manpower. Rather than insist on proper employment of the Rangers for their original, behind-the-lines concept, the Department of the Army elected to disband all Airborne Ranger companies in July 1951. The rather disingenuous justification for the decision declared “Deep patrol missions by small units, for which the Rangers are intended, are made most difficult in the Far East Command by reason of racial differences between the oriental and the Caucasian.”

The irony of the “Caucasian” comment was not lost on the Buffalo Rangers, but superficial or not, the Army had made its decision. All six Airborne Ranger Companies were shortly disbanded in a bitter ceremony that left more than a few tough Rangers in tears.

Something else within the U.S. Army was also terminating that same summer, another concept that brought bitterness to many but whose cessation was long overdue. The Buffalo Rangers’ battlefield exploits mocked the military myth of black inferiority, and there were too many white and often grateful witnesses to hide the truth.

Famous generals, including Ridgway, McAuliffe and Taylor, publicly stepped out to condemn the immorality of segregation. And five-star General of the Army Douglas MacArthur put the final nail in the discredited segregationist policy in declaring:

“I have one criticism of the Negro Troops who fought under my command in the Korean War. They didn’t send me enough of them!”

Mr. Posey’s vivid recollections of the heroism and dignity with which the Buffalo Rangers faced their enemies both foreign and domestic is indeed a marvelous read. More important still, it gives long-overdue credit to the valor and sacrifice demonstrated by black warriors in American military history.

Retired Air Force Col. Michael Haas is a former Ranger and special operations historian.

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