There's More to Blacks in the Military Than Sad Saga of 'Liberators' Documentary

The Oscar-nominated PBS documentary "The Liberators" has been withdrawn from circulation while apparent inaccuracies are examined by public television officials. Unfortunately, in telling the long-neglected story of the black 761st Tank Battalion, the producers of the documentary seem to have incorrectly depicted the unit as entering Buchenwald and Dachau to free Jews from Nazi exterminators ("Historical Accuracy of Documentary Questioned," Calendar, Feb. 18).

There's no question, though, that the 761st distinguished itself many times over in World War II and it was one of the few black military groups ever to be awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.

That's what makes the controversy over "The Liberators" all the sadder.

The history of black Americans serving their country's military is a proud, if little-known one dating back to the Revolutionary War and it should not be overshadowed by the current dispute. To illustrate, here are some historical highlights:


The Revolution: Beginning in 1775, several black regiments, some composed of one-time American slaves, fought for our country's liberty. Another black regiment was composed of black Santo Domingoans, including Henry Christophe, who was only 12. Christophe went on to establish an independent nation in northern Haiti, of which he served as king from 1811 to 1820, at which time his kingdom was merged into modern-day Haiti. Other black Americans served as members and, occasionally, as leaders of integrated "Minuteman" units. A few blacks served in the first integrated units of U.S. Marines and many in the U.S. Navy, which remained integrated until the advent of steam-power steel-clad vessels. Altogether, about 5,000 black Americans and Haitians-to-be fought to free U.S. colonies.


The Civil War: Beginning in 1863, a total of 149 black regiments served the Union Army. The Union Navy continued to be significantly integrated. Black Americans volunteered in large numbers to fight for their freedom despite the Confederate threat (that intermittently was carried out) to put to death all blacks who were captured in battle. Other black Americans served a variety of military duties in support of both Union and Confederate forces.

Following the war, six Regular Army regiments composed exclusively of black enlisted men and white officers were established in 1866. Later, the 24th and 25th Infantries, which grew out of those regiments, joined the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments on the western frontier until the 1890s. The cavalry regiments became two of the most highly decorated American units.


The Spanish-American War: In 1898, all four black Regular regiments and a black Ohio national guard regiment (commanded by Maj. Charles Young, West Point's third black graduate) were readied to be sent to Cuba. There, in the climactic battle of the first phase of the war, the black 24th Infantry led the charge up San Juan Hill, the black 9th and 10th Calvary Regiments joined Theodore Roosevelt's 1st Volunteer Cavalry Regiment and other units in the charge up adjacent Kettle Hill, and the black 25th Infantry Regiment participated in the capture of El Caney six miles to the northeast--all on July 1, 1898.


World War I: The advent of World War I resulted in the organization of the United States' two largest black combat units ever, the 92nd Infantry "Buffalo" Division and the 93rd Infantry Division. Both divisions fought in France. Many other black Americans served in so-called services of supply--i.e., in support of front-line combat units.


World War II: When Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, Navy Messman Dorie Miller--until then in a subservient role traditionally assigned to black sailors--became one of the first heroes of the war. After carrying his wounded battleship captain to safety, he manned a machine gun and downed attacking enemy aircraft.

The 92nd Infantry served as, essentially, a unified command in Italy. The 93rd served as separate infantry regiments in the South Pacific. The 25th Infantry Regiment distinguished itself repeatedly in some of the war's bitterest fighting on New Guinea and Bouganville. Units of the 24th Infantry Regiment fought on Bouganville and in the Solomons before the assembled regiment received the first formal surrender of a Japanese garrison ever, on a small island west of Okinawa.

Individual units of combat size, including the 761st Tank Battalion and the 969th Field Artillery Battalions, fought in Western Europe. Black Americans serving in support units were hugely successful as they volunteered to join front-line infantry companies as combatants.

Approximately 900 black Americans, including a large contingent of Angelenos, formed the pioneering 332nd Fighter Group (the "Tuskegee Airmen") commanded by Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the fourth black West Point graduate. During about 200 missions this group of four fighter squadrons never lost an escorted bomber to enemy aircraft--a record unmatched by any other Army Air Corps unit.


The end of segregation: Finally, in the Korean Combat Zone, the saga of segregated black military units came to an end. The 24th Infantry Regiment, victor over invading North Koreans at Yechon in 1950, and heroes of several other regimental-level front-line actions, was inactivated on Oct. 1, 1951.

On June 30, 1952, the Army's last black unit ever to engage an enemy, the highly decorated 77th Engineer Combat Company, was inactivated. This unit had been successively commanded during 1950 and 1951 by two Angelenos. One was Capt. Charles M. Bussey. I'm proud to say I was the other.

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