Blacks’ Battle in Military Likened to Gays’ : Armed forces: Activists point to parallels in arguing for an end to the Pentagon’s ban on homosexuals. But African-American veterans of segregated units are divided over today’s debate.


Charles M. Bussey noted that a recent national poll showed a 71% approval rating for Gen. Colin L. Powell, and reflected on his own 22-year career as an Army officer.

Although Bussey and Powell are African-Americans and both wore the same uniform, they served in different armies.

Powell, the nation’s top military officer and the first African-American to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, directed the Persian Gulf War.


Bussey enlisted during World War II, when the U.S. armed forces were segregated and blacks were rarely tapped to become officers.

What a difference 50 years has made.

In the eyes of the nation and, especially, the armed forces, the color of Powell’s skin is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is his ability as a military leader.

Not so in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, when the military balked at integrating blacks into the armed forces, much the same way the U.S. brass are resisting admitting gays today.

“I saw this country throw away many brilliant young officers who could’ve been the first Colin Powell,” said Bussey. “Their talents were ignored because their faces were black.” Now, as the debate over the military’s ban on homosexuals continues, some gay rights advocates are pointing to the long-ago experiences of African-Americans to support their position that discrimination--whether against blacks decades ago or gays today--is foolish and unjust.

“ ‘White soldiers will not shower or sleep in the same barracks as African-Americans. Mixing African-American troops with whites will weaken a unit’s cohesion. ‘ These are arguments that opponents of integration were making 50 years ago,” said David M. Smith, spokesman for the Campaign for Military Service, a coalition of gay and civil rights groups battling the Pentagon’s ban on gays. “Substitute ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ and it’s the same arguments being heard today. The common denominator is prejudice.”

Supporters of the ban argue that it has little or nothing in common with the military’s previous history of racial discrimination.


Black veterans of the segregated military, however, are divided on whether the Pentagon should lift its ban on gays, and whether homosexuals are battling the same type of discrimination that African-American servicemen had to overcome.

“I resent people who try to compare our situation with gays,” Bussey said. “There’s no similarity. Blacks couldn’t hide their blackness. Gays are able to hide their sexual preference. The issues are nowhere near the same.”

Before the armed forces finished integrating in 1954, institutional racism limited opportunities for hundreds of thousands of blacks such as Bussey.

Nevertheless, Bussey, now 71 and living in Riverside, persevered during those difficult times and retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1966 after serving 22 years in the Army. Afterward, he worked as a construction engineer for the Bechtel Group and taught engineering at a community college in Alaska.

In the early years after integration, African-Americans who did get promoted to the ranks of officers seldom rose above lieutenant colonel because, like Bussey, few were given the opportunity to command a battalion. That lessened their chances for promotion to colonel and general.

Tom Gillis, former commander of the 24th Infantry Regiment--one of four all-black regiments authorized by Congress after the Civil War--said: “That’s the way things were then. The Army was segregated from time immemorial.”


Gillis, 80 and a resident of Greenbrae, Calif., retired in 1965 as a colonel after 30 years in the Army. A longtime supporter of integration, he led the 24th Infantry in the Korean War and was the last white officer to command an all-black regiment.

Bussey praised Gillis’ ability as a commander but said segregation afforded some inferior white officers who commanded black units a “can’t lose” opportunity.

“White boys got assigned to lead black units because they were either screw-ups or they weren’t wanted anyplace else. . . . If a black unit screwed up, it was because . . . you couldn’t expect any better from them. But if the unit excelled, it was because of the white leadership,” Bussey said.

Clay Blair, author of “The Forgotten War,” an acclaimed history of the Korean War, wrote that there was a longstanding belief in the Army that “Negroes won’t fight.” It was not until the Vietnam War, which ended 20 years ago, that thoroughly integrated armed forces fought side by side in a major conflict.

Striking similarities exist in the arguments used by military leaders to keep blacks out of the armed forces then, and gays out now.


* An official policy statement issued in 1940 by the War Department (predecessor of the Defense Department) said that intermingling the races would “produce situations destructive to morale and detrimental to the preparation for national defense.”


Powell, who credits black veterans of World War II for dismantling military racism and making his ascent possible, said he opposes lifting the gay ban because the presence of homosexuals in the armed forces would be “detrimental to good order and discipline.”

* Gen. Omar Bradley, Army chief of staff in 1948 and revered as a soldier’s soldier, fought racial integration of the military, using the argument that the armed forces should not be used “as an instrument of social reforms.”

This year, retired Navy Capt. Eugene McDaniel, head of the American Defense Institute--a group that opposes gays in the military--told the Navy Times that “the military is no place for social experiments.”

* In 1948, Navy admirals warned that allowing blacks and whites to shower together and share sleeping quarters would lower morale and lessen the efficiency of a ship’s crew.

Navy admirals use the same argument today to argue against lifting the Pentagon’s ban on homosexuals.

* In 1949, Marine Commandant Gen. Clifton D. Cates protested that the official U.S. policy of equal treatment and opportunity for blacks should not extend to the military: “Changing national policy in this respect through the armed forces is a dangerous path to pursue inasmuch as it affects the ability of the national military Establishment to fulfill its mission.”


Recently, Marine Commandant Gen. Carl Mundy told the Navy Times much the same: “The allowed presence of gays or homosexuals in the military is prejudicial to effectiveness, welfare, morale and thereby to good order and discipline.”

Long after President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, extending equal opportunity to black servicemen and launching the process of integration, the United States was still defended by a Jim Crow military.

During World War II, the Army and Navy had quotas for black enlistees, who were usually assigned to service jobs such as truck drivers and stevedores. The Marines had a policy of excluding blacks altogether, after recruiting them in the Revolutionary War, until President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the corps to begin drafting blacks in June, 1941.

Eventually, the Marines moved ahead with integration at a pace faster than the other branches of the military. In 1949, when the Army still prohibited blacks from commanding white soldiers, black sergeants were commanding small units of white Marines.

Beginning in 1950, the Army allowed a handful of young black infantry officers to lead racially mixed combat troops in the Korean War. It was not until 1954 that all three branches of the military were fully integrated.

African-Americans who enlisted or were drafted into the military in the years between World War II and the Korean War knew they were joining a racist institution. Still, they flocked by the thousands to recruiting offices--moved by patriotism, career opportunities and, in some cases, by a desire to show they could do the job.


Edgar Huff left his Alabama home and enlisted in the Marines in June, 1942. Huff retired 30 years later as the first black sergeant major in the Marine Corps, a rank he held for 17 years. He also fought in Korea and served two tours in Vietnam.

“We proved that the Marines didn’t have to lower their standards. . . . I stayed in because I wanted to prove that a black man could be just as good as a white Marine if given the chance,” said Huff, 73.

“We knew there was nothing we could do about the racism at the time,” said Gene Doughty, 69, a Bronx, N.Y., native who enlisted in the Marines in 1943, “but we viewed it (enlisting) as a patriotic deed.” Doughty survived the battle for Iwo Jima and later retired as a field manager for Sears, Roebuck & Co. Today he serves on the board of directors of the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation.

Blacks were often denied decorations for bravery shown in World War II and the Korea conflict, which many attributed to the military’s racism.

Bussey commanded the 77th Engineer Combat Co., an all-black unit in Korea. On July 21, 1950, he led a small group of black GIs in a fierce firefight against North Korean soldiers at Yechon.

The Americans killed at least 258 enemy soldiers and liberated the town. The fight at Yechon was widely recognized as the first sizable American ground victory in the Korean War, and congressmen lauded the black troops on the House floor.


Bussey, who suffered two wounds in the battle, was recommended for the Medal of Honor. Instead, after the recommendation was reviewed through the chain of command, he had to be satisfied with a Silver Star--the nation’s third-highest award for bravery--and a Purple Heart. The Army’s refusal to award Bussey the Medal of Honor stirred a controversy among black Korean War veterans that has continued for almost 43 years.

The Navy’s snub of Alonzo Swann, now 67, of Gary, Ind., started him on a 50-year battle to correct the record.

Swann was one of the first black gunners trained by the Navy in World War II. As a member of an all-minority gun crew--15 African-Americans and one Mexican-American--aboard the carrier Intrepid, he was instrumental in shooting off a wing and tail of a Japanese kamikaze plane in 1944. Nine crew members died when the other wing crashed into their gun tub, and the survivors were recommended for a Navy Cross.

Navy officials, however, downgraded the recommendations to Bronze Stars without going through appropriate procedure. At the time, the Navy refused to recognize the crew as gunners and insisted that they were cooks or stewards.

Last February, the Navy agreed to correct the mistake and said Swann will be awarded the Navy Cross in a ceremony later this year.