'It was bound to happen' says Becton of Army integration
July 25, 2008
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, July 24, 2008) -- The Korean Conflict led the way for integration of the Army after President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 calling for equal treatment, opportunities and advancement for black servicemen.
Retired Lt. Gen. Julius Becton Jr. was a platoon leader in Korea when the effects of the order were first experienced and his unit became integrated.
"The executive order wasn't very effective when it was signed July 26, 1948," Becton said. "I saw the most effective result from the order during combat in Korea."
Becton was a platoon leader in an all-black battalion within the 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, which deployed to Korea in 1950.
"Our white, regimental commander thought the personnel system was incapable of assigning people based on race and ordered qualified replacements to be placed where they were needed," Becton said.
Integration affected more than just white troops. It touched all nationalities, Becton said, and had an impact on his formerly all-black unit.
"The first non-black that came into my company was a Chicano," Becton said. "I told my platoon sergeant to 'don't let anything happen to this guy. He will survive,' and he did."
Prior to integration, however, Becton and his fellow black troops had to prove their skills and abilities as warfighters when they first arrived in Pusong, Korea. They had to do this because most black Soldiers were assigned as laborers, construction workers, and transporters, for examples. At first, most were not allowed to participate in combat.
"We were the first all-black battalion within a division to deploy to Korea. As we were getting accustomed to being [in the country], our battalion was pulled out of the division and sent on a separate mission to be tested. The decision came from [Gen. Douglas] MacArthur's headquarters because, what I later learned, was MacArthur wanted to see how a black battalion would perform," Becton said.
Becton stated his battalion performed so well that the 9th Infantry Regiment commander was "screaming" for Becton's battalion to return to the division. The battalion saw battle, fought and began to be accepted as skilled warfighters.
"People began to find out that the black Soldier could fight, but they should have known that because we had many records of cases in World War I and II where we did well," Becton said.
Becton had been encouraged to join the Army in 1942 by Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, chief of staff of the Army Army Air Corps who visited his high school.
"Arnold gave us this long spiel, a song and dance, about earning your silver wings and gold bars," Becton said. "Six of us from the football team went down and took a battery of tests, so we could join the Army Air Corps Enlisted Reserve. We wanted to become pilots, win our gold bars of a second lieutenant and wings of an aviator. I wanted to be a Tuskegee Airmen. None of us completed flight training to become pilots, though," he said.
Afterward, Becton enrolled in pre-flight training school but failed the physical and washed out because of a stigmatism. Six months later, he was accepted into officer candidate school at Fort Benning.
"I was called to active duty in the following year in July 1944," he said. "I was in the Southwest Pacific assigned to the all-black 93rd Infantry Division, except for the key officers."
In 1947, Becton left the Army and enrolled in pre-med courses, but later requested to be recalled for active duty for several reasons.
"I was married in January 1948," Becton said. "My wife and I were expecting our first child and I really liked the Army when I was in it, so I thought it wasn't a bad idea to go back in. Five months later, Truman issued the executive order."
Becton had positive feelings about the Army, the black men whom he served with and the benefits the organization offered. He knew what it took to garner the respect blacks troops desired during that turbulent time. And he knew he was not just representing black Soldiers but the black race, as a whole.
"In the Army, I was in great physical shape; I served in Korea, and had men who did what they were told to do," Becton said. "Most of the men I served with were convinced that if we did the right things, make our unit successful and do a good job, good things will happen. We all believed there would be a day when integration (although we didn't call it integration at the time) would come. We knew we had the qualifications, training, and personality. We had demonstrated that we were qualified, could be relied upon and could lead."
Becton continued to provide his thoughts of what worked during those days.
"I knew when you work with people you learned to trust them, and they learned to trust you," he said. "I've demonstrated that I care about people."
Although segregation was prevalent throughout the rest of the Army, some military posts were integrated or becoming integrated during the late 40s.
"Fort Dix was always integrated," Becton said. "Fort Benning (in Georgia) was underneath southern rules, but the training centers themselves were integrated. Their hospital was also integrated, but once you got out of the realm of the training area, the post was back to the southern way of doing things, like riding in the back of the bus."
In 1951, Becton was dismayed with the racial attitudes in the United States regarding black Americans whom he thought had proven themselves in Korea. While stationed at Camp Edwards in Massachusetts, assigned to an all-black unit, Becton (and his company) performed second-tier duties.
"I was sent to Camp Edwards and my duties consisted of policing and securing the post and cooking food for the people on the post," he said.
Becton said the Army has changed for the better since the days of segregation and integration, which can be seen in the number of African-American Soldiers in today's force.
"When I attended the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, we still didn't have a lot of people that looked like me," Becton said. "In 1964, I worked at the Pentagon and there were four high-level blacks on staff. It was lonely. Those things are ancient history now. There are 20 or 30 blacks enrolled at the National War College. And I was amused to learn that this year alone, West Point has more than 70 black women attending the school. I remember when there were only one or two black students in the class," he continued.
Today, blacks comprise 13.5 percent of the military forces. They are assigned to every career field and military occupational specialty.
"We have some outstanding servicemembers serving in the ranks," Becton said.
Becton has had much success in the Army in his 40-plus years in the service. He was the first black lieutenant general of VII U.S. Corps in Germany in 1978. He later retired after serving as deputy commanding general of Training and Doctrine Command.
Becton now serves as a director to several corporations, academic institutions, and associations. His many honors include being named several times by Ebony magazine as "One of the 100 most Influential Blacks in America," and he has also received the Distinguished Service Award from the Association of the U.S. Army and the Boy Scouts of America's Silver Beaver.
Becton and his wife Louise reside in Springfield, Va. The couple has five grown children, 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.