Black officer recounts courage and racism on 'the killing floor' in Korea


"Firefight at Yechon: Courage and Racism in the Korea War," Lt. Col. Charles M. Bussey USA (Ret.), 264 pages, Brassey's (US), Inc., A Macmillan Publishing Co., New York, N.Y., $21.95.

THE KOREAN War should have been the first war fought without official racial segregation in the United States Army. President Harry S Truman banned discrimination in the armed forces with an executive order in 1948. It didn't quite work out that way for Lt. Col. Charles M. Bussey.

"It was still a Jim Crow army," Bussey says in his book, "Firefight at Yechon." He writes that racial segregation continued to flourish as the Korean War began.

In Korea, Bussey was a captain. He commanded the 77th Engineer Combat Company, which was all black except for an occasional white officer. The 77th ECC was attached to the 24th Infantry Regiment, which was the last left of the black regiments formed after the Civil War.

All of Bussey's troops were black, all his superior officers were white. One of his white regimental commanders tells him Army policy precluded blacks from rising above company commander for maybe six or eight years.

They had been friends, sharing drinks in this colonel's quarter's. The colonel told Bussey he'd have been recommended for the Medal of Honor for the firefight at Yechon if he were white.

"I cannot allow you to become a hero," Bussey recalls the colonel saying. "No matter how worthy."

Bussey would become a kind of Jackie Robinson of the military, the colonel said, an inspiration for black youth to rise above poverty and discrimination. The colonel felt it was the white man's burden and duty to keep blacks in their place.

Bussey stopped drinking with the colonel. He calls this portion of his tale "Anatomy of a Bigot."

Bussey is generous and loyal to men he found brave and fair and true, harsh and unforgiving with cowards and bigots and fools.

He was a tough, smart, resourceful soldier. He was a fine officer. He took care of his men, shared their fox holes, fought beside them in battle. His company became one of the most decorated in the Eighth Army. His book is in part a refutation of lingering claims that blacks did not fight well in Korea.

The Korean War, of course, is notorious for the defeats, retreats and routs inflicted on American fighting men. Bug-out virtually became a military term during the Korean War.

Bussey says dryly of one great rout: "It was an integrated debacle."

But there were also great victories and great bravery. No particular race seems to have had a monopoly on courage and victory anymore than they did on cowardice and defeat. Bussey even notes, for example, the fighting qualities of the North Korea enemy: "He was wily and tough . . . arrogant, confident and highly capable."

The war divided itself roughly into three, or actually, four parts: The thrust south by the North Korean People's Army beginning June 25, 1950, a drive that almost won the war before either South Korea or the United States was prepared to fight; the landing at Inchon in September, and the resulting allied push north that briefly touched the Yalu River border with China; and ++ the ragged retreat south again after the Chinese Communists entered the war in November.

The fourth phase was the long stalemate more or less along the 38th parallel while a truce was negotiated.

Bussey commanded his combat engineers during the three major phases from the last ditch defense of Pusan when the North Koreans drove south, to the rout and collapse of the NKPA after Inchon and the disastrous winter withdrawals before the Chinese.

Combat engineers, in those dim low-tech days, built roads and bridges when our guys were moving forward and blew them up when they were bugging out. Engineers built tank traps, strung barbed wire, and laid mines to protect our side. And they dug up and destroyed the enemy's mines.

"In addition," Bussey said, "we had the capability to reorganize and fight as infantry -- a capability of which we were proud."

Bussey exercised that capability a lot.

His firefight at Yechon came about nine days after the 77th landed in Korea. His outfit had shipped out from occupation duty in Japan July 11, 1950.

The North Koreans were pressing south toward Pusan, the port at the tip of Korea where the South Koreans and Americans had established a last-stand perimeter. Yechon was a little town on the route south.

The North Koreans took Yechon on the 19th of July. The black troops of the 24th Infantry Regiment took it back on the 20th, the first real victory for the U.S. Army in Korea, Bussey says.

A platoon of Bussey's company had been detached to the 24th. He went looking for them and found himself in the firefight. He complains official Army histories barely acknowledge the battle, let alone a victory. He says he killed 258 men and that the carnage still lives in his dreams.

Bussey had become commander of a combat engineer company by a circuitous route. He had enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941, gone to the Tuskegee Army Flying School in Alabama and been assigned to Col. Benjamin O Davis Jr.'s famous all-black 322d Fighter Group in Italy.

He flew 72 combat missions, shot down two enemy planes and destroyed two more. He was mustered out in 1946, got a degree in political science, became a Los Angeles cop for a couple years and found out he didn't like civilian life.

He went back on active duty in 1948 with the intention of transferring to the Air Force, an 18-month process. In the meantime he was assigned to the engineers. His transfer order came through when he was deep in North Korea awaiting an attack by the Chinese. A general told him he couldn't go.

He was an instinctive warrior: "I actually enjoyed the heightened thrills, the gross apprehension of uncertainty and the adrenalin-inducing drunkenness that mortal combat produced."

He speaks frequently of being on "the killing floor," the bloody abattoir where soldiers are tested.

"As mortal combat deliberately comes closer and closer," he says, "an attitude of dead seriousness overtakes the protagonists . . .

What he calls a sense of patriotism takes control: "It justifies whatever killing is to ensue -- the possibility of one's own demise or the probability of the enemy's . . .

"Nothing else matters but the killing -- powerful, glorious, bloody, overpowering killing."

And he was a patriot, he says, in spite of the bigotry of his country.

"I loved my country for what it could be -- far beyond what it was."

Whether the country has become what it could be in terms of bigotry and racism is perhaps problematic, but the Army has moved far, far beyond what it was 40 years ago. Blacks now find the Army an exemplary equal opportunity employer, far better than most Fortune 500 corporations.

And in fact, Bussey's 77th Engineer Combat Company was deactivated in 1952. There was no more need for a black engineer company for a black infantry regiment. The 24th Infantry Regiment was integrated in 1951.

Bussey left Korea in January 1951. He stayed in the Army until 1966, mostly flying helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft after 1952. He retired a lieutenant colonel.

His book is written in a rough-cut soldierly prose, sometimes sanctimonious with a kind of warrior's piety, often crude, but entirely convincing. He's totally and unembarrassedly frank. He tells it without equivocation the way he thought it was.

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