Black History Month: A history of military service

Maj. Gen. Eli A. Helmick decorates men with Distinguished Service Cross medals for exceptional bravery in France on Jan. 27, 1919. U.S. Army photo
Maj. Gen. Eli A. Helmick decorates men with Distinguished Service Cross medals for exceptional bravery in France on Jan. 27, 1919. U.S. Army photo

Black History Month: A history of military service

by: Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone C. Marshall Jr. | .
American Forces Press Service | .
published: February 03, 2015

Scholar eyes black officer challenges then, now

WASHINGTON – The journey of African-Americans serving in the U.S. military stretches back to the Revolutionary War, when black men fought for the nation’s independence despite lacking their own personal freedom.

African-American officers serving during the Vietnam War era faced a particularly challenging time, but very little has been documented of their experiences, according to Isaac Hampton II, a scholar who has studied the black officer corps during this period.

“The history of African-Americans in the United States military has been predominantly written from a top-down perspective,” he said. “On the subject of black officers, official military history has failed to capture the unique personal challenges in the midst of civil rights and black movements of the 1960s.”

Hampton, an Army veteran and command historian for U.S. Army South, shared his research and analysis on the advancement of the black officer corps from integration through the Vietnam era. “We see that in the 1950s and through the Vietnam era, America was adjusting to some very, very challenging racial changes,” he said.

That era marked the beginning of the modern civil rights movement, the end of school desegregation, the Montgomery bus boycott, church bombings across the south, and an unpopular war in Vietnam which would lead to a disproportionate number of African-American deaths, Hampton said.

“We have race riots in Watts and Detroit, and even military bases such as Travis Air Force Base,” he said. “And of course, we have the Black Power movement. And happening at the same time … in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, we have rampant drug use in the military. So, again, this whole period was arguably the most troublesome time in American history since the Civil War and Reconstruction.”

As he studied this era in pursuit of his master’s degree, Hampton said, he learned of the Butler Report, a comprehensive book detailing the struggles of Army Col. Douthard Butler, which eventually inspired him to write his own book, “The Black Officer Corps: A History of Black Military Advancement from Integration through Vietnam.”

“This was a report that was basically hidden – kept private,” he said. “That’s what drove me, and how I got the sources. So it just started during my master’s work, and I’ve been working on it ever since.”

The Butler Report, Hampton said, in part discussed how evaluation reports were used to hinder black officers from advancement within the Army.

“During this time, the Army went to what is known as the ‘total man concept,’” he said. “What this did was that it looked at an officer’s career from lieutenant all the way until the time they came up for field grade ranks. Based on these early reports, … this would prevent them from getting good commands.”

Today, Hampton noted, that while it’s not perfect, the Defense Department has worked hard to improve its diversity and opportunities. Still, he added, more work remains to be done.

“My current thoughts are it’s better now than it ever has been; however, we have to look inside what I call the numbers,” he said. “The promotion trends, the time of ascension of black officers, and what types of jobs they have.” Sometimes, he added, black officers are able to reach certain ranks such as lieutenant colonel, but aren’t selected to be in command types of positions.

“I believe more work still needs to be done, because we still see the disparity of black officers in combat arms,” he said. “And again, these are the big jobs – the important ascension jobs – to where you can rise up to these really, really critical positions in the high ranks of the armed forces.”

Hampton said he is driven to educate people about the journey of African-American officers because “there have just been so many misconceptions.”

“As an academic, I feel a responsibility to bring some objectivity to tell the story of what African-Americans really went through, because we need their voices,” he said. “Without their voices, someone else is writing about it who may not have had that experience.”

His passion drives him to get their stories out, he said, because it brings to light something extraordinary: that in the times of the Civil Rights movement and all the racial tension that came with it, they still served.

“So the biggest thing is going to be the vignettes that let these people tell their own stories,” he said, referring to his book. “That’s the biggest thing – let them tell their own story.”

Father, son break race barrier while serving country

WASHINGTON – In the early stages of American military history, it was rare to find a high-ranking African-American leader, considering the civil inequalities and unrest prevalent in those times.

But an African-American father and son – Benjamin O. Davis Sr. and Benjamin O. Davis Jr. – broke racial barriers and led honorably, leaving an indelible mark on America’s military heritage.

The Davis family, fittingly, hailed from the nation’s capital, and perhaps this foreshadowed their impact on U.S. military history. The elder Davis studied at Howard University before entering military service in the 8th U.S. Volunteer Infantry on July 13, 1898, during the Spanish-American War.

Following that service, he enlisted as a private in the regular Army on June 18, 1899, serving as a corporal and squadron sergeant until Feb. 2, 1901, when he earned his commission as a second lieutenant in the cavalry.

Davis Sr. served in a variety of positions, ranging from border patrol duty in 1915 to a professor of military science and tactics at Wilberforce University in Ohio. He also served in the Philippines from 1917 until 1920 as a “Buffalo Soldier.”

Then, as a lieutenant colonel, he taught military science and tactics at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala., until 1924, in the first of his two teaching stints there. He also served on special duty with the State Department in Liberia, and as a special advisor on race relations in Europe during World War II.

The elder Davis made history when he was promoted to brigadier general Oct. 25, 1940, the first African-American to wear the star insignia in the U.S. military. He retired on July 14, 1948, after 50 years of service. He died Nov. 26, 1970.

His son, Davis Jr., was the fourth African-American graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and became the U.S. military’s second African-American general officer. He graduated from West Point on June 12, 1936, commissioned as a second lieutenant in the infantry, and was first assigned to Fort Benning, Ga.

Like his father, Davis Jr., served as a professor of military science at the Tuskegee Institute. In May 1941, he entered advanced flying school at nearby Tuskegee Army Air Base and received his pilot’s wings, along with four other African-American officers, in March 1942 – later to be joined by almost 1,000 Tuskegee Airmen.

Davis Jr., now in the Army Air Corps, assumed command of the 99th Fighter Squadron. Although he finally was permitted to serve as a pilot, he still faced racial discrimination.

Nearly 90 days into his command, and after the squadron had flown many combat missions under Davis’s leadership, the 33rd Group commander accused the Tuskegee Airmen of not having the same desire to fight as white pilots. The group commander recommended removing Tuskegee Airmen from combat.

The general who reviewed the report endorsed it, according to records, and commented that “the Negro type has not the proper reflexes to make a first-class fighter pilot.”

After the proposal reached Washington, Davis Jr. was called to testify on his unit’s behalf before the War Department’s permanent Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Policies. Davis Jr. provided examples of his unit’s flying acumen, and maintained that his men were as eager for combat as white pilots.

He noted that because they were undermanned, they flew more often – up to six more combat missions per day. Davis Jr. convinced the advisory committee, and his unit remained in place and displayed exemplary service in North Africa and Sicily.

Unlike his father, who spent a majority of his career as a military professor, the younger Davis served as a commander for a variety of units. He attended the Air War College in 1949, and upon graduation, served as the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for operations.

Davis Jr. joined his father in the general officer ranks Oct. 27, 1954, when he was temporarily promoted to brigadier general. The promotion became permanent May 16, 1960. He continued to serve as a commander in a variety of capacities, and he became a lieutenant general on April 30, 1965.

After 33 years of service, Davis Jr. retired in 1970. He continued his public service as Cleveland’s director of public safety. He later was director of civil aviation security and an assistant secretary at the U.S. Transportation Department.

On Dec. 9, 1998, Davis Jr. received his fourth star from then-President Bill Clinton. He died July 4, 2002.

(Brittainy Joyner, office of the assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs, contributed to this article.)

Marine Corps cyber commander chosen for top DIA post

Stripes Okinawa

The first Marine Corps officer to lead the Defense Intelligence Agency recently took the helm of his new command, according to Defense Department and DIA reports.

Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart was promoted from major general just prior to assuming command of the agency in a Jan. 23 ceremony at DIA’s Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling headquarters.

In addition to being the first Marine to hold the position, Stewart will be DIA’s first African-American commander, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren told DOD News.

At the ceremony, Stewart addressed the DIA workforce for the first time.

“My tenure here will not be about reversing the past or reinventing the agency or its mission,” Stewart said according to a DIA report. “It will be about continuity and striving for excellence in our profession. … It’s about writing the next chapter, not a new book.”

“This requires a diverse and talented workforce motivated to solve problems and serve their country,” Stewart continued. “It will be my job and the job of the agency leaders to empower and lead this workforce and this is my pledge to you. In return I ask each of you, every day to bring your A-game – to innovate, challenge the status quo, speak truth to power, and do all we can do; just do it better.”

Stewart had been serving as commander of Marine Forces Cyber Command, and before that, he was the intelligence director for Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps.

“A distinguished intelligence professional and dedicated warfighter, Major General Stewart brings a wealth of talent and leadership to the Defense Intelligence Agency and the nation’s intelligence community across the agencies and organizations,” Warren said.

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