War Stories

White Army Black Soldier

During the sixties, all was not quiet on the western front. I am speaking of the movement of civil rights and the moral awakening of western power America.

Emotions ran high whenever the subject was directed and discussed on the matter of racial equality and the equal treatment of all men. The thought of being equal to all humans left a bitter taste in the mouths of some narrow-minded people. This bitterness of change has lead to the use of violence to other human beings. Violence to the resistance of change not only happened in the civilian world but also in the military. I as a young soldier experienced racisms in both venues, and in all cases the experience would be life changing for me.

The first taste of racism I experienced was in both the junior high and high school days. We, (African Americans) students realized what was going on because of the civil rights movement that was taking place in our community, and the involvement of our parents and neighbors. The covertness of the racial attacks became apparent when scholarships for blacks were nonexistent. No matter how smart, how athletic, or charismatic you were as a black person, the odds of you winning any recognition from the powers that be was at most nil. The student body, both black and white began to work together and brought the subject to light by the use of set-ins and other attention getting means. It worked, and there was change for the good.

The military services had been integrated back during the late 40tis, and were labeled the most socially acceptable element of our American society. Reading military history books I knew this was not always the case. Time has changed and I wanted to be to a part of the ever-changing landscape by making my mark in the military.

The movie, the wizard of OZ had a line in it that said (you are not in Kansas anymore) I realized I was no longer in the north where racism was in most cases covert, when I got off the bus in Columbus GA. I stepped off the hound and the first thing I saw was a sign that said Whites only drinking fountain, blacks in the back. Thatís when it hit me; you are in a different country Boy.

Thatís how it started for me three strikes. Strike one-high school educated, borne in the north Yankee and three I am black. I had a lot to learn if I wanted to stay ahead of the curve. In some cases I had to learn to hold my tongue while in town because, I had no wish to become a martyr hanging from the nearest tree. I adjusted to the overt racism and toed the line until I left those good old boys and the Georgia peaches behind. But wait thereís more.

I graduated from jump school in the month of Dec. 66 and received my orders for duty in Europe. After all was said and done, I ended up with the 1st of the 509th airborne of the 8th infantry division located at Mainz Germany. This unit was the only airborne mechanized unit in the European theater at the time. Our unit did not have any racial incidents as I recall during my time, but other units did have a problem with social issues. Lee Barracks held two units based there, an artillery unit and ours. This arty unit had an EM club that was named the hillbilly club. We airborne love to drink and raise hell but at the hillbilly you as a black soldier were not welcomed with open arms. This was not because you were airborne but because you were black. If you as a black trooper went to this club you did so at your own risk, and you did not go alone. This began to change when fellow troopers black and white began to protest the unequal treatment given to military personal on a military post. The threat of having the bar closed brought about a reluctance of change for the better, but why would any trooper have to go through this just to get a drink on post.

During the 60tis there was a lot of separation in the military as I saw it. Blacks had their clubs and whites had theirs. This kind of separation was even present in the combat zone of Vietnam. Every group had his own place, this is ok when at home but in a combat unit separation could mean death to all. This stinking thinking does not wash in combat. In a combat unit every man has to rely on one another in order to survive.

The first month in Vietnam was a little rocky when it came to race relations. There were a couple of incidents and fights between blacks and whites at the EM club. Things changed rather quickly when the club was put off limits and it was announced that this would not fly in our unit. The thought hit home when in combat and a cry for help came, it did not matter what the color of the man, because it could be you out there calling for assistance.

I was not always in the infantry, because I started my of tour of duty in Vietnam as an airborne cook. I was released from the spoon platoon and placed in an infantry company I believe because of two factors, I could read and write, so I knew the REGs governing the mess hall and I was a smart ass negro. I do believe these two factors helped my non-existence of infantry tactics become well tuned. On another occasion five of us (minorities) were talking about what was happening back in the world, and the assignation of Martin L King when a LT from another company told us to disperse because we are not congregate without having the penalty of having an Article 15 or courts martial lodged against us. Here we are in a combat zone with access to weapons and this guy tells us we canít talk or group all because there are afraid us us staging an uprising. What insecurity.

There was a first Sergeant that thought it was cool to fly the civil war rebel flag over his hooch. This action seemed like a slap in the face for all us minorities who volunteered to join the airborne and fight our countries enemies. The pride of being in an elite fighting force and willingness to die for ones country took a back seat for this SGT it seems. By flying that flag, we took the meaning of this action, as the south will rise again and continue the placement of blacks, other people of color, back in the confines of servitude.

Troopers both black and white protested this flag flying, as it was perceived as a slap in the face. The Battalion Commander concurred with the protesting men and had the SGT in question remove the item from the flagpole. The conclusion was, we as a fighting force must continue to be of one mind, and that was to fight the enemy and not ourselves.

When the action taken by the commander took hold on all of us, we all realized that in order for any of us to survive we had to rely on each other if we were to complete our tours of duty and hopefully return home.

With all of the bullshit behind us, we became one of the most decorated airborne battalions during the Vietnam War.

War IS Hell. The story continues.

William R. Hayes.

Here is a link to more information on the Civil Rights movement in Vietnam