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A Legacy of African-Americans in Service of a Great Nation

A Legacy of African-Americans in Service of a Great Nation

Remarks by Lt. Gen. John D. Hopper Jr., vice commander, Air Education and Training Command at the Tennessee Air National Guard's Black History Month Banquet, Memphis, Tennessee, February 3, 2001.

Ladies and gentlemen, I very much appreciate the invitation to be with you this evening. It’s always a pleasure to come home to Tennessee. I went to high school up the road in Clarksville, at Burt High School. I have many fond memories of my time here. In fact my son attends and plays football at the University of Tennessee. Being back home here in Tennessee, I was a little nervous about coming to speak to such a distinguished group. As all of you know, public speaking can be a tricky business. The secret to a successful speaking engagement is to stop speaking at exactly the same time you stop listening.

It really is wonderful to see a room full of professionals from all walks of life. That diversity is part of what is so attractive about Tennessee. The Tennessee Air National Guard has made 2001 the "year of the employer" to highlight the contributions made by businesses and employers to the members of the Tennessee Air National Guard. Your support of these men and women is key to performing seamless operations between Guard and active-duty Air Force.

The importance of your support to our country’s armed forces has increased dramatically over the last decade. Since the early 1990s, the U.S. military has drawn down markedly … about 40 percent in the Air Force. Yet, the country has called us to service innumerable times, from bombing campaigns in Serbia and Kosovo to flood relief in Mozambique and Vietnam. Our current pace of operations simply is not feasible without the active, large-scale participation of our Guard and Reserve airmen. Your integral contributions to our national security are impossible without the support and understanding of civilian employers who realize the importance of the Guard to our nation’s security. In my previous position as commander of the 21st Air Force, I often asked my Guard advisor to accompany me on speaking engagements. Not surprisingly, he always accepted my request. I did this to emphasize the importance the Guard plays in today’s Air Force.

My purpose in joining you this evening is to honor and remember the American fighting men and women that came before us in uniform … active, Reserve and Guard. In recognition of Black History Month, it’s appropriate to highlight the contributions African-Americans have made in particular.

What I’d like to do is talk to you about some significant events in the history of America at war, with an eye toward the part played by African-Americans. What has always fascinated me is the assimilation of black Americans into the armed forces of our country. When I think about the history of African-Americans in the military, I often wonder what motivates someone to risk life and limb in battle when the reward for victory is uncertain. The battle for freedom has to be one of mankind’s noblest endeavors. Nowhere is that better illustrated than in the glorious history of black Americans in defense of our great country.

It is a unique aspect of human nature that some are willing to risk their very lives for the prospect of even a little more freedom. That applies not just to African-Americans, but to Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans, Jewish-Americans, and Americans of all flavors and colors.

In fact, it’s not even exclusive to Americans – from revolutionary France, to the black townships of South Africa, to the Kosovar Albanians … I could go on and on. Along the same line, does the promise of freedom have to be guaranteed? Not at all! In a famous 1862 debate carried out in the newspapers, Horace Greeley accused President Abraham Lincoln of pursuing Civil War to free the slaves. President Lincoln responded that if he could preserve the Union by not freeing one slave, he would do it. If he could preserve the Union by freeing all the slaves, he would do it. If he could preserve the Union by freeing some slaves and keeping others enslaved he would do it. This is hardly the sort of recruiting poster talk designed to build support and participation from escaped slaves or freedmen, but, demonstrating the irresistible yearning for freedom, black Americans rushed to join the Union army. Let me briefly review some of our warrior heritage, looking back even further than the Civil War.

The Revolutionary War

At the beginning of our great war for independence, African-Americans made up fully 20 percent of the colonial population. It was obvious that this war was to be fought for freedom. This inspired the black men and women of that time to offer themselves as fighters and defenders of freedom. Certainly, everyone has heard now of Crispus Attucks, an escaped slave who spearheaded the protest in Boston, now known as the Boston Massacre. That resulted in him becoming the first casualty in the war to free the colonies. Despite the inspired sacrifice of Attucks, this did little to convince colonists of the worth of black Americans as soldiers, much less as fellow patriots.

Fast-forwarding to 1812, America again faced the bleak prospect of war. The War of 1812 became the first war where free black men were allowed to participate. Even at that, it took a manpower crisis before America finally allowed African-Americans to join in protecting our nation’s freedom.

By the time the war was over, it’s estimated that up to 20 percent of the U.S. Navy was black. Additionally, a group of Louisiana militiamen known as the "free men of color" were instrumental in helping future president Andrew Jackson win the Battle of New Orleans.

The period from 1816 to 1842 presents an interesting contrast in the battle for freedom. During this time, there were a series of conflicts known as "The Seminole Wars." Many blacks fought in these wars as soldiers in the U.S. Army. However, a significant number of escaped slaves were adopted by and intermarried with the Seminoles and fought on their behalf. Many saw this as proof positive that African-Americans could not be trusted as part of our armed forces. Consequently, an Army regulation that prohibited African-Americans from enlisting came to be strictly enforced.

The Civil War

From the Seminole wars, we’ll jump forward 20 years to the Civil War. No matter what other forces were at work, for most of us the Civil War will always be about the end of slavery. At the start of that conflict, the prevailing wisdom was that African-Americans would not bear arms. However, as soon as it became apparent that resistance would be stiff and so-called "acceptable" volunteers were slow in coming, several Union generals found ways to use black manpower. With the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862, President Lincoln himself paved the way for African-Americans to serve in the military. Several famous units grew out of that conflict, including the 54th Massachusetts (colored) Volunteer Infantry Regiment, whose heroism was immortalized in the movie "Glory." "Glory" has become such a symbol of freedom, sacrifice and patriotism that for several years we have shown it on the Fourth of July to motivate our new cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

During the Civil War, nearly 35 percent of our predecessors who served the Union died in combat. Reflecting their bravery, 23 individuals won the new Medal of Honor. Many more were cited for bravery and acts of valor. These heroes helped to ensure victory for the Union and furthered the cause of freedom, but there were still inequities in treatment. Lower pay, substandard equipment and the prospect of much harsher conditions if captured by the enemy. Yet again, the willingness to fight and die for the cause still did not result in a full measure of freedom.

After the Civil War, many states didn’t want armed African-American soldiers within their borders. Consequently, the four black regiments still in existence in 1869 were posted to the frontier. As members of units like the 9th and 10th Cavalry, the now famous "Buffalo Soldiers," again served with distinction, earning several medals of honor. These soldiers were distinguished by the quality of their service and the quality of their enemies: Geronimo and Sitting Bull, as well as Billy the Kid and Pancho Villa. Many movies were made of this period, but I never once saw a Buffalo Soldier as a protector of the frontier.

By the way, there were no black officers to lead these regiments. All the officers were white. Let me read you an ad from the Army/Navy Journal of the times. "A first lieutenant of infantry (white) stationed at a very desirable post ... Desires a transfer with an officer of the same grade, on equal terms if in a white regiment, but if in a colored regiment, a reasonable bonus would be expected." Regardless of what most Americans thought, the fighting spirit of these frontier units was legendary and produced some famous officer alumni including Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing and Gen. George S. Patton. Patton would later ask for the all-black 761st Tank Battalion for his third corps, and Pershing stood muster with the 10th Cavalry for years after his retirement.

African-Americans were among the vigilant ones that made the westward move safe. I’m sure that most Americans of my generation – no matter what color – would say that, based upon what history books told us, or what we saw at the Roxy Theater’s Saturday matinees in Clarksville, or on television, African-Americans had little to do with making our western frontier safe. Fortunately, now we know that black Americans played a significant part.

Our participation in the Spanish American War actually starts with the incident that precipitated the war. Almost 10 percent of the sailors killed on the USS Maine were African-American. After the declaration of war, African-Americans again shouldered a fair share of the burden. In a war that lasted only 10 weeks, the 9th and 10th Cavalry, along with the 24th and 25th Infantry, formed a vital part of America’s fighting forces. Not enough of us realize that then Colonel and later President Teddy Roosevelt’s famous charge up San Juan Hill was supported by the 10th Cavalry as well as the 24th Infantry – you see, blacks were also among the "Rough Riders. " The 1998 Army War College class print features that famous charge up San Juan Hill. It is the first Army War College class print to prominently feature African-Americans, and I am fortunate to have it on the wall of my office.

The world wars

The 1900s ushered in world wars and the greatest number of black Americans participating in the fight for freedom.

We were challenged by the words of Dr. W.E.B. Dubois. They were short but right on target: "First your country, then your rights." With that, African-Americans performed brilliantly during World War I. The list of African-American comrades who earned awards for heroism is long and distinguished, populated by gentlemen such as Henry Johnson, whom President Teddy Roosevelt included among the eight men he considered the greatest heroes of World War I.

One unit in particular, a National Guard unit, the 15th New York, redesignated the 369th Infantry Regiment, distinguished itself as part of the French Army’s 161st Division in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, earning the entire regiment of "Harlem Hellfighters" the Croix de Guerre, one of France’s most distinguished wartime medals.

As we move forward in time to World War II, despite the restrictions relegating blacks to support roles, on Dec. 7, 1941, a black messman named Dorie Miller took over a machine gun aboard the battleship West Virginia at Pearl Harbor, turning it on the Japanese, and became one of the heroes of the day. An accurate assessment of his marksmanship was impossible due to the confusion of the battle. However, he was officially credited with downing two Japanese aircraft. Some witnesses insisted that he had shot down as many as six.

Dorie Miller was honored as one of the first heroes of World War II, and six months later the Navy Cross was pinned on his chest by Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet.

Although there were many black units involved in World War II, involvement in combat was seriously limited by the racial policies of the time. There were several black units that saw action, but almost always as part of another division or corps rather than their parent, all-black division.

One unit’s combat exploits have become legendary. I would venture to say that almost everyone has heard of the Tuskegee Airmen and their famous 99th Fighter Squadron, currently located at my home base, Randolph Air Force Base in Texas. Their record of never losing a bomber they escorted to enemy fire stands as one of the great milestones of combat aviation.

Post World War II – present

The years following World War II were shaped by the demise of officially segregated units. On July 26, 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 mandating equal treatment for all Americans in the armed services, but history has shown that past practices die hard.

My father enlisted in the Army in 1946, yet there were still all-black units as late as 1950. I remember going to the base lake at Fort Lee, Va., in 1953 and swimming in that portion reserved for "colored soldiers." The progress toward full integration was agonizingly slow, but forward it did move with more victories than defeats. Certainly, there have been bumps and detours, notably during the Vietnam era, when many Americans, and many American soldiers, were both uncomfortable and unsure of our course. We weathered that crisis, as well as riots on our bases, posts and ships to reach the point that I would say there are no more respected citizens in our country than those that we honored today. You stand as a shining example … not that the war is won, but that we have men and women dedicated to the battle for freedom.

To win that battle we must pass your legacy to the next generation. They must be infused with your leadership, your dedication and your willingness to sacrifice. Because the day-to-day battle must be continually waged, its terrain has shifted from the battlefield to our nation, our cities, communities and neighborhoods. The forces arrayed against freedom and equal opportunity are many and their resourcefulness is legendary. Because for all the positive actions that encourage and persuade, we seem to have entered another of those periods where racial hatred, anger and violence threatens us. You must be the light that guides these lost souls, through the force of your personal example.

We can create an environment where our most talented citizens, black, white, brown, red or yellow, are ready and trained to protect, to serve, to lead.

Ladies and gentlemen, that is a small sampling of the legacy of African-Americans in service of our great nation. This is the legacy that all our airmen continue to develop. The Air Force Vision for 2020 is global vigilance, reach and power which requires all our airmen, active, Guard and Reserve. Without the support of civilian employers, the Tennessee Air National Guard could not sustain its commitment to freedom. Thank you for letting these great Americans participate in the quest for freedom and security around the globe, and thank you for inviting me speak this evening.


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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).