Reporting the War

Thomas A. Johnson

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McGee, Gale William. "The Role of the Negro in Vietnam." By Thomas A. Johnson. (May 23, 1968). Congressional Record, p. S6373-S6376.

Insert abstract here....



Mr. McGEE. Mr. President, the role of the Negro soldier, sailor, airman, and marine in Vietnam is something which can scarcely be unappreciated by any American who pays attention to news reports on the war in Southeast Asia. The Negro is abundantly present in Vietnam, where his contributions have been many and legendary.

But what of the Negro attitude—the attitude of the soldier in the field? Thomas A. Johnson, writing in the Perspective section of last Sunday's Denver Post, explored the role of the Negro in Vietnam in depth and his report is, among other things, a commentary on U.S. race relations as well. Mr. Johnson wrote:

Fourteen weeks of interviews with black and white Americans serving here reveal that Vietnam is like a speeded-up film of recent racial progress at home. But Vietnam also demonstrates that the United States has not yet come close to solving its volatile racial problem.
Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the report, written by Thomas A. Johnson, be printed in the Record.

There being no objection, the article was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows:


(By Thomas A. Johnson)

SAIGON, SOUTH VIETNAM—The Army sergeant with the cool-black face muttered: "What in the hell am I doing here? Tell me that—what in the hell am I doing here?"

But there was a smile on his face.

At the moment, he and the men of his understrength platoon—about half of them Negroes—were crouching on a jungle trail as artillery shells pounded the brush 100 yards away.

At the same time, some 50,000 other Negroes in Vietnam were unloading ships and commanding battalions, walking mountain ranges and flying warplanes, cowering in bunkers, and relaxing in Saigon villas.

They were planning battles, moving supplies, baking bread, advising the South Vietnamese army, practicing international law, patrolling Mekong Delta canals, repairing jets on carriers in the Tonkin Gulf, guarding the U.S. embassy, drinking in sleazy bars and dining in the best French restaurants in Saigon, running press centers, burning latrines, driving trucks and serving on the staff of Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the American commander.

They were doing everything and they were everywhere. In this highly controversial and exhaustively documented war, the Negro, and particularly the Negro fighting man, has attained a sudden visibility—a visibility his forefathers never realized while fighting in past American wars.


Fourteen weeks of interviews with black and white Americans serving here reveal that Vietnam is like a speeded-up film of recent racial progress at home. But Vietnam also demonstrates that the United States has not yet come close to solving its volatile racial problem.

Why was the sergeant—a 34-year-old career soldier—in Vietnam?

He talked with good humor of the "good regular Army" to a Negro correspondent, he shuddered with anger recalling that his home-town paper in the Deep South called his parents "Mr. and Mrs." only when referring to their hero son, and he pointed out that he had stayed in the Army because his home town offered only "colored" jobs in a clothing factory where whites did the same work for higher pay.

Most often, Negro and white civilians and career soldiers see Vietnam as a boon to their careers and as a source of greater income than at home. For the Negro there is the additional inducement that Southeast Asia offers an environment almost free of discrimination.

As one civilian explained, "bread and freedom, man, bread and freedom."

For the ordinary Negro fighting man, Vietnam means not only integration but also an integral role in American life—or at least this aspect of American life.

"'The man' can't overlook talent when he wants the job done," said S-Sgt. James Frost, a 29-year-old Negro from Youngstown, Ohio.

In the job of battle, fighting prowess and dependability quickly erase color barriers. Staying alive becomes more important than keeping stateside racial patterns.

During the battle for Hue in February, a knot of white and Negro Marines stood knee deep in the mean red mud beside their tank. They were grimy-faced, beard-stubbled and grease-spattered.


They peered across the Huong (Perfume) River, where more than 800 yards away, unseen North Vietnamese gunners had just given up a mortar and artillery duel.

"They're through for now," said Sgt. Eddie Dailey, a Negro from York, Pa.

"It looks like it," said a white Marine with field glasses.

It was 9 a.m., but from somewhere a bottle of liberated Black and White Scotch was produced and passed around.

"Integration whiskey," someone commented.

"And that's just what's winning this Goddam battle," the Negro sergeant said.

A white lance corporal agreed. "You're damn straight, Bro," he said. The Negro shorthand for "Soul brother" seemed to slip out naturally.

As the corporal John Tice of Savannah, Ga., passed the bottle, a tattoo could be seen on his bare right arm. It showed a Confederate flag ad the words "Johnny Rebel."

"That's just what's gonna win this Goddam war," Dailey spat. "Integration, Goddam it."


With the integration of the armed forces in the late 1940s and early '50s, the military quickly outdistanced civilian efforts at breaking down color barriers. This has continued to a point where young Negro men flock to military service for the status, careers and security that many cannot find in civilian life.

A junior infantry officer, who is white, commented:

"It's an awful indictment of America that many young Negroes must go into the military for fulfillment, for status—and that they prefer service overseas to their homeland."

The war in Vietnam is filled with ironies, and one of the biggest is that the ordinary Negro fighting man—and especially the teen-age front-line soldier—is not aware of the Negro's participation in previous American wars.

An 38-year-old Marine private at Dong Ha said proudly: "The brother is here, and he's raising hell! We're proving ourselves!"

Officers in Saigon at the headquarters of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, say the heavily Negro 173d Airborne Brigade is the best performing unit in Vietnam.

This correspondent went in with the second helicopter wave when the 4th Battalion of the 173d struck a Viet Cong supply base in a thickly forested area of Phuyen province.


Taking cover in tall grass, he found himself with a young Negro paratrooper, a private first class whose face had not yet sprouted a serious growth of beard.

"What you doin' here, Bro?" the paratrooper asked. "You gonna do a story on the 4th battalion?"

Without waiting for an answer he kept talking.

"You tell them that the 173d is the best goddamn outfit on this rock. We were the first brigade-size combat unit in Vietnam."

His squad was ordered forward, but he kept talking:

"Tell them we made the first jump in Vietnam on Operation Junction City, and that the 4th Battalion is the best in the 173d. You tell them that—tell them we took Hill 875 at Tak To and t hat we are steady kicking Charlie's rear."

Only then did the paratrooper stand up, and as he ran with his squad he called back:

"You tell them, you hear?"

Capt. Robert Fitzgerald, a Harlem-born intelligence officer on Westmoreland's staff, commented:

"They feel they're the first Negroes to fight because their history books told only of white soldiers, and their movies showed that John Wayne and Errol Flynn won all American wars."

The 31-year-old officer went on: "The only uniform they've seen on Sidney Poitier was a chain-gang suit, and—oh, yes—that of an Army truck-driver once."

Talk of race often leaves white servicemen bored, embarrassed or annoyed. Many say the problem is overly stressed, and many Negro servicemen, especially the teen-aged, first-hitch foot soldiers, say the same thing.

But a Negro sailor stationed in Saigon noted:

"The question of race is always there for the Negro. He would either be blind or insane if it were not. But Vietnam is a buffer or isolation ward to this whole question of race as we know it."

If Vietnam is an isolation ward, then combat is a private room off the ward where the ordinary GI can bring to bear the special skill for which he has been trained—killing. And white or black, the GI—usually referred to here as a "grunt" or a "crunch"—is adept at his specialty. The elite units—the airborne, Marines, air cavalry and special forces—to which Negro youth flocks are among the best of these specialists.

A paratroop officer commented:

"The grunt wants to fight, pure and simple. He's one hell of a fighter, and we couldn't win any war without him because he lives, eats and sleeps to fight. You don't fight wars with gentlemen—that is, you don't win wars with gentlemen."


The grunt is no gentleman.

His average age is 19, and he left high school without finishing. His skills are with the M-16 rifle, the M-60 machine gun, the M-79 grenade launcher, hand grenades and bayonets.

He brags and swears and swaggers, and he runs into battle when the first shot is fired, screaming or cursing, as if he does not believe he can be killed.

He can be, however, and he is.

He is killed and wrapped in a green paper blanket and put off to one side until a truck or a helicopter can take him to the rear.

Then he is replenished during quiet times by other young soldiers and Marines who still rush into battle screaming and cursing as if they cannot be killed.

And during those quiet times other things come out.

Like that night in a pitch-black frontline bunker, when it was comforting to hear one another's voices, and the correspondent learned how it was after the 4th Battalion of the 173d took Hill 875 from a determined enemy force that "had chewed up the 2d Battalion."

"We hugged and kissed one another like Girl Scouts, and we cried," said a voice in the darkness.

An Army chaplain comments: "Their anxiousness to prove themselves as men makes them quickly absorb the lesson the military is anxious to teach."


That lesson, an infantry platoon sergeant said, "is to make every man feel that he's in the best Army, the best division, the best brigade, the best battalion, the best company, the best platoon, the best squad—and that he's the best Goddamn man in that squad."

And the Negro youngster—from the high school basketball team, the sharecropper's farm or the riot-ready slums—has consistently volunteered for the elite of the military fighting forces.

"You take a good look at an airborne rifle company and it'll look like there ain't no (foreign) white troops there," one Negro commented.

Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, the Negro psychologist, has noted that a "status not readily available in civilian life" causes Negroes to join the military service at a rate two to three times greater than that for whites, and then to volunteer for elite units.

"There is no chance of asserting his manhood and demonstrating his sense of worth in civilian life," said Clark, who heads the Metropolitan Applied Research Center in New York.

Clark said the ferocity demonstrated by young front-line soldiers could be related to their youth and their eagerness to prove themselves. He noted that after the 1964 riots in Harlem he interviewed a youth who "got a terrific boost out of the destruction."

Clark added: "A few months later he was a soldier, in uniform and with a riding crop, and getting an even bigger kick out of potential destruction he could legally cause."


The Negro in Vietnam makes up 9.9 per cent of the military forces in Vietnam, but close to 20 per cent of the combat troops and more than 26 per cent of such elite Army units as the paratroops. Estimates of Negro participation in some airborne units have been as high as 45 per cent, and up to 60 per cent of some airborne rifle platoons.

A Negro private first class in the 4th Battalion of the 173d Airborne Brigade said that when he joined the unit in the summer of 1967 "there were 20 brothers and 8 foreign troops" in his platoon.

About one in every four of the Army's front-line supervisors in the grades of sergeant first class and master sergeant is a Negro, a fact attesting to the higher Negro re-enlistment rate in the armed forces in general and the Army in particular.

The re-enlistment rate for first-term Army men in 1965 was 49.3 per cent for Negroes and 13.7 per cent for whites; in 1966 figures were 66.5 and 20. Re-enlistment figures for 1967 have not been completed a Pentagon spokesman said.

The percent of Negro death in Vietnam is 14.1 per cent of total American fatalities [Text Unreadable].

It is in the front lines that commonly shared adversity has always sprouted quickly into group loyalty and brotherhood. And whether between white and white, Negro and Negro, or Negro and white, Vietnam is no exception to the tradition of battlefield brotherhood.


"The stereotypes they had believed just sort of melt away," said Capt. Richard Traegerman, a 25-year-old West Pointer from Philadelphia.

"Whites see Negroes are as intelligent and brave as anyone else, and Negroes see whites are just guys with the same strengths and weaknesses as anyone else."

And a long-time front-line observer said:

"It's the most natural thing in the world to come out closer than brothers after a few days on the line. Up here it's a real pleasure to just be warm and dry or to feel a cool breeze; to have fresh water, a heat cube for C rations; to wash or take off your shoes or to be alive when others are dying. This will make any two people brothers."

For the most part, Negroes in Vietnam say that the closest thing to real integration that America has produced exists here.

"It's the kind of integration that could kill you, though," a Negro sailor remarked.

There are reports of racial discrimination, racial fights and instances of self-segregation, but most Negroes interviewed said these instances were greatly outweighed by racial cooperation.

In effect, while participating in a war that pits yellow people against yellow people, America is demonstrating that its black and white people can get along.

So pervasive is this demonstration that some Negroes, in discussing the prejudice of lowland Vietnamese toward the mountain-dwelling and usually primitive Montagnard tribesmen, convey the idea that discrimination against Negroes has ended at home as well as in Vietnam.


Oscar Roberts, an Army captain stationed in Pleiku as an adviser to the South Vietnamese army, pointed up this attitude when he remarked: "The Montagnards are treated the way we used to be treated back home."

But then he smiled and added: "The way we used to be and still are treated some places back home."

Other Negroes did not remember, or smile, or correct themselves.

Race is quite often a laughing matter among servicemen in Vietnam.

Sgt. Charles C. Hardy, a 21-year-old Marine from Chicago, was on duty one night in Da Nang and gave his bed to a visiting white friend, but not without some specific admonitions.

"That sack has lots of soul," he said. "It's a soul-recharging station, so you'd better be careful. I don't want to see you wake up tomorrow morning thinking you can talk trash and trying to dance the Boogaloo and the Philly Dog, you hear me?"

Some of the "brothers" in an airborne unit held a "soul session" to "cuss Chuck," the white man. When a late-arriving brother inquired what a "couple of Chucks" were doing attending a soul session, it was explained that they were "honorary souls," and the Chuck-cussing continued.


And after watching a plea for brotherhood on a television set in a bunker in the central highlands, a youth of Mexican origin spoke up.

"All right," he said, "which one of my Goddamn brothers is going to buy me a beer?"

He got the beer, but not before the whites and Negroes unleashed a barrage of anti-Mexican remarks that included: "Give me, give me, give me! A Goddamn Spec. 4 in the regular Army and he still thinks he's on relief! Give me, give me, give me!"

Even the highly potent taboo on interracial sex is much less a taboo in Vietnam than it was in the military in past years.

A white officer from North Carolina visited the luxurious Saigon apartment of a Negro officer from Illinois, carrying a dozen red roses for the Vietnamese lunar new year, Tet. Their friendship dated from the time they both commanded segregated airborne companies at Fort Bragg, N.C., in the late '40's.

While discussing a double date with Vietnamese girls that the Negro was arranging they reminisced about the German and Japanese women they had known.

Walls and lockers, from neat hotels in Saigon to red-earth bunkers in Khe Sanh, have both white and Negro pinups, regardless of the race of the serviceman.

Some bars tend to be predominantly white or predominantly Negro. This is especially true in the rear areas where the permanently assigned and normally noncombatant troops gather every day. In Saigon, for example, it is mostly whites who frequent bars along Tu Do Street, while Negroes predominate in the Khan Hoi area across the Saigon River along Trinh Minh The Street.


It is not uncommon, though, to find both races in both locations and to see white and Negro servicemen talk to the same bar girls.

Still, there is much off-duty separation of the races, and most of it is voluntary separation by Negroes. There are several reasons, not the least of which was expressed by a high Negro civilian official:

"Wherever you have a lot of American whites with a lot of time for relaxing," he said, "then you can figure that the brother is in for a little difficulty."

A German in Vietnam asked a Negro civilian if he was aware of how some American whites talked about Negroes when they were along. The Negro said he was.

"Do you know that they call you animals," the German said, "that they say you have tails and that they seem especially anxious that foreigners—myself and the Vietnamese—hear this?"

"I know," the Negro said.

"What's wrong with them?" the German asked.

"They're white Americans," he was told, "a strange breed of people."

A Negro field-grade officer said he relaxed only around Negroes and put up an "aloof" and "even unfriendly" front around whites.


"You don't want to overextend yourself because you never know when whites are for real," he explained. He went on to suggest that the Negro officer must often be a "super Negro."

"I see white officers bring Vietnamese girls into our quarters and getting away with it," he said, "and I wouldn't think of joining them. Whites prove every day how vulnerable the 'successful' Negro is in our society. If they can go to such great length and bend the rules to kick Adam Powell out of Congress and take Cassius Clay's title, they can certainly get to me. I don't intend to give them the chance."

Still, separation and aloofness are not rigid situations and attitudes.

A Negro Specialist 4 in an infantry outfit said:

"I got some white friends who are 'for real' studs, and, hell, they could call me anything and do anything they want because I know they are for real. I know some other Chucks who I'd most likely punch in the mouth if they said good morning to me, because I know they are some wrong studs."

A rear-echelon Negro private first class, sitting in a bar in Saigon's Khanh Hoi with a white friend with a Deep South accent, started to discuss why Negroes segregate themselves.

"White people are dull," he said. "They have no style and they don't know how to relax."

"What do you mean?" the white youth interrupted.

"Shut up," the Negro said. "I'm not talking about you, 'nigger.' I'm talking about white people."


Another Negro, explaining why he frequented the Negro-owned "soul food" places in Saigon—such as the L & M and the CMG Guest House, both of which have white and Negro clientele—said:

"Look, you've proven your point when you go out and work and soldier with Chuck all day. It's like you went to the Crusades and now you're back relaxing around the Round Table—ain't no need bringing the dragon home with you."

The term "soul session" is often used here to describe Negro efforts to "get away from 'the man,'" to luxuriate in blackness or to "get the black view." These sessions occur in front-line bunkers and in Saigon villas, and quite often they include some "for real" whites.

Negro VIPs who come to Vietnam find that despite full schedules a "brother" will get to them with a dinner invitation so the visitors can get "down to the nitty-gritty."

Sen. Edward W. Brooke, R-Mass., Whitney M. Young Jr. of the Urban League and the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference are among those who have got the benefit of the black view.

"Sometimes it doesn't do too much good, from what some of the black VIPs have said when they got back home," one soul-session advocate said later.

Self-segregation does not attract all Negroes, and there are some who shun any appearance of Negroes getting together, no matter what the purpose.

There are Negro officers and civilians in Saigon hotels who prominently display record albums by Mantovani and Lawrence Welk and hide albums by such soul-sound purveyors as James Brown and Aretha Franklin.


"A lot of the brothers feel they can't be themselves and integrated," said Lt. Col. Felix H. Goodwin, a Negro veteran of 27 years of Army service.

"This dates back to the time the Army was first integrated and we all felt we had to show whites we were not prejudiced," he added. "Most of us feel comfortable enough now to be both black and integrated, and we think this is healthy."

While integration is fairly recent in the military, Negro participation in American wars is as old as the country's history.

The Negro's ability and willingness have not been questioned in the war in Vietnam, and have in fact been consistently praised.

In a speech to fellow South Carolinians last year, Westmoreland said: "The performance of the Negro serviceman has been particularly inspirational to me. They have served with distinction. They have been courageous on the battlefield, proficient, and a possessor of technical skills."

Courage—and quite often bravado—is the young combat soldier's long suit.

"When America invented the grunt, she legalized thuggery," one front-line observer said. "When I'm out with grunts and the Viet Cong fire on us, I'm damn glad she invented them."

A young Negro Marine in war-ravaged Hue typified the grunt's bravado, his eagerness to fight, his disbelief that he can be hurt or killed.

The Marine sat on a naval landing craft on the Huong (Perfume) River, bound for the Citadel, once the seat of the Vietnamese imperial government, and now, during the Tet fighting, South Vietnam's major killing ground.

"Put me in your paper," the Marine told a correspondent.

"What can I say about you?" the newsman asked.

"You can say Lance Cpl. Raymond Howard, 18, better known as 'Trouble' from Bay Manetta, Ala., squad leader, 2nd Platoon, Delta Co., 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, is going across the river to kick him a few behinds."

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