DECATUR — Four years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in professional sports, Ottis Livingston was one of the first to answer the call to integrate the U.S. armed forces.
And while Robinson and other baseball pioneers were often met with hostility from their fellow ballplayers, Livingston was pleasantly surprised when white soldiers, many from the Deep South, accepted him and later became “like brothers.”
Livingston, who serves alongside his wife, Honeylee, as Macon County Jail chaplains, was a 21-year-old busboy at the Orlando Hotel when he received a notice to report for induction into the Army.
The Korean War had just started seven months earlier on June 25, 1950, when North Korean forces, supported by Communist China and the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea.
“I heard about the war being started, but I never dreamed that I would have to go,” recalled Livingston, 82, an easygoing man who wears his Korean War veteran cap wherever he goes.
“I knew there was a war, but I didn’t pay too much attention to it,” he recalled. “I thought that being married I wouldn’t have to go, because somebody said married people wouldn’t have to go, but they chose me. Honeylee wasn’t too happy about it. We had only been married four months.”
Two years before the war started, President Harry Truman issued an executive order abolishing racial discrimination in the military. Before that, black people served in segregated units.
Livingston, who was raised in an integrated neighborhood on Decatur’s south side near Mueller Park, got along well with people from many ethnic groups, including Italians and Greeks.
“There wasn’t any fighting,” said Livingston, whose parents experienced discrimination in Brownsville, Tenn., before moving to Decatur. “We were taught at home not to be prejudiced against anyone. As Christians, we were to look at people for who they are and not what color they are.”
But not everyone in Decatur followed that creed.
“There was prejudice in the city,” Livingston said. “In the movie theaters, the blacks had to sit in the balconies. At the restaurants in Decatur, you weren’t allowed to eat in them. You had to take your food to go.”
Livingston recalled that black people considered the success of Jackie Robinson as a significant breakthrough.
“The black people saw an opportunity there: If he can make it and survive and get along, then there’s hope for all of us,” he said.
When Truman followed suit by integrating the armed forces, many black people lined up to enlist. Despite the fact that his father, Horace, had served proudly as a soldier in an all-black unit in France during World War II, Livingston was not enticed by the improved military opportunities.
But when he received a letter informing him that he had been selected to serve, Livingston reported for his physical. A few weeks later, he was off to Camp Breckenridge, Ky., where members of the 101st Airborne Division trained recruits for combat.
Livingston recalled that the treatment was equal for white and black soldiers.
“You were treated like you were nothing,” Livingston recalled.
After four months of infantry training, Livingston went home on furlough before heading to war. Then he received the shock of his life.
“My last day home, my mother died from cancer,” he said. He did not know she had been sick. “I got a week extension because of her death. Then I had to ship out to Korea.”
At Camp Drake, Japan, he was assigned to Ambulance Company, 15th Medical Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division. About 15 other men received the same assignment. He noticed that he was the only black member of his unit, but that didn’t seem to matter to anybody.
“They were from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi,” he said. “You name it. If it was in the South, they were from there.”
From the moment he met them, they were all friendly. Some were just teenagers, enlistees.
“They come up and introduce themselves to me and told me where they were from. I guess they were just like me and were homesick and were wondering what was going on. We realized we were in this thing together. We all knew we were in the same position. We had to do what we were told and we had a war to fight.”
Later, some of the Southern soldiers told him they had never associated with any black people before.
“They said they were glad they met me because they found out that black people weren’t like they were taught,” Livingston said. “They learned to respect me as a person. We never did talk about color. But they said they were taught not to associate with black people. They were told fairy tales, that black people had tails that came out after dark and all that crazy stuff.”
The soldiers were assigned to ambulances in Korea, two to a vehicle. Their job was to transport wounded soldiers to hospitals, in the field or in the capital city of Seoul, and dead soldiers to grave registration sites.
By the time Livingston arrived in South Korea, much of the countryside, as well as Seoul, had been devastated by 14 months of war.
“Everything was blowed up or burned up or burned down,” Livingston said, adding that it was hard to tell where he was because everything appeared the same. “There were skirmishes all over the place. There were mountains and valleys. There weren’t any cities.”
Livingston was in Korea during the second winter of the war.
“It was cold, it was dreary,” Livingston recalled. “It got sometimes 40 and 50 below zero. And you lived outdoors all the time. It was miserable.”
Frequently, Livingston was at the front, where the sounds of machine guns and artillery shells were commonplace. Sometimes he was so busy transporting wounded soldiers he did not sleep for two or three days at a time.
During one ambulance run down a mountain road, carrying two wounded soldiers to an evacuation hospital, an artillery round landed on the mountainside, just above the vehicle.
“If it had hit a little bit lower, we’d have been gone,” Livingston said. “We did a lot of driving at night. You can’t use the headlights, because the enemy can see you. So you go down those roads in the dark, and you don’t know who’s watching you or where the enemy is. You had a little beam so another vehicle could see you. You didn’t have much room on the mountain roads. You get to where you’re used to it. It’s a skill. Your eyes just get adjusted to it.”
Honeylee Livingston, who did not see her husband for almost two years during his service, recalled that their whole family “was happy and joyous that he made it back without getting hurt.”
She noticed that he was having some trouble adjusting to civilian life. He would stand against a wall, rather than let people get behind him.
“Just being around people in the streets and stores, it was very awkward at times,” she said. “He had a major problem with noises, radio, people talking loud. Loud noises still bother him.”
Ottis Livingston explained that while in Korea, exploding artillery shells would shake his whole vehicle.
When he was told he was going home, on Thanksgiving Day 1952, he was saddened by the thought of leaving his fellow soldiers. Some invited him to visit at their Southern homes, but he said, “No, thanks.” He still has a menu from that bittersweet turkey dinner, held at the military compound near Chitose, Japan, where he served for about one year.
Recently, he has been wondering what happened to his Army buddies. He would like to reunite with them, if possible.
“I really enjoyed those guys. We become like brothers,” Livingston said. “We had fun when we could and we took care of our job transporting the wounded and the dead when we had to. Everybody was going to try to survive and to make it back home. They didn’t have time to be prejudiced, really. The very guy you don’t like is maybe the guy that covers your back and saves you.”