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African American veterans of Korean War honored

After suffering a series of setbacks in the early days of the Korean War, U.S. officials were anxious for a victory.

They got it on July 21, 1950, when the Buffalo Soldiers of the Army's 24th Infantry Regiment, which had just arrived in Korea, retook Yechon in a counterattack.

Though the victory was short-lived, U.S. Rep. Thomas Lane of Massachusetts stood before the House and praised the black troops "who believed not only in the United States as it is, but in the nation that it will become when intolerance is also defeated."

On Monday, the Department of Defense honored 35 Korean War veterans of the regiment in a ceremony in Willingboro marking both 60th-anniversary commemorations of the Korean War and African American History Month.

Col. David J. Patrick, who presented the veterans with certificates of appreciation, noted that black people had fought for the American ideals of liberty and freedom since the Revolutionary War, "even when those principles were denied them."

"Ours is a debt we can never fully repay," he said.

When the 24th Regiment sailed from Japan to Korea just after the war broke out in June 1950, two years had passed since President Harry S. Truman ordered the military desegregated.

"The army was still segregated," said Jim Thompson, 81, of Willingboro, commander of the Northeast chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers. "Truman issued his order in 1948. It hadn't happened and it wasn't going to happen."

But the war would change that.

Yechon was a cakewalk compared with what was to follow, as the 24th battled from one end of the Korean peninsula to the other.

The regiment was the most decorated of the war, Patrick said, with two posthumous medals of honor, 24 distinguished service crosses, 185 silver stars, and 1,500 bronze stars.

Joseph Davis, 80, of Willingboro, was shot in the mouth, arms, back, and legs in an ambush in late November 1950, when Chinese forces poured across the Yalu River and joined the war on the North Korean side.

"That was coldest place I've ever been in my life," Davis said. "I was lucky they sent me back to the States."

Robert H. Yancey, 87, of Florence, joined the 24th after serving in the Navy at the end of World War II and remained in the Army until 1971, also serving in Vietnam.

The Philadelphia native fought with the 24th until late 1950, when he suffered frostbite and was eventually sent stateside to join a medical field unit.

While both Davis and Yancey were back in the United States, the 24th Regiment, formed in 1866, was dissolved on Oct. 1, 1951, as the Army finally embarked on the road to desegregation.

Yancey, who went on to teach social science in New Jersey prisons, said African American soldiers long saw their war service as a way of proving "we are worthy of citizenship."

The black soldier "fought two-front wars - one for American freedom, and one for his own." Yancey said.

"A lot of the progress we made was through the wars we fought in," he said. "I've seen a lot of changes for the better in our country as a whole, but we're not completely out of the water."

Davis said Monday's event "means I'm being more recognized than in the past.

"And what I see in the future may be better."

Contact Joseph Gambardello at 856-779-3844 or jgambardello@phillynews.com

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