Black veterans tour historic sites at Fort Benning
By ALVA JAMES-JOHNSON | Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 20, 2016
Black veterans from near and far gathered at Fort Benning on Friday to tour the grounds where many of their predecessors made history.
Among those present were Tuskegee Airmen and organizations representing the 24th Infantry Regiment, known as the Buffalo Soldiers; the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, known as the Triple Nickle; as well the Montford Point Marines.
Those in the group represented three wars and various branches of the military. Traveling on three buses, they toured the former residences of black military leaders such as Gen. Benjamin Oliver Davis Jr., a Tuskegee Airman who became the first black Air Force general; and 1st Sgt. Walter Morris, who led the original 17 black Parachute School volunteers.
They also visited the Indianhead Housing area, built in 1933 to provide adequate housing for the families of black non-commissioned officers; 24th Infantry Barracks and the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion Monument.
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Hewitt Powell said he waited 60 years for such an experience and it was well worth the wait.
“It was a long time coming, but it was welcome,” said the 84-year-old who traveled from Augusta for the tour organized by the Maneuver Center of Excellence.
The tour was part of the center’s Black History Month Special Ethnic Observance & Monument Ceremony, which began with a program at an old theater that was built by black soldiers for their own entertainment when the military was still segregated.
“Today’s auditorium is Nett Hall, but when it was built in the 1930s, it was named the Playhouse,” said Capt. Ronnie Cunningham, who served as master of ceremonies. “This theater initially showed silent films before becoming one of the first military theaters to offer talking pictures. … The physical transformation from a temporary encampment to one of the Army’s most important installations was due in part to the efforts of the 24th Infantry Regiment.”
The theme of the day was “Hallowed Grounds: Fort Benning sites of African American Memories.” Master Sgt. Charlie Carrasco said the tour was added to this year’s Black History observance to give people a better appreciation for the contributions that black servicemen have made to their country over the decades.
“About six months ago, we started thinking about what could be a different way that we could bring out the awareness of some of the history that’s here on Fort Benning,” he said. “And one of those was to recognize those sites that we don’t ordinarily see, but it’s there.”
The speaker for the event was retired Sgt. 1st Class James Thompson, national president of the 24th Infantry Regiment Association, who entered the military as an infantryman in February 1948. He was later assigned to the 24th Infantry Regiment serving in Japan, where they would travel in a rickety fishing boat from Japan to Korea. He was part of the first victories in Yechon and Pusan and wounded in battle. He was awarded a Purple Heart on April 11, 1951.
In his speech, Thompson said he was there to dispel rumors that the 24th Infantry Regiment soldiers dropped their weapons and ran when fighting in Korea. He described the regiment’s persistence in driving out North Korean defenders. The outcome is considered by Congress and the Department of Defense as the first sizeable American ground victory of the war, according to information on the association’s website.
“It got out through the years that the 24th ran, they didn’t fight, they were cowards,” he said. “Ladies and gentlemen, the 24th Infantry Regiment had two Medal of Honor winners in Korea. We had one of the first Medal of Honor winners in the 25th Infantry Division.”
He said they also were presented 128 Silver Stars, 300 Bronze Stars and more than 5,000 Purple Hearts, as well as other awards.
At the end of the observance, Fort Benning officials unveiled two historic markers that will be placed on post to document black history. The first is a 24th Infantry marker that will be placed in front of barracks once occupied by the black soldiers. The other is a marker that will be placed in the Indianhead area.
Maj. Gen. Scott Miller, commander of the Maneuver Center of Excellence, told the audience that Black History Month is still important, though some people may think otherwise.
“It’s quite important that we as military professionals take the time to understand our history,” he said. “And I think today and this month we get to take a deep dive, move around Fort Benning and discover hallowed ground, where people have walked before us … and built not only Fort Benning, but built our Army and built our nation through their actions.”
Technical Sgt. Val Archer, 87, is a Tuskegee Airman who traveled from Atlanta with a group of about 12 people to participate in the event. He said he served about 10 years in the military and then was a consultant with the Army for about 12 years. His service spanned World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Archer said he enjoyed touring Fort Benning with other black servicemen who served their country over the decades.
“Our legacy is great and we need to pass it on to future generations,” he said.
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Montford Point Marines watch as they are recognized during a ceremony held at Camp Pendleton, California, on Nov. 10, 2011. In a segregated America, from 1942 to 1949, about 20,000 blacks were trained as Marines at Montford Point, in a separate facility from whites, in San Diego, California.
RICK LOOMIS/LOS ANGELES TIMES/MCT