Great Courage is the extraordinary story of the life of Lucius D. Amerson, The First Black Sheriff Elected in the South Since Reconstruction. In these exciting pages, Sheriff Amos, as he was known by citizens in the rural communities of Macon County, tells of his experiences as a Korean war veteran who became for his no 'nonsense' and 'in your face' style of law enforcement. He won the respect of black and white citizens by enforcing the law fairly and equally, regardless of color.
THE ARMY: MY TICKET TO FREEDOM
Eight months before my eighteenth birthday, with my mother's permission, I joined the Army. The Army of 1951 was significantly different than the Army in which my brothers Charlie, Steve, and Henry served from 1931 to 1947. The Army and its Air Corp, as well as the Marines and Navy, were segregated forces in 1931. Black soldiers who fought against the Germans and Japanese during War World II were relegated to serving in "all black outfits," which provided combat and logistical support. After World War I ended, Army manpower declined as white G.I.'s exited the military to resume their civilian lives. At one time, this revelation raised the possibility that black National Guard and Reserve regiments would eventually form a disproportionately large share of the peacetime military. The War Department (now known as the Department of Defense) responded in 1919 by imposing restrictions on the enlistment of blacks in the infantry and cavalry.1
Although the state of segregation in the Army aroused concern among black newspaper and civil rights organizations, most blacks and whites in the 1930s were concerned with survival. During the 1930s and for much of the following decade, the Great Depression era of American history left much domestic unrest as a result of unemployment, bank failures, and farm foreclosures. It wasn't long, however, before black activists refocused their attention on the treatment of black soldiers and their assigned roles. During 1938, for instance, the Kansas City Call
newspaper focused attention on racial discrimination at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where soldiers of the Tenth Calvary, famously known as the "Buffalo Soldiers" for their bravery in subduing Native Americans, outlaws, Mexicans revolutionaries, were functioning as post labor pools. Despite the honors and distinction the Tenth Cavalry had received previously, their families were not allowed use of base swimming facilities, clubs, and local restaurants.2
By 1940, with the war raging in Europe, the War Department endorsed a basic policy of accepting blacks according to their proportion of the populace in a given corp.3
Stubbornly, the Army continued to maintain its fundamental objection to integrating its forces. This was further demonstrated by its use of separated facilities at Fort Huachuca, which was an isolated outpost in Arizona. Fort Huachuca had not only separate officer's quarters but also two hospitals, one staffed by blacks for blacks and the other operated by whites for whites.4
Segregation was only one of the by-products of racism imposed against black service men and women. A number of military posts were located throughout southern regions of the United States. Southern whites were totally opposed to the advancement and opportunities the military service offered blacks. In April 1941, a black soldier, Private Felix Hall, was found hanging from a tree at Fort Benning, Georgia. Post authorities initially tried to label his death a suicide, but black troops, especially those from the south, disagreed. His death was a lynching.5
Racial tension in the Army was at an all-time high in the decade before integration. Fear helped unite black soldiers since the Army wasn't going to protect them. At Fayetteville, North Carolina, in the summer of 1947, white military police from Fort Bragg boarded a bus loaded with black soldiers, most of whom had been drinking, and tried to quiet the unruly troops by threatening use of their batons. Instead of cringing before authority, the angry black troops fought back, one of them snatching a pistol from a military police-man's holster and opening fire. The altercation left one black and one white military policeman dead and three blacks and two whites wounded.6
Another incident involved a confrontation with white military police officials at Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi. The police were trying to enforce uniform regulations among black troops who were angered after being transferred from the more open society of Phoenix, Arizona. A fight broke out between the black soldiers and military police. The local sheriff arrived on the scene of the disturbance. An apprehended black soldier broke loose from the local law enforcement agency and was shot to death. The black members of the 364th Infantry armed themselves and tried to escape the camp. Intent on getting revenge for the senseless killing of their fellow soldier, they even challenged a riot squad of black military police officers who opened fire and wounded one man. The regimental commander and the chaplain eventually managed to gain control, although a search for hidden weapons would continue for several days.7
Throughout the fighting in Europe during World War II, some commanders were forced to intermingle black and white artillery and tank destroyer units in combat as a result of casualties and slow troop replenishments. It was not until late 1944 when the need for infantry replacements became so acute that black platoons were incorporated into white rifle companies. Army planners attempted to calculate the number of troops necessary to defeat Italy, Germany, and Japan; however, their calculations were underestimated after U.S. forces sustained massive casualties during Germany's thrust across France, which ended in a stalemate along German borders. The War Department at this point had no choice but to send out a call for all able-bodied volunteers, preferably graduates of basic infantry training, the day after Christmas 1944. Since the military's source of white manpower was already "tapped out" in the immediate theatre, the response to America's call came from black units and soldiers. In June 1950, North Korean People's Army indirectly facilitated the integration of black and all-white units as they crossed the thirty-eighth parallel north latitude toward South Korea in an attempt to overwhelm their neighboring republic. Americans from all races, backgrounds, and nationalities would answer the call to fill the ranks of its armies in support of the United Nations Resolution in Korea, including myself. After I waved good-bye to my mother, I hitched a ride to Birmingham where I enlisted into the Army. Upon completing my basic and advanced individual infantry training, I was assigned to Company G, Second Battalion, Seventh Cavalry Regiment of the First Cavalry Division in the Republic of Korea. The Seventh Cavalry Regiment was known as the "Garry Owen" regiment because it took its name from the title of a famous Irish drinking song that was favored by Major General George Armstrong Custer, a famous commander during the regiment's early history. Before the start of the Korean War, the Seventh Cavalry Regiment, along with other elements of the First Cavalry Division, were staged on the nearby island of Japan before its assault onto the Korean peninsula. On July 18, 1950, the First Cavalry Division moved ashore at the small harbor of Pohang-dong to enter the "stab in the back" war in Korea. Just twenty-five miles away, as the "First CAV" made the first amphibious landing of the Korean War, the communists of the North Korean Army were advancing steadily south toward the key city of Pusan. After coming ashore on the west side of the Korean peninsula at the port harbor of Pohang-dong, the Seventh Cavalry and several other units from the Eighth and Fifth Calvary Regiments were ordered to move on line and establish defensive positions in the vicinity of Hwanggan to protect the vital road and rail route leading to Pusan. The "Pusan Perimeter," as it was called, was an extensive sector behind the Naktong River near the city of Taegu. It was there that the Seventh Cavalry Regiment would encounter five major attacks by the North Korean Army.8
The mountainous Korean terrain, along with the extreme temperatures of the summer and winter months, proved to be advantageous for the indigenous North Korean soldiers. The fighting we encountered in Korea was close in, savage, and literally placed us up against a force of unlimited manpower, which resulted in many casualties on both sides. To further complicate things, there was a shortage of available American soldiers. This would be a constant dilemma throughout my tour in Korea. After being in Korea for almost eighteen months, the First Cavalry Division began to see relief from units of the Third Infantry Division. It was not long afterward that we were ordered to resume our previous mission of defending the mountainous northern island of Hokkaido, Japan. The First Cavalry Division would depart Korea near the end of 1951. Hokkaido was a welcome sight after the battlefield scenery of Korea. The facilities in Hokkaido were comparable to those of state-side camps. We were assigned to Camp Crawford, which was located outside the island's capital city of Sapporo, Japan. As various echelons of our division arrived in Japan, we participated in interim winter warfare training to keep us from becoming settled. The climate of the northern island brought frequent deep snow along the plains and in the mountains; thus, it was only natural that we began our training in skis and snowshoes. After the division re-deployed back to the states I was reassigned to Company C, 522nd Infantry Battalion at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. This is where I was stationed until the end of my initial three-year enlistment. As strange as it may sound, going to Korea was a good learning experience for me. Yes, the dangers of combat and the risks of dying are constant...