Something many people may not realize is that the Korean War was the first conflict where the United States military fought with a policy of racial desegregation. The policy was passed by executive order by President Harry Truman who wanted all the old all black units of World War II disbanded and African-American servicemembers integrated throughout the ranks of all the services. This policy is what allowed Hero of the Korean War, Ensign Jesse Brown to become the first black US Navy pilot.
A 1950 image of Ensign Jesse Brown in his F4U-4 Corsair.
However, the policy was poorly implemented by some commanders, with segregation in the military really living on for another 10 years. Overall though, black servicemembers were given increased opportunities in the military after the issuing of Truman’s order. At the start of the Korean War there was roughly 100,000 black servicemembers in the US military, which composed 8% of the total manpower. By the end of the war over 600,000 black servicemembers would serve in the 3-year long war. It was one of these black servicembers Charles M. Bussey that would become one of the most recognized African-American servicemembers during the Korean War.
Charles Bussey Before the Korean War
Charles Bussey was born in 1922 and grew up in Bakersfield, California. After graduating from high school Bussey attended Los Angeles City College for two years before enlisting into the US military. Bussey was assigned to fly with the prestigious all-black Tuskegee Airmen who were tasked to defend US bombers during World War II. His commander General Benjamin O. Davis Jr. played a big role in shaping Bussey who he speaks very highly of in his book, Firefight at Yechon: Courage and Racism in the Korean War. For those that haven’t, I highly recommend reading up on General Davis because he may quite possibly be the greatest African-American servicemembers ever.
General Benjamin Davis
Following World War II Bussey left the Army and returned to Los Angeles where he became a policeman. He didn’t like the work and decided to return to college by enrolling at San Francisco State University. After graduating from SFSU in 1948, Bussey rejoined the Army and was eventually stationed in Japan on occupation duty. Here is what Bussey says occupation duty in Japan was like:
Well, there was no combat-readiness for sure. The lifestyle involved a lot of leisure, a lot of involvement with the native women. The officers were involved with buying furniture, buying fancy chinaware for their homes there was no concern whatever about combat-readiness. Absolutely none. Even in the manoeuvre areas the concern was the good life. A very leisurely life was not involved in any way with combat. There was just no concern whatever and it was our life there was lived through the Sears Roebuck catalogue who bought nylons and whatnot for the native girls and that sort of thing. It was a good life. [Charles Bussey – March 2, 1997]
What is funny I knew guys in Yongsan that still live like this.
Deployment to Korea
On May 26, 1950 Captain Charles Bussey would become one of the few black company commanders in the US Army when he took command of the 77th Engineer Combat Company in Gifu, Japan. The 77th Engineers was an all-black unit that provided engineer support to the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment. The 24th Infantry was the only all-black subordinate unit of the 25th Infantry Division commanded by Major General William B. Kean. Here is how Bussey remembers taking command:
It was a time of my life when I had the maturity and the physical, mental, and emotional strength necessary to command a company of combat engineers. When the opportunity came for me to assume command of the 77th Engineer Combat Company, I reveled in it. I worked at it from sixteen to twenty hours aday. Fortunately, it was when I was overseas in Japan, and fortunately, my family had not joined me. I was free to work all the hours I needed or wanted, and I did. There was no better job for a workaholic. There was strong training requirements. …………… But the biggest demand on my time and attention came from the men. The men had problems of all kinds, and those who didn’t have problems usually generated some.
Sounds like the life of a Company Commander in 1950 is the same as one now a days. A month after taking command the Korean War would begin and shortly after the 25th Infantry Division to include Captain Bussey’s 24th Infantry Regiment would find themselves deployed to Korea in July 1950.
Engagement at Yechon
On July 20, 1950 Captain Bussey was running mail to a platoon in his company that was currently stationed in the Korean village of Yecheon.
Along the way Bussey heard some rifle file from the village just further up the road. Bussey stopped his vehicle and walked up a small hill that overlooked the village. Captain Bussey saw from his elevated position men dressed in white trying to outflank his men in the village. Bussey ran down the hill and rounded up three truck drivers from another unit that were parked along the road near the hill. Bussey had them carry a .30 and .50 cal machine guns up to the top hill. Here is Captain Bussey’s narrative from his book, Firefight at Yechon, that explains what happened next:
I watched the group of farmer-soldiers coming ever closer and reckoned that farmers scatter and tun if you send a long burst of machine-gun fire over their heads, but soldiers flatten out like quail and await orders from their leader…I sent a burst from the .50 caliber machine gun dangerously close above the heads of the approaching group…True to the form of soldiers, they flattened into the paddy as the bullets flew past them…Bullets raked and chewed the up mercilessly…The advancing column was under tight observation from somewhere on the mountain because large motar rounds started…overhead. I was knicked by a fragment. the gunner on the .30 caliber machine gunner was hit badly, and his assistant was killed. The enemy mortar was accurate. The shells were bursting about twenty to forty feet overhead, showering us with shell fragments. And we were now drawing small-arms fire from the rice paddies below…I chopped the North Korean troops to pieces…I was ashamed of the slaughter before me, but this was my job, my duty, and my responsibility. I stayed with it until not one white rag was left intact.
It is estimated that Bussey and his three men using these two machine guns killed approximately 250 guerrillas that day. What I find interesting about this battle is that revisionist historians today would probably declare his engagement against these people dressed in white clothes as a war crime. Bussey is lucky the Associated Press’s Charles Hanley and the Korean Truth & Reconcilliation Committee isn’t after him yet.
This engagement did happen just one week before the tragedy at No Gun Ri with civilians intermixed with guerrilla fighters. Plus Captain Bussey’s unit the 25th Infantry Division was located on the eastern flank of the 1st Cavalry Division that was involved in the No Gun Ri tragedy. Later on Bussey writes that guerrilla fighters would hide during the day in the farm houses to ambush his men at night. He even claims to have killed two guerrilla fighters during one of these ambushes who were as young as fourteen years old.
This is all just further evidence that guerrilla fighters were operating in the area of not only No Gun Ri, but throughout the frontlines of US forces wearing white Korean peasant clothes. This is contrary to what many of the current historical revisionists want to believe, but Bussey provides yet another account of this guerrilla infiltration of the American front lines.
After the Firefight at Yechon
Following the engagement at Yecheon the 25th ID moved further south towards the city of Sanju and then eventually even further south between Chinju and Masan where his unit held a frontline position along the Pusan Perimeter. Interestingly enough Captain Bussey would end up having a white lieutenant to become his executive officer as part of the slow integration of the ranks. This lieutenant, Paul Wells would be one of the soldiers in his book that he speaks the mostly highly of during his time in command.
However, there was plenty of white officers he didn’t speak fondly of because of tactical decisions that were made that led to the 24th Infantry Regiment retreating from their frontline positions. He feels very bitter that many people blamed the defeat of the 24th Infantry Regiment on the quality of black troops instead of the white officers that made the decisions that led to their retreat.
After the successful Incheon Landing Operation in September of 1950 the 24th Infantry Regiment found themselves on the offensive, pushing the retreating North Koreans farther north. After crossing the 38th Parallel, Bussey felt like they had won the war and remembers celebrating a festiv Thanksgiving to only be spoiled two days later by advancing Chinese troops. Bussey was very impressed with the Chinese troops, but would ultimately be more impressed with General Matthew Ridgeway who took over the command of the 8th United States Army and turned around the war effort.
Bussey After Retiring from the Military
Charles Bussey retired from the US Army in 1966 at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He would work the next 20 years as a construction consultant before retiring and beginning work on his book about his wartime experiences, Firefight at Yechon: Courage and Racism in the Korean War. Bussey’s book was published in 1991.
Post-Korean War picture of Charles Bussey via SFGate.com.
In 1994 a campaign was launched to try and upgrade Captain Bussey’s Silver Star for his actions at Yecheon to a Medal of Honor. Captain Bussey is quoted as saying that the reason he didn’t get recommended for the Medal of Honor was due to racist reasons:
Well, I worked for a man whose name I guess I should not mention but he commanded the regiment and his attitude was — and he explained this to me — and this was a man with whom I drank a lot of whisky in those days — when he had whisky, he’d give me a call and come sundown, we’d toss a few and when I had whisky I did the same with him. And so we were drinking along, we were on the way into North Korea at the time and we stopped on the side of the road for something, that whole convoy had stopped, and we got to talking and he was saying ‘you know the general insisted that I put you in for a congressional medal for that thing at Yechon but I disagree with him.’ I said ‘oh, why?’ and he said ‘well you know how things are at home and you killed more than John Wayne and Audie Murphy and all these other guys and the American people wouldn’t like that. We don’t want black people to have heroes. Heroes are troublemakers and so if you had this medal then you’d be able to influence boy scouts and all kind of people and this is not good for us and I’ve been trained to not let these things happen and I can’t let it happen.’ [Charles Bussey – March 2, 1997]
Bussey still hasn’t had his award upgraded, but he has been recognized by the US military for his service during the Korean War all the way up to the Secretary of Defense:
Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen (left) shows his wife Janet (right) a memento presented to him by members of the legendary Tuskeegee Airmen on May 16, 1998. With Secretary and Mrs. Cohen are from left to right Col. Lee Archer, Lt. Col. Howard Baugh, and Lt. Col. Charles Bussey. Cohen visited Norfolk State University to kick off the nation’s 50th anniversary observance of President Harry S. Truman’s executive order desegregating the armed forces. DoD photo by Helene C. Stikkel.
President Harry Truman vowed “to end to such evils,” and he did — with a bold stroke of his pen that changed the face of the military, and indeed the face of America, forever. Justice Thurgood Marshall, Sr., once remarked that “Sometimes history takes things into its own hands.” 1948 surely was one of those times, for Truman’s executive order that year could not have put it any plainer: “There shall be equal treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.” President Truman cleared a path by wiping out an overtly racist rule. But it would fall to many others over many years to brave that path and turn those principles into practice.
One of the first who did was Charles Bussey, a Tuskeegee airman who made history again in July of 1950 at the battle of Yechon, South Korea. First Lieutenant Bussey was returning to the front when he spotted an enemy unit attempting to outflank his all-black company. Only Bussey, a group of three truck drivers and two machine guns stood between his men and 250 advancing North Koreans. But when the dust settled and the smoke had cleared, there was only Bussey and his men and America had one of its first victories of the Korean War. Reflecting on his heroic service to a country still shackled by segregation, this Silver Star hero later wrote, “I loved my country for what it could be, far beyond what it was.” Lieutenant Colonel Bussey, thank you for helping America to realize what it could be and taking us beyond what we were. [William Cohen – May 16, 1998]
Here is why Charles Bussey says he wants his awarded upgraded to the Medal of Honor so badly:
“After 40 years the personal significance of this medal has largely deteriorated for me,” he said. “But the importance is that if I can earn one of these, other kids can earn one as well. I want to be able to tell them that they can be all that they can be in the Army and that the service is grateful. But I can’t do that now.” [New York Times]
What I don’t understand about Charles Bussey’s reasoning is that there was other black soldiers during the Korean War that did get awarded the Medal of Honor if he is concerned about young kids having servicemembers who did get the medal to look up to:
Numerous African-Americans were awarded medals including the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star and Bronze Star for service during the Korean War. Two African-Americans, Private First Class William Thompson and Sergeant Cornelius Charlton were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Thompson was killed in action on Aug. 2, 1951, at a critical juncture in the 8th Army’s attempt to stop the North Korean Army’s southward movement. Charlton displayed extraordinary heroism in rallying his platoon to continue its assault on a hill near Chipo-ri, just north of the 38th parallel. [Korean War 50th Anniversary Site]
Whatever the motivation for trying to have the medal upgraded I think Charles Bussey probably was not awarded the Medal of Honor because unlike the other black servicemembers who were awarded the medal Bussey did not die. The vast majority of people who are awarded the Medal of Honor died conducting whatever heroic act they were recognized for.
However, Bussey does provide a little known, but interesting look at the service of black soldiers during the Korean War. Bussey shows that just like any soldier, proper leadership is what determines the effectiveness of a servicemember; not the color of their skin. Captain Charles Bussey was a commander that did provide that leadership and his actions at not only the firefight at Yechon, but throughout the war proved this, and that is why he is one of the Heroes of the Korean War.
Note: You can read much more about Charles M. Bussey by reading the book, Firefight at Yechon: Courage and Racism in the Korean War: