Beyond Ordinary: America's freedom fighters of color: Heroes proved in liberating strife

Published: Friday, Nov. 11 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

In January 1943, the U.S. War Department announced the formation of the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team made up of Nisei volunteers from Hawaii and the mainland. In June 1944, the 442nd joined forces with the 100th Infantry in Europe and incorporated the 100th into the 442nd. Due to their outstanding bravery and the heavy combat duty they faced, the 100/442nd RCT became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service. More than 18,000 individual decorations for bravery, 9,500 Purple Hearts and seven presidential distinguished unit citations were given.

The 158th Regimental Combat Team was an Army National Guard infantry unit from Arizona made up of many Americans of Latino origin. Known as the “Bushmasters,” after the venomous pit vipers found in South America, because of each combat soldier’s extensive training and expertise in jungle warfare, knife fighting and unarmed hand-to-hand combat techniques, the 158th RCT was one of the most successful jungle combat units in World War II history.

A 1943 article in Popular Mechanics recorded the abilities of the individual bushmaster jungle soldier in this manner: "One of America's most colorful and least known soldiers of World War II is the Bushmaster. ... His tactics are borrowed from native jungle fighters, the American Indian, British commandos and exponents of judo and the Shanghai underworld. ...

"His average age is 22 and his favorite weapon is the long-bladed machete. ... The Bushmaster bows to no man in the art of hand-to-hand fighting and any unwary (enemy) who crosses his path would probably never know what hit him.”

But perhaps the highest praise given the Bushmasters came from Gen. Douglas MacArthur, general of the Army during World War II, when he said of them, “No greater fighting combat team has ever deployed for battle.”

Women have served in the military and on the battlefield since the American Revolution, beginning primarily as nurses, water bearers, cooks, laundresses and saboteurs, and women of color have likewise been a part of America’s military fabric since the beginning until the present day, when they now serve as combat officers, fighter pilots and naval commanders.

During World War II, the Army established the Women Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), which was converted to the Women's Army Corps (WAC) in 1943. The Navy recruited women into its Women's Reserve, called Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), starting in 1942.

The Coast Guard also established its women's reserve known as the SPARS (after the motto semper paratus — always ready) in 1942, and the Marine Corps Women's Reserve was created in 1943. Women served in a variety of assignments during World War II, including in communications, intelligence, supply, administration and medicine, with more than 60,000 Army and 14,000 Navy nurses having served stateside and overseas.

Nearly 100 of these nurses were captured by the Japanese and held as POWs. Minority women were limited in their chances to join the services, as most services placed initial limits and quotas on the number that could join. However, in time the quotas were eliminated and, for example, by the end of WWII, more than 500 black Army nurses served stateside and overseas during the war.

Since World War II, all minorities have made significant advancements in the military, especially blacks. That success is attributable to President Harry Truman’s 1948 executive order that ended segregation in the military and the fact that the military environment provided and still provides the minority soldier, sailor, airman and Marine a unique opportunity to succeed and advance based upon merit and ability.

However, recent trends, as evidenced by a 2007 Washington Post article titled “Number of Blacks Joining Military Down” and a 2010 theroot.com article titled “Blacks Lose Ground in the U.S. Military,” show that strides made in yesteryears are declining and perhaps reversing. There are several causes for this trend, but one of the most concerning to me is an apathy among the current and rising generation for service to our nation and to others.

When I was 6 years old, my mother died in a fire in my home three days after Christmas. My three siblings and I escaped death because my father arrived home in time to get us out of the house. I idolized my father, not only because of his heroism that night, but because to me he was larger than life and a true hero. When I was nearly 14, Daddy’s health deteriorated and it continued to worsen until he was hospitalized for what turned out to be his final time.

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