Thursday, May 23, 2024

Reflections on the First Racially Integrated Military


          Dedicated to those who didn't make it home.                                                                 

After patrol, exhausted, no color lines, Washington D.C., 1967  

     Recently, I read something I’d never heard, and that was, throughout history, Vietnam was the first American war fought by a racially integrated military, which meant, from Korea, back, every U.S. military campaign had been fought by a segregated military. In 1948, President Truman signed into law Executive Order 9981, desegregating the military, but the policy was mostly ignored, that is, until Vietnam.

     How did I miss that? I mean, I’ve seen movies of racially segregated units, like in the Civil War, WWI, and WWII, so why was it such a surprise? Maybe I never thought about it. Maybe I just took for granted all of us in uniform were Americans, regardless of color. Yet, if I give it a lick of thought, I recall 1966, myself, a 19-year-old-kid reporting for duty at Fort Bliss, Texas, I, one of many from around the country, bunking beside other soldiers, eating, working, and living together. We didn’t give skin color much thought.

     In the 1950s, I grew up “American,” for that’s how I identified as a kid on Los Angeles’s integrated Westside. What did I, or any of my friends, know about race, ethnicity, segregation, or integration? Our teachers didn’t discuss the topic in school. Though I knew I descended from Mexicans, I saw myself as American as the next kid. It never seemed to be a big deal.

     Oh sure, we saw racial and ethnic stereotypes in the movies and television, Zorro, the Cisco Kid and Pancho, Charlie Chan, and Amos and Andy. There were flashes of Civil Rights clashes from someplace called “Alabama” on the television news, the dogs and water hoses, but nobody talked about that, either. By the time we reached high school, we saw the images of Watts burning, and the news anchors using the word “riot,” something about cops getting tough with a kid on a bike and letting the situation get out of control. To us, it was more a situation of police abuse than race.

     All that was like, far from us, like it was happening in another state, or country. Alabama, Mississippi, and Watts might as well have been Austria or Angola. Out here on the Westside, we just went about the business of graduating high school and growing up, the American Graffiti generation. We had our problems, sure, but nothing like we saw on television. That was like my mom saying, “Eat your vegetables. Children are starving in China.”

     Situated between the Pacific Ocean and, say, Beverly Hills, the Westside was mostly “White,” relatively peaceful, many of the early residents New York transplants from Jewish neighborhoods, like Brooklyn, old-time Dodger fans, Midwesterners looking for open land and fresh air, and poor migrants from Oklahoma, Arkansas, and parts of Texas, escaping the Dust Bowl. We were separated more by class than by color.

     Japanese had been on the Westside since the early 1900s, farming and opening the first nurseries and developing the gardening/landscape businesses. A few Chinese owned laundries and restaurants. Mexicans had a longer and more complex history, some families going back to the early Californio days, when California was still Mexico, but most came between 1890s and 1925, refugees fleeing the Mexican Revolution, the religious wars, and others answering Amerca’s call for migrant labor to work the fields, factories, and railroads, especially during WWI.

     Except for small pockets of segregated communities in Venice and Santa Monica, there weren’t many African Americans on the Westside. Those who did settle here migrated from Louisiana and Texas. The larger black communities were on the Southside, out by what we know today as Southcentral and Compton. One African American friend of mine, a Vietnam veteran  raised near Central Avenue and 120th Street, told me he’d never been to the Westside, until he was an adult.

     I guess you could say many of us out here, beach kids or suburban kids, were oblivious to race. Oh, I knew I was Mexican, Stan was Japanese, and Dickie was “American,” which meant “white,” but we didn’t think much of it. We played ball, joined clubs, and attended school together. 

     During football and basketball season, the Japanese kids, who attended a Japanese afterschool program, had their own team, the Flying Lions. Mexicans and White kids played together on the Bulldogs. The kids from Westwood, the wealthier kids, were in a day camp, Tacaloma, and had their own team, and that was our league. Sports was the great equalizer. If you were good, you were good; sometimes we won, and other times they won. 

     I remember one black kid in the neighborhood, James Walker. He lived on Cotner, something of a Chicano slum, where most of us lived, at one time or another, and home to the local “homies.” James Walker wore khakis and a white t-shirt, or Pendleton. That’s how he saw himself, as a “homie.” I’d seen him hanging with the “guys” at the neighborhood park, but nobody really knew him, not well, anyway, and he didn't really know them, other than as "homies," and the role they played in the circus.

     The kids from Santa Monica and Venice, where there was a more significant African American community, had more exposure to black kids than those of us in West L.A. Still, from what I’d been told, except for sports, as kids and in school, the black kids pretty much stayed to themselves, many of the early black families educated and members of the NAACP.

     When I entered the army, it was normal for guys to group up by ethnicity or hometown, like city and state, “homies.” Chicanos from L.A. found each other and hung out together, same with white guys, and black guys, like New Yorkers with New Yorkers, guys from Philly with guys from Philly, etc., etc. It wasn’t like anyone was avoiding anybody. It was natural, organic. There weren’t many Asians, that I can remember, maybe one or two, usually Japanese, in each platoon. We couldn’t tell a Jewish kid from any other white kid. Native Americans often hung out with Chicanos or with kids from their hometowns.

     As we began training, working together, and forming units, everybody started making new friends and acquaintances, outside their social groups. It was strange. I realized I shared more interests with a WASPY kid from San Francico or Pittsburg, or a black kid from Chicago, than I did with a Mexican kid from San Angelo, Texas, let’s say. Many Chicanos (a word I use here loosely) who spoke better Spanish than English hung out with other Spanish speakers. Culturally, we were different in so many ways. They'd get down on us for mot speaking Spanish like them. 

     I remember hearing urban black guys call rural black guys, good-naturedly, “Country” because they considered them “backwards,” as in their accents and behavior, sometimes too submissive. Of course, the country black guys thought the city black guys arrogant, loud, and “bullshitters.” The country black guys often had more in common with country white guys than with "city" blacks. Guys who read the bible started hanging out with other guys who read the bible, regardless of color. Nerds found other nerds. Intellectuals found intellectuals. Musicians found musicians. Some Puerto Ricans spoke only Spanish, sometimes, barely able to speak English. They stayed close together, both black and white, New Yorkers and those from the Island.

     Like a lot of Chicanos from L.A., my extent of black culture were oldies and Motown, but music can be a powerful connection. It exposes a people's soul, their vulnerabilities and their power. Once I was settled in the army, I bought a portable record player. At the time, right after high school, I was really into everything Motown. even more than I was into the emerging England invasion rock ‘n roll. Even the Chicano East L.A. sound was a derivative of Motown and "soul" music.

      When I put on the music, black guys would crowd around my bunk to see what music I had. We got to know each other. They were the first group of guys I heard “philosophize” about so many subjects, sometimes, about nothing at all, “street existentialists.” They’d go on and on, like scholars, discussing, analyzing, arguing, and ragging on each other.

     After a year, or so, I still had mostly Chicano friends, but it got to where I had different friends for different occasions. I had hillbilly friends, Italian and Irish Catholic friends, North and South black friends, and Indians from South Dakota and Nebraska. Once in Vietnam, we had no choice but to depend on each other, life and death, no joke. We knew which guys we could depend on and which guys to avoid or keep a close watch over. I guess, we got caught up in the collective “I,” one for all and all for one.

     I don’t think many of us really believed we were fighting for democracy and freedom, nor did our D.I.'s believe it We came to understand that was just government propaganda. We were fighting to keep each other alive, to do our jobs, and to win. We were fighting for tradition, for those who came before us, for those who died on foreign battle fields, for our families, and because that’s what our government said we had to do, that or go to jail.

     Some of us came home and served together stateside. We’d survived the “shit” together, so we were tight. When D.C. blew up in riots after MLK was assassinated, we hit Washington’s streets and brought a semblance of peace back to the residents. The military was more like a job than an obligation, and, like in all jobs, some guys worked harder than others. We also saw stereotypes breakdown. We knew “White” guys weren’t always the heroes, like Hollywood had brainwashed us into believing. They could be as cowardly, lazy, or courageous as anybody else. Sometimes, the meekest guy might stand up and be the mightiest.

     One night, in downtown Fayetteville, North Carolina, we learned about “liberty and equality for all,” the values and morals politicians wanted us to impose on the Vietnamese people, except, it was a scam. A group of us went into a bar to drink and watch near-naked dancing girls up on a stage. We got our beers, except for Simpson, a black kid from L.A. The bartender said he couldn’t serve him. When we protested, the barkeep told Simpson he could take his beer, but he had to drink it outside. I don’t know who started the brawl, but the M.P.’s had to come in and stop it. If Simpson, who was by our side in Vietnam, couldn’t drink then none of us would drink.

     “Equality for all!” Yeah, and how about the billboards, announcing, “Support Your Local KKK.” We knew about white supremacy, and we learned about racism. How could our country fight to export democracy and equality to other countries when we didn’t even have it in our own country? 

     I thought, in the ‘70’s, it was getting better, like character over race and reaching the top of the mountain and all that. Then, I watched January 6, and the attack on the capitol, a lot of military guys leading the charge. So much for “brothers in arms,” and all that. 

     I guess an integrated military didn’t do a lot, in the long run, for the country, other than provide politicians more fodder to send to our enemies to cut down, while the big boys rake in billions on Wall Street and Silicon Valley. What I did learn, though, was, at the core, the real human core, we all are pretty much the same, and skin color is just that -- a color.

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