Updated: Nov 6, 2018
An interview with Robert L. Jones, Korean War Veteran serving with the 822nd Engineer Aviation Battalion (SCAWAF), an All-Black unit, at the start of the Conflict. The interview took place at Disabled American Veterans (DAV) East Valley Chapter 8 in Mesa, AZ, where Mr. Jones volunteers each week serving other Veterans.
My unit was an all-Black unit that went to Korea in July of 1950 with 600 Black men and about 20 White officers. We were called "SCAWAF," which was a special category of regular Army that served with the Air Force--we not only built the airfields, but also maintained the airfields that were already there. They figured that if the jets could land, refuel, and reload there, they could give quicker and more help to the ground troops; before that, they had to go all the way to Japan and then come back, so we built the three runways.
All of these years, I never heard anything at all about my unit, so I wrote to the Korean War Veterans Association and told them about my unit and they put me in this book . My unit was the 822nd--which is hachi nini or 하치 니니 in Korean, but the unit was called 822nd Aviation Engineers.
We got to Korea on 13 July and the Korean Conflict had started on 25 June. Since we were in Okinawa, we didn't have that far to go, but the America Navy didn't have enough ships [available] to move us to Korea, so we got as couple of Japanese ships to take us to Korea. Now, we're heading toward Korea and these American ships--thousands of them--saw these two Japanese ships coming and were going to blow us out of the water, and so we were waving American flags up on deck to let them know that we were Americans and not to sink us!
I just found out, before she left, that our previous Adjutant [at our DAV Chapter] went to school in Okinawa and her father was a [White] officer leading a Black M*A*S*H unit.
I joined the Korean War Veterans Association and I wrote them about my unit and they sent me back this article about where it was , what happened to it, when it was disbanded. Most of the Black units we had in the military were all disbanded and integrated into White units. Somehow, they missed out unit and we stayed as a Black unit. They integrated us in 1951--they brought in six White boys. I can image how they felt--600 Black soldiers and six White boys.
Another Black soldier did like I did--went into the military right after high school--because the race problem was so bad in those days. You think you are going into the military to serve your country and that it would help some, but when I came back, it was almost worse than it was before, so I kept staying in [the military] and eventually had enough time to put 20 years in. This guy did the same thing, but his unit was captured by the Chinese, who turned him over to the North Koreans and the treatment that they gave them...oh my God...the treatment was something. There were few guys who tried to escape; what they did to those guys when they caught them made the rest of them not try to escape anymore. They dropped them in a pit full of ants and the ants would bite them to death. Now, he was from Detroit; he came back after he got released as a POW.
I was told by a guy up in Reno, Nevada, who was integrated in a White unit, that the reason we didn't get any recognition was that--the Americans, White of Black, weren't geared for that war, the weather, and what's going on over there--so when a Black unit did something good, they didn't want to put it out because it would make White units look bad. We call it The Race Picture. We got a Presidential Unit Citation, and so somebody should have heard about the unit; somebody should have written something. Truman put out the word to integrate in '49 but some units--like my unit--didn't get integrated until 1951 or 1952. The Marines were the worst; they didn't want any Blacks. If you went into the Marine Corps, if you were Filipino you were a steward and if you were Black you were a cook. But the Air Force integrated right away--the Marines were the worst ones. And that's the story.
Now, in World War II, the Air Force had the Tuskegee Airman--the 92 Squadron. They finally had to put them into action because they were losing so many bombers--any time a bomber was shot down, 8-10 White people died. So they put them in--the Red Tails. They have one out here at Luke [AFB] with the famous red tail painted on it. These guys, because of what they flew [initially old P-40's] and what they did, they finally got a modern plane--they got the P-51, which was at that time that fastest fighter plane they had--and they protected those guy [the bombers]. One squadron commander said I want those guys [92nd]--Powell, he was commander of a bomber squadron--and they were losing bombers left and right, so he said I want those guys over there [92nd] because they don't lose any planes. He was told that they were Blacks over there, to which he said I don't care what they are, I want them to protect my planes; so they started flying cover for that bomber squadron and they didn't lose one for the rest of World War II.
And the guys, they came back and figured, well, they're officers, they're pilots, and all that, and they were treated worse in some cases than they were before they went over. They thought that thing would change for them. Now, their commander, Daniel James--he stayed in and went to four stars [General]. He was one of the few who went to West Point; he was in West Point for four years and nobody spoke to him. He ate at the mess hall every day by himself and in.four.years nobody ever talked to him! But he made it, he graduated. His Daddy was the first Black one-star general and all he could do was go around and inspect Black troops--that's all they would let him do. But Daniel "Chappie" James stayed in and made four stars.
What we did while we were in Okinawa, before we went to Korea, was that we had a mill and we made asphalt and we paved all the roads that needed paving in Okinawa. The MPs were stopping our trucks because Black men were driving the trucks, and the asphalt was cooling down. Now, some White Colonel told the commander of the MPs that if they stopped the trucks that the asphalt would freeze solid and that his MPs would have to clean out the trucks. You really had to move that stuff. I was surprised when Deborah [former Chapter Adjutant] told me she went to school there--when I was in Okinawa, it wasn't part of Japan, then.
[In Okinawa] Every weekend we went to a place they called Four Corners and we went there to fight the Marines--the White Marines and the Black Engineers. In their way, they were fighting all this prejudice stuff, and it went on for... Last night, I pulled up BBC, and they had a half-hour show discussing all the race problems--they had some Blacks and some Whites who agreed that it would never end--you got some Blacks who will never change and some Whites who will never change. Now the generations are dying off, but many parents never gave their kids any Black history and then they go to school and get a college degree and think that they can do anything that a White man can do, and then they go to get a job and find that they can't get a job. They started giving the girls Black African names, but then when someone is looking for someone to hire, he'd pull up the resume and look at the name and then he would know what the race is because of the name. It actually hurt them [the women] instead of helping them.
When we were building the runways, we had to "cut down" the mountains to fill in the swamps and everything, enough to pack the ground enough for planes to land and then we poured tar. We worked on it 24-hours-a-day with three shifts. Jets back then were the F-86 and the F-80 and they were going to Japan and coming back. The only thing that was taking off and landing on land were the Navy Corsair and the P-51--they could takeoff but the ground wasn't smooth enough for the jets. It took us from July of '50 to maybe September of '50--because we got involved when MacArthur invaded the country--and when you invade a country and you have to lead in that country, you're in real trouble. When the Chinese came in, they deployed in a horseshoe [-style tactic] and when MacArthur landed at Inchon, the Chinese could have cut off that horseshoe and captured all of the Americans.
Because we were a Black unit, the Navy kept putting us back further and further and we got to where we were the 11th wave--there must have been a thousand ships. Our job was to clear the beaches of anything so Marines could get their equipment in--bulldozers and all that stuff. By the time we finally got to the beach, 5,000 White Marines had died because we were the 11th wave. We were in and LST, with the front ramp that dropped down--Landing Ship Transport, or something--you look around and you see bodies on the beach, bodies floating in the water, and I only had seen John Wayne and he always won! It was an awakening!
Once we were on land, we used bulldozers, cranes, and explosives to take down the mountains when we built the airfields. The guys who were experts in demolition would set charges to blow and the other equipment moved the rubble. I guess you would really call the "mountains" big hills. We built K1, K2, and K9. K9 was the one we built to 10,500 feet [in length] so the jets could land and take off. Unless the jets had a smooth runway, they couldn't land and take-off, so they had to fly back and forth to Japan to refuel and reload until we built K9 and they could do it in country.
They said in The Greybeards that the 822nd was disbanded--I wondered why I had not heard anything about my old unit. I figured with everything that they had done that someone would have written about it. The unit was integrated in 1951; in 1952, the unit was at K2 and then Pusan, built the Coast Guard manned LORAN station. Later in '52 they went into Seoul, and then rotated back to the states and put out of service.
When I went in, they had one-year tours of duty. I got there in July of 1951 but now you guys keep going back over and over again. So, when we were in Okinawa after serving 11 months, I wrote a letter and told my Momma not to worry because I would be coming home in a month...but during that one month the conflict rose up and Truman gave everybody and extra year--period--you had one more year. So instead of heading home, I went over to Korea; I had never heard of Korea. At night, it would get down to 44 degrees below zero. We had a White unit near us and I'm not sure what they did, but they got the first parkas and Mickey Mouse boots; we had green overcoats, and in the overcoats there were snaps you could undo that would drop down into leggings and we could zip that up. That's what we got for the cold; we didn't get the same equipment as units with the White boys got. The shoes they gave us, you had to put two inner soles in them and the inner sole would sweat and the sweat would freeze. Blacks frostbite much quicker than Whites do, so we had a lot of guys frostbitten--I had one guy who put his feet inside my shirt to try to warm them up again but he still couldn't stand up and feel them.
I went to Basic Training in Fort Dix, NJ, in January and I had never seen snow. We were supposed to go to Fort Know, KY, but they said that there were too many troops already there, so they put us on troop trains and took us from Kentucky to New Jersey. There was one unit, one Black company, that had Black officers, and I landed in Gulf Company--the rest of the Companies had White officers.
I ran into this Captain in Thailand--we were sitting there when Bob Hope came through and said "Give all the guys here a steak on me." Now, they had that Japanese Kobe beef, and oh that was great. I told this guy--he was a LtCol--that he looked familiar. I cam to find out that he was a Captain in my Company at Fort Dix, NJ! He asked me what happened--I told him that the Blacks were tougher one the men that the White officers were; he said that all the senior officers were White, and if you didn't please them, your efficiency rating went to the bottom. I didn't know then, but some of the White officers who had problems got assigned to Black units, so their efficiency rating must not have been high enough to get a White unit. And when these guys were in the Officers Club, there would be skirmishes between the White officers who had White units and the White officer who had Black units. It was like they made command of a Black unit a punishment.
There was a movie called Red Ball Express that had a guy named Jamie Edwards and he was a truck driver in World War II. In real life, the whole unit was Black--they used the unit to supply [General] Patton--he was killing Germans so fast and moving his tanks that he ran out of fuel, so they got this Black unit to take him fuel. When Hollywood made the movie, they put one token Black guy in the unit.
Even with integration, race issues continued into our next conflict--the Vietnam War. America sent troops to help the French; they sent a Black Battalion, and then instructed the French on how to treat these people--they didn't want them treated too nice because they would come back home and not fit in. But they got so good and got so many decorations because they were hell of a fighters.
Many thanks to Mr. Jones for sharing some of his experiences as a member of an all-Black unit during the Korean War! If you would like to learn more, stop by Disabled American Veterans (DAV) East Valley Chapter 8 in Mesa, AZ, sometime and I am sure that he would be happy to share more about his experiences serving our great nation as he continues to service his fellow Veterans and their families as a DAV Service Officer.
Mr. Bob Jones volunteers as a Service Officer for Disabled American Veterans (DAV):
DAV East Valley Chapter 8
655 N. Gilbert Road
Mesa, AZ 85203
For more information on the 822nd Engineer Aviation Battalion (SCAWAF) in Korea, see the following articles:
 Jones, R.L. (2017). 822nd Engineer Battalion (SCAWAF), All Black Unit, Okinawa (1949-1950). The Greybeards. January-February 2017, p.60. Charleston, Illinois. Available at http://www.kwva.org/graybeards/gb_17/gb_1702/gb_1702_final.pdf