PFC Willie J. Eaglin: For Love of Country

Members of an integrated machine gun crew from the 2nd Infantry Division man their M1919 .30 caliber Browning machine gun.

Eighteen year-old Willie J. Eaglin enlisted in the Army on August 12, 1950; just weeks after the Korean War began.   Eaglin first heard of the outbreak of war from a radio broadcast, and like many men his age, he was “anxious to volunteer” and “to help defend an ally against communism”.

As an African-American, Eaglin must have been aware that many people saw serving in the military as a part of the struggle for civil rights.  The only reason he cites for joining the Army, however, is love of country.  Nevertheless, PFC Eaglin’s service came at a pivotal moment in the history of the desegregation of the Army.

President Truman had abolished racial discrimination in the military in 1948 (see Executive Order 9981 below), but the Army was still segregated in 1950.  Most African-American Soldiers were assigned to segregated support units, but there were a few all-black combat units.  By the end of the Korean War, however, segregation collapsed because combat units needed replacements as soon as possible, regardless of what race the Soldier was.

Eaglin trained at Fort Reilly, Kansas for both the Infantry and Transportation Corps.  He received special training on the use of the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR).  Upon reaching Korea, however, he felt unprepare, and later wrote that “basic training was not long enough (6 weeks).  We were not prepared to fight in such harsh winter conditions.”

Eaglin sailed on the troopship USS William Wiegel from Seattle to Pusan, Korea.  According to Eaglin, he and his fellow Soldiers learned their destination when they arrived.  Once in Korea, Eaglin joined the 2nd Infantry Division, serving with the all-black 3rd Battalion of the 9th Infantry Regiment.

Although President Truman ordered the desegregation of the military in 1948, the Army was still segregated in 1950.  Most African-American Soldiers were assigned to segregated support units, but there were a few all-black combat units.  By the end of the war, segregation collapsed because combat units needed replacements as soon as possible, regardless of what race the Soldier was.

Eaglin joined his unit as a replacement.  The veterans in the unit were “happy to see us”, but his introduction to combat was “very frightening”.

U.S. Soldiers were up against a tough enemy.  Eaglin said the North Korean soldiers were “damn good”, adding that they were “well trained, well lead, but not very well armed.”  Regarding their weapons, he said: “The ones that they had were very effective”.

A typical day at the front for Eaglin consisted of “Heavy fighting, fire fights, [and] patrols”.  Days in the rear were spent “cleaning weapons, shaving, bathing, writing letters, [and] praying.”

Korean winters are dominated by bitterly cold winds that blow in from Siberia.  Eaglin noted that the cold and weather conditions were so severe they interfered with supply services, leaving his unit short on necessities.  Eaglin also reported that the cold interfered with the proper functioning of weapons and equipment.  Metal becomes brittle in the cold, lubricating oils become thick and gummy, and diesel fuel turns to a gel that cannot flow through fuel lines until warmed up.

On February 10, 1951, Willie J. Eaglin was severely wounded “while attacking Chinese troops that held a vital piece of real estate to us” near Sang-Sok, Korea.  Hit in the arm and chest by rifle fire (see injury report), Eaglin was evacuated from the combat zone through hospitals in Tokyo, Hawaii, and Texas before reaching the Army and Navy Hospital in Hot Springs, Arkansas.  All in all, Eaglin spent about a year recovering from his wounds.

The gunshot wound in his arm left him with permanent nerve damage.  The injury did not prevent him from reenlisting in October of 1952, but it kept him out of combat.  Eaglin returned to Korea for a second tour of duty, during which he served in various support units behind the front lines.

Despite having reenlisted for six years, Eaglin was discharged in May of 1954.  He was never told the reason for his discharge.  In his own words, he “did not choose to leave, was kicked out prior to E.T.S[1] for no known reason.  They used me and gave me the boot in the rear.”

Eaglin reported that readjustment to civilian life was “very difficult” and that “jobs were hard to find”.  The Veterans Administration granted him a 40% disability for the nerve damage to his ar, but did not provide treatment for his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which the government did not recognize at the time.  He wrote:

“After returning to the States in 1952 I was treated for a psychological problem that I still have today.  I had treatment at [the] Madigan Army Hospital Psychiatric War, Ft. Lewis, WA.  I applied for benefits from this condition after discharge and was turned down by the V.A. because this condition was not recognized by the V.A. as combat related in those days.  It was not until Vietnam that it was related to combat stress.  I am presently receiving treatment for this condition…”

As to his discharge, Eaglin wrote:

“They gave me no reason for kicking me out of the Army after they used me and abused me to help fight the war in Korea.  An injustice was done to me by the U.S. Army and the Veterans Administration and the U.S. Government which has never been corrected.  I laid my life on the line for my country that I love more than life itself, and this is the way it said “thank you Willie”.”

Eaglin also expressed disappointment that he did not receive medals and awards to which he was entitled for his service.

In 1984, Willie J. Eaglin petitioned the Army for the medals he was due.  After examining the record, the Army awarded him the Purple Heart, the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Korean Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, and the National Defense Service Medal.

Willie J. Eaglin completed a questionnaire and donated materials relating to his service to the U.S. Army Military History Institute.  The materials are now part of the Korean War Survey Collection at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center.  Eaglin included a copy of the poem “The Young Dead Soldiers Do Not Speak”, written by Archibald McLeish while serving as the Librarian of Congress.

Primary Sources

Willie J. Eaglin completed a Veteran’s Survey for the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center.

CLICK HERE to read his survey.

Executive Order 9981 Page 1 (Courtesy of the National Archives)

Executive Order 9981 Page 2 (Courtesy of the National Archives)

[1] Estimated Termination of Service:  The date a Soldier is supposed to be discharged, based upon his or her enlistment/reenlistment contract.

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