Soldiers Who Battled For Equality

Exactly how did the U.S. finally desegregate its military?

CBS News Correspondent Eric Engberg takes a look with the first of two reports on the forgotten heroes of America's Pacific wars.

Julius Becton, who would become one of the army’s first black three-star generals, remembers that day in 1948. President Harry S. Truman had just signed an order ending segregation in the armed forces. But Becton remembers his uniformed commander couldn’t care less.

"He said something I'll never forget – 'gentlemen, as long as I'm the commander here, there will be no change.'"

And that was the response of the overall military establishment.

America, "land of the free," had fought World War II with a segregated army and navy. In 1948, President Truman, needing support from blacks in the upcoming election—and despite protests from his top generals like Omar Bradley—made his move.

"It came to me," Truman said, "that I was the commander in chief of the armed forces and that I could order them to integrate, as their commander in chief. And they would have to do it."

But it took the Korean War and a looming disaster on the battlefield two years later to bring about the change.

Becton remembers that the U.S. Army that went to Korea was still essentially a segregated army, and an army looking squarely at defeat in 1950—its under-trained, under-sized units beaten back to a corner of South Korea called the Pusan Perimeter.

Casualties were heavy for white and black units. And as the United States scrambled to send in replacements for the dead and wounded, Becton recalls the arithmetic of segregation was a topic that kept coming up in messages to field commanders.

"We've got all these people coming in. Some black, some white. But they don’t match the number of requirements for replacements. Where do I put them?"

Hard-pressed senior commanders gave the only sensible answer, Becton says.

"Put them where they’re needed. And with that, from our standpoint, started integration."

Becton remembers how the arrival of the first non-black soldier in his platoon in the midst of heavy combat made him, as a young lieutenant, realize that history was being made, and some of it was resting right on his shoulders.

"He came in and I got my platoon sergeant," the general recalls, "and I said, 'Sergeant, this is our man. Don't let anything happen to him. We're not going to be the first ones to have this subject screwed up.'"

Julius Becton would be wounded twice in Korea and receive the Silver Star medal. Deciding to make the now integrated U.S. Army a career. He would command a battalion in Vietnam and, moving through a series of top-level jobs, eventually wear three stars.