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African-American warfighters honored

Black History Month special observance

Retired Navy Capt. Keith Hoskins is the guest speaker at this year’s Black History Month special observance Feb. 28 at the Air Armament Museum at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The theme, “African Americans in Times of War,” commemorated the many contributions and sacrifices of African-Americans who served the United States from World War I in 1918 to present day. (U.S. Air Force photo/Kevin Gaddie)

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- This year’s Black History Month special observance was held Feb. 28 at the Air Armament Museum here.

The theme, “African Americans in Times of War,” commemorated the many contributions and sacrifices of African-Americans who served the United States from World War I in 1918 to present day.

Retired Navy Capt. Keith Hoskins, the guest speaker, said the observance was not only an occasion to pause and reflect on African-Americans who served in the armed forces, but also to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice defending America’s freedom and democracy across the globe.  

“I stand here today because of the many African-Americans who came before me,” said the 27-year veteran.

Despite racism and segregation, African-Americans fought in wars from the colonial period to present day.  They served a country that denied their basic rights as citizens, he said.

Hoskins said 180,000 African-Americans served in 163 units in the Union Army and during the Civil War.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that African-Americans began to receive the recognition and equality they deserved, he said.

In World War I, thousands of African-Americans rushed to serve in the armed forces in Europe and abroad.

“They wanted to defend liberty and democracy to prove their worth and earn better rights at home,” Hoskins said.

However, at the time, military leaders did not believe African-Americans had the physical, mental or moral character to withstand warfare.  They were relegated to labor-intensive jobs such as grave diggers, truck drivers and cooks.

Many African-Americans saw very little combat back then, said Hoskins, a naval aviator, who accumulated 3,400 flight hours and 570 arrested shipboard landings during his career.

Still, African-Americans made worthy contributions to the war effort.  Hoskins cited as one example, the 369th Infantry Regimen, nicknamed The Harlem Hellfighters, in World War I.  They served on the French front lines for more than six months and never lost a prisoner or territory to the enemy. 

France awarded the regiment the Croix de Guerre, that country’s highest military honor.  The Legion of Merit was awarded to 171 of its members.

Despite continued discrimination, more than a million African-Americans volunteered to serve in World War II.

This war brought changes in attitude towards African-Americans.  Some were trained in lead positions and desegregation in the service branches began, said the former Naval Air Station Pensacola commanding officer.

In the Korean War, African-Americans served in all combat service elements and were involved in all major combat operations.  By the 1960s, all services were fully integrated.  By the Vietnam War, there was the highest concentration of American-Americans ever to serve in wartime, he said.

“In the Army alone, African-Americans accounted for 25 percent of its members during that period,” Hoskins said.

Over the course of the wars, 89 African-Americans have received the Medal of Honor, according to Hoskins.

The Afghanistan and Iraq wars showed a great emergence of African-American warfighters being recognized alongside their counterparts from other races, he said.

“The lines of color in today’s military have vanished,” Hoskins said.  “The opportunities are endless.”     

Hoskins closed with a quote from a letter from an unknown African-American soldier from World War II.  For Hoskins, the quote signifies the progress African-Americans have made from yesteryear to today.

“Negroes are doing their bit here,” the quote stated.  “Their supreme bit.  Not for glory, not for honor.  But for, I think, the generations to come.”