Thursday, October 26, 2017

Private Edward O. Cleaborn

Edward O. Cleaborn of Memphis, Tennessee got far more adventure than he imagined when he joined the U.S. Army in February 1950.  He shared the same fate as Philip Hughes, in that they both enlisted at age 17 and found themselves cast into the early days of the Korean War.  Like Philip, Cleaborn survived the Battle of Taejon on July 20, 1950 when the U.S. Army was thoroughly humiliated by the North Korean People’s Army. These men, both holding the rank of private, were committed to the ensuing Battle of Naktong Bulge a few weeks later.

Philip and Edward would lose their lives in combat, with their remains returned home for interment. But while Philip’s return to Washington, DC was hardly noticed, the City of Memphis feted Private Cleaborn with a large scale memorial service in February 1951.  The reception was certainly justified; Cleaborn was bestowed with a Distinguished Service Cross (among other decorations) for the action in which he was killed.

On August 15, 1950, he was part of an infantry platoon that maintained a tenuous hold on a 400-foot-tall ridge just east of the Naktong River.  Decimated by enemy fire throughout the early morning, Cleaborn’s platoon had seven men not yet killed or wounded.  As casualties were being evacuated, Cleaborn and the others fired from a trench atop the ridge line in an attempt to hold off the encroaching enemy. SFC Roy E. Collins led these men. 

Cleaborn’s view of the battlefield was compromised by the rough terrain. Intent on neutralizing a North Korean machine-gun team, he climbed atop the ridgeline to fire from a standing position. Cleaborn yelled at his adversaries while expending clips of ammunition at a prodigious rate. “Come on up, you sons of bitches, and fight!”  By mid-morning, with the enemy closing in on their position, Sgt. Collins ordered his men to fire off one more clip of ammunition and pull back, carrying wounded with them. Deciding to cover his colleagues’ withdrawal, Cleaborn once again stood atop the ridge to enhance his field of fire.  That’s when he took a bullet to the head.

Today, Private Cleaborn’s descendants are lobbying for him to receive a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor.  News about this can be found online.  All parties involved in this effort may wish to note Private Cleaborn’s correct unit affiliation.  For whatever reason, current day articles describe Cleaborn, an African-American, as a member of an “all-black combat unit.”  This is a mistaken conclusion, and it’s easy to see why. 

When the Korean War started in 1950, the U.S. Army had yet to implement President Truman’s 1948 executive order calling for the integration of racially separate units.  Follow these designations closely: among the units sent to Korea was the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment, a component of the 25th Infantry Division.  By coincidence, the (white) 24th Infantry Division was the first U.S. Army division sent to Korea. One component of the 24th Division was the 34th Regiment.

Private Edward O. Cleaborn was part of 34th Regiment of the 24th Infantry Division.

So how did this happen?  Faced with the emergency in Korea, the U.S. Army endured manpower shortages so acute that it found segregated assignments to be impractical.  The Army required trained soldiers as soon as they completed basic training. Accordingly, Cleaborn was notable for something in addition to his heroism: he was one of the very first African Americans to integrate a previously all-white infantry unit in Korea.  In fact, as a member of second platoon, Company A, First Battalion of the 34th Infantry Regiment, Cleaborn died covering the withdrawal of white troops.  His story is a subplot in Russell A. Gugeler’s “Combat Actions in Korea.” Cleaborn’s casualty record also corroborates the unit affiliation described here.  That is also online in the National Archives’ Korean War Casualty File.

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