Vietnam and African Americans

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Webster Anderson and other heroes

Webster Anderson

The Vietnam War was another period of deep division in our nation. The fear of Communism, with Khrushchev banging his shoe at the UN and declaring that the grandchildren of the Boomer generation would live under socialist rule was deep in the psyche of the people. The Domino theory, that Communism would overtake Asia one country at a time, beginning with Vietnam, was prevalent, and steered US foreign policy.

As the war ramped up, it became clear that there were different kinds of heroes – those who steadfastly held to their beliefs and opposition to the war, and those who went and fought. The draft laws, it was said, were stacked against African Americans – there were exemptions for married men, for teachers, for those attending college. A disproportionate number of blacks were drafted, and placed in combat rather than support roles. The burden fell heavily on the poor. Many young unmarried blacks were excluded from college, and thus, draft exemptions. The image of George Wallace standing on the steps of the University of Alabama to bar black students from enrolling was only a few years old. Many of the rich, or even upper middle class whites were able to avoid the draft. Many men received deferments were from wealthy and educated families. Prominent political figures on both sides of the aisle accused of avoiding the draft include Bill Clinton, Joe Biden and Dick Cheney. The SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) produced their first uncompromising statement on the war, declaring that blacks should not “fight in Vietnam for the white man’s freedom, until all the Negro people are free in Mississippi.” As a result, in 1967, 64 percent of all eligible African-Americans were drafted, but only 31 percent of eligible whites. During 1965-66, the casualty rate for blacks was twice that of whites. Martin Luther King came out steadfastly in opposition to the war. In his speech entitled ‘Beyond Vietnam’ April 4, 1967, Dr. King said:

Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”

While many young blacks were drafted, some young African Americans chose to enlist – either as an escape from the ghetto poverty, or out of genuine patriotism. The famous or infamous Project 100000 conceived by Johnson and McNamara was said to aim unfairly at African Americans. But Webster Anderson was one of those who enlisted by choice, and bravely served his country. He joined during the Korean War with the 101st Airborne, the Screaming Eagles, and worked his way up to Staff Sergeant. He found that Army life suited him, and stayed. The 101st Airborne first arrived in Vietnam July 29, 1965, and a second wave of the division arrived in 1967.

Operation Wheeler kicked off September 11, 1967 as a set of search and destroy missions, involving the 101st Airborne. Its objective was to “blunt” the offensive by the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) 2nd Division, and allow units of the 1st Marine Division to relocate to Da Nang. The action continued into November. On October 15, at Tam Ky, all hell broke loose one night, with PAVN coming in from all directions. Illumination flares fired. The enemy was in the wire perimeter – and more coming. Green tracers arced all around Webster. He was next to a howitzer, and it seemed his position might be overrun. Webster exposed himself to fire, climbing on top of it, directing the fire of the gunners, while simultaneously firing and tossing grenades to keep the enemy at bay.

27 Oct 1967, Tam Ky, South Vietnam — Tam Ky, South Vietnam: Open Fire! Taking deadly aim, troopers of 101st Airborne Division fire into brush during Operation Wheeler, near here recently, while on a search and destroy mission. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

According to the award citation from the US Army:

Sergeant Anderson became the mainstay of the defense of the battery position. Sfc. Anderson directed devastating direct howitzer fire on the assaulting enemy while providing rifle and grenade defensive fire against enemy soldiers attempting to overrun his gun section position. While protecting his crew and directing their fire against the enemy from his exposed position, 2 enemy grenades exploded at his feet knocking him down and severely wounding him in the legs. Despite the excruciating pain and though not able to stand, Sfc. Anderson valorously propped himself on the parapet and continued to direct howitzer fire upon the closing enemy and to encourage his men to fight on. Seeing an enemy grenade land within the gun pit near a wounded member of his gun crew, Sfc. Anderson heedless of his own safety, seized the grenade and attempted to throw it over the parapet to save his men. As the grenade was thrown from the position it exploded and Sfc. Anderson was again grievously wounded. Although only partially conscious and severely wounded, Sfc. Anderson refused medical evacuation and continued to encourage his men in the defense of the position. Sfc. Anderson by his inspirational leadership, professionalism, devotion to duty and complete disregard for his welfare was able to maintain the defense of his section position and to defeat a determined attack. Sfc. Anderson’s gallantry and extraordinary heroism at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army.

Anderson survived the war, and was awarded the Medal of Honor. Webster Anderson died at age 70 of colon cancer and was buried in his hometown of Winnsboro, South Carolina.

The Three Soldiers Vietnam monument, on the Mall, Washington D.C. By dave_7 from Lethbridge, Canada – Vietnam Memorial Statue, CC BY-SA 2.0,