Editor’s Note: This story contains language that some might find offensive.
Coming off the heels of World War II, the Korean War, widely regarded as the “Forgotten War,” ushered in a new era in U.S. military history. On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order to integrate the U.S. Armed Forces. Alex Cooper, an African American who served in the Army was one of those soldiers whose life was affected by this change.
His story starts in the summer of 1950. The Korean War had just started. And Cooper was traveling on a bus in southeast Missouri. He and his baseball team, the Hayti Black Dodgers were headed to a game in Arkansas.
“We played a white baseball team in Pocahontas, Arkansas,” Cooper said. “And we had to go through Caruthersville to pick up a part of our team.”
When the bus stopped the president from the local draft board walked on and got his attention.
“He looked up and he identified me,” Cooper said. “You know the family. And said ‘hey, are you going to college?’ I said ‘not right now.’ He said “well come in the office I want to show you something.”
So he got off the bus and walked into his office unaware of the news he was about to hear. Posted on a board were a list of names and induction dates. Twenty-two of those names were former classmates, but another name caught him off guard. It was his.
“I had an asterisk by my name on the 15th of October 1951,” Cooper said.
That date changed everything. Like the war that preceded it, the Korean War enforced the selective service system--better known as the draft. More than a million American men were inducted. As the news was starting to settle in, the president from the local draft board gave him some options. College was one of them.
The truth was Cooper had no plans of going to college anytime soon. But somewhere between the initial shock and the long bus ride home, he made up his mind. He was going to college. His father--wasn’t buying it.
“He said ‘boy, you haven't written nothing asking to go to college [or] anything,’" Cooper said. “I said ‘well, yes you don't know. I got to go to the war if I don't go to college.’"
Sure enough, when the fall semester came around, Cooper had enrolled as a full-time student at Lincoln University in Jefferson City. He studied biology, and picked up several odd jobs along the way to eat and pay for school.
“I started working you know hauling trucks, just whatever thing you [could] do,” Cooper said.
And he had incentive too.
“If I didn't get in ROTC and do well I was going to Korea,” Cooper said. “And at that time they just had a very short preparation period before you went you know on active duty in Korea.”
Fortunately for Cooper he spent the next four years in ROTC, and eventually graduated with his degree in July of 1955. Two months later, he reported to Fort Belvoir, Virginia where he started his active duty. While there he learned to be an officer. The training was rigorous and his cadre officer didn’t let him off easy. His name was Miller. And he was no nonsense.
“‘Lieutenant Cooper, I think you I think yourself to be a lieutenant, but you're not,” Cooper said. “‘You won't be one unless you finish this course. And here's my option. I don't like you. I don't like anything that look like you. And I'm going to make damn sure that you be washed out.’”
That didn’t settle well with Cooper.
“I balled my fists up, and I was going to punch him,” Cooper said. “And the second time he say ‘lieutenant, do you hear what I say?’ I say ‘yes sir.’ He say ‘what is your answer?’ I say ‘sir, if there be one SOB to cross the finish line you're looking at him right now.’ That closed the conversation.”
A few months later, he and five comrades were given orders to go overseas. One was sent to Guam, another to Japan and he and the remaining three went to Korea. By the time Cooper began his active duty, the war had all but ended. They spent 21 days on a ship headed to Yokohama. When they got there, it took them two more days to get to Incheon, Korea. But what awaited them when they got there was a rude awakening.
“The first sight you saw I think there was 10 guys in straitjackets that had cracked up you know,” Cooper said. “And then you got your orientation as to where you were going to be, and what you had to look for.”
So he was given an order to get on a train and meet with the 36th Engineer Group, which was 30 miles from Seoul. When the train stopped in Uijeongbu, he got off and waited.
“It was cold as blue blazes,” Cooper said. “And here you had two people came in and they were Korean and I pulled off my overcoat and they saw my bars, and they knew that I was the one.”
They brought him back to headquarters, and led him into a dark room dimly lit by candlelight. Twelve men were huddled together in a circle. And what he saw next--well I’ll let him tell it.
“And I said ‘my God they're praying,’” Cooper said. “You know ‘this really must be something.’ And boy someone looked up and say ‘yeah that's one unlucky a-- OB coming in here now,’ you know. He say "boy see my time is getting shorter--and he's going to be my replacement."
Hearing that, Cooper didn’t know what to think. Hesitant--he walked over to them.
“And I looked and man I heard it was the darndest dice game you'd ever seen,” Cooper said. “[Laughing] I thought they were praying you know.”
While in Korea, Cooper ran a tight ship serving as company commander. But despite his role not everyone liked taking orders from a black man. This was something Cooper faced on occasion within his own company.
“I had a person that was coming in you know a person you know to become a member of the unit,” Cooper said. “And he say ‘I understand they got a n----r company commander. I'm not going to take no word from no n----r."
Cooper caught wind of this thanks to his first sergeant. So, he decided to address it they only way he knew how.
“Bring him on in,” Cooper said.
The new recruit walked in and boldly told Cooper to take off his bars.
“So I took my bars off,” Cooper said. “Pulled my drawers back [and] I told him ‘if you walk another step I'll blow your brains out.’ He fainted.”
Eventually he came to, but Cooper had no problem showing him he meant business. As you can imagine Cooper was a stickler for the rules, but his persistent nature nearly cost him his life. One of his duties was checking the guard posts twice a day, which is something that many in his company did not do consistently.
Cooper said it was like any other night. He and his dog would get up and go make their rounds. And his roommate was sound asleep. But out of nowhere he woke up to lecture Cooper.
“And he say ‘you gung ho’ and that's his term see,” Cooper said. “‘You have already checked them once why are you doing this again?’ And you know I gave him so expletives back.”
Not heeding his warning Cooper left. And as he and his dog made their way to check on one of the guard posts shots suddenly rang out.
“We got hit by a group that came in to do damage and they [makes gun noise] you know an automatic weapon,” Cooper said.
He made it out unscathed, but the guard was caught in the crossfire and he died in Coopers arms. Cooper said the time he spent arguing with his roommate saved his life, because chances are it could have been him.
“I always say there was something that woke him up to call me to not to be there at the time you know,” Cooper said. “I think that was an act from the almighty you know and I give blessing to that.”
When Cooper left the military he became a teacher. After that, he worked as a director for the Delmo Housing Corporation for 28 years before he retired. Nowadays, he spends his time helping veterans find benefits that were available to them. And that started with his son, a disabled Vietnam veteran.
“They would be dismissed from the service without being alerted to what types of benefits that was available for them,” Cooper said.
Cooper said he does all of this, because it’s still his duty.
“If you know how to help them to do it--do it,” Cooper said.