“Fighting Against My White Superiors”
Oral Interview with Reuben Horner
(conducted by Maggi Morehouse, University of South Carolina Aiken)
> View as PDF
Reuben Horner was born in Fort Ethan Allen, Vermont in 1910 into an African American military family. His father was one of the original Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry and his grandfather had served as a Union soldier in the Civil War. He was raised on various army posts and, after graduating from the University of Arizona’s ROTC class, joined the Voluntary Officer Candidate class – an accelerated officer training – in 1940.
Horner finished the two-year program in a little over 6 months and was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant joining the newly founded 92nd Infantry Division. From 1943 on he fought against the German army in Italy and became one of the most highly decorated African Americans serving in World War II; among others, he received the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest medal awarded by the U.S. Army. After the war he remained in the U.S. army and eventually retired as a Colonel in 1963.
Horner remembers experiencing “little or no” discrimination when growing up on segregated military posts. As the child of an African American father and a mother from the Philippines, he consciously “chose” to be classified as African American upon joining the army.
During the war he was repeatedly struck by the extent of racism he encountered especially while stationed in the United States. He concludes that “the 92nd Division […] was the most racist as far as whites and blacks that I’ve ever encountered.” In particular, he relates one episode when a white officer called him “boy” instead of “lieutenant” and his complaint about this officer’s behavior merely resulted in his own reprehension. The helplessness regarding frequent discriminations frustrated him and led him to assert that “they treated us black officers very much like dogs.”
Despite this ubiquity of inequality in the United States, racially motivated discrimination, in Horner’s view, diminished abroad as his company became increasingly independent, motivated and successful. For Horner, service in the U.S. military also provided avenues for professional success and opportunities to vent one’s anger about discrimination. Expressing his aggravation with one system of racial inequality by fighting another Horner recalls consciously channeling his hatred towards his white superiors into despise for the Germans he was fighting. As he remembers, “the first [German] trooper that I captured on patrol I looked at him and I saw the face of one of the officers at our headquarters. So he came in for a bit of roughing up.”
After the war Horner’s distinguished military service allowed him to serve “as a troubleshooter for black troops” investigating complaints about racial discrimination in the U.S. Western Command. His inspection of Fort Jackson, NC, for example, led him to the dire conclusion that “the command there is still living in the days of slavery [and] treats the blacks just like they were slaves.”
Horner’s reports repeatedly brought about significant changes – in Fort Jackson, the restructuring of the military post and the dismissal of its commander – and prepared the ground for the integration of the U.S. Army just a few years later.
[On his Childhood on Various Segregated Military posts]
Horner: Well having been raised around various army posts I and also my dad felt that I he was going to prepare me for something better than a $21 a month soldier. Although his life was very satisfactory as far as he went because he remained a commissioned officer after WWII until he retired. […] So I enjoyed life on the post as a kid because I was not subjected to a lot of segregation although it did cause me to think because the units that we served with were all black. Then I had heard different tales as a kid. But on the various army post schools I went to on the army post I suffered little or no well discrimination at all.
Morehouse: Did you have white teachers or black teachers?
Horner: They had black teachers in the post schools. They had a black school and a white school on the post. The post called it the black school in Huachuca it was more or less the officer’s kids school. […] The funny thing about it I could have gone to the white school up in Huachuca. But I played with all the black kids. Because my father and there were two other officers with kids my age who were stationed at Huachuca at the time. One of my classmates I mean I played with you might say played around with playmates was Frankie…I get so I forget names now but he was… Benjamin Davis. His son B.D. Junior. He was commander of the 99th and so forth but we were raised just as children up in Fort Huachuca.
[On Severe Discrimination in the 92nd Division]
Horner: The 92nd division, I don’t know about the 93rd, was the most racist as far as whites and blacks that I’ve ever encountered. […] Because they treated us black officers very very … like we were dogs. We were subjected to severe disciplinary measures. As an example I’ll take myself. I was one of the company officers in the 3rd battalion. Once usually on Friday we had battalion officers call. This particular Friday we had officers call and the makeup of the battalion was one company had all white officers. The other 3 companies in headquarters in the battalion had black officers. Not the battalion headquarters personnel. I mean command itself. So I while we were sitting head company with all white officers had not shown up and as time went on the battalion executive officer who was white he came over to me and said, “boy run up and tell captain Coonfull that we’re waiting on him and his officers and to get over here immediately!” So I looked around and said, “Major were you addressing me?” He said, “yes, I am. Get up there!” I said, “Major to begin with I was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Army. As far as I know that hasn’t changed. I should be addressed as lieutenant not boy.” Results: Within a week I found well anyways before it ended just before it ended the white officers showed up and he was telling me that you’re trying to start something he says. I call all my junior officers boy. I said yes sir. Your black junior officers. About that time other white officers showed up and the meeting began. So the next week I find myself assigned to a job that nobody ever heard of but that was the job in the 92nd division. I was assigned in addition to my troop duties to be the DPO. That is the battalion trash officer. My job was to take a sawed off pool cue and to go and check in all the garbage bags to see that there was no item or GI issue or equipment thrown away. […] So they didn’t let up on me yet. Because my family lived in Tucson my wife rather lived in Tucson and we had a home here because I went into the service from here I would come home each night whenever it was if we had no duties. Such as the duty officer or something like that. So during the week I was assigned to uniform checking officer. You know what that is? […] I stood in front of the theaters to see that the blouses were buttoned up and the ties were on properly. Then on the next night I was the service club officer. I just hung around the service club to see there was no disorder and to check soldiers who were…that was retaliation. One of the…
Morehouse: What made them stop when they did? Just time ran out or you know…
Horner: Well we began serious training when we were getting ready to go overseas. So troop duty demanded all of the time. So that stopped that.
[On “Choosing” to be Black]
Horner: When I went into the service I had to make the decision so I just took my father’s side.
Morehouse: But that was something that you selected consciously to do and perhaps…
Horner: I could have had life much easier in school here if I had gone on the other side. In the school here to get me to compete I went to high school in Hawaii and I made a number of the all island football basketball and track teams and so I came…Arizona used to identify me as otherwise not black and I made their track team and…
Morehouse: So that there wasn’t an opening for you…if you had said I’m a Filipino or you know…
Horner: (laughter) That question comes up to me quite often. Lots of times you know they always ask me are you black? Yeah I’m black.
Morehouse: Then it is something that you that you choose.
Horner: I choose. Right.
Morehouse: So then that means that that has a whole other level of consciousness.
[On not Receiving the Medal of Honor]
Horner: So they wrote that citation up which was really had all the qualifications for a medal of honor but that was it. I knew and the men knew and the men in the battalion knew.
Morehouse: That it was racism…
Morehouse: Now why do you think that this hasn’t been reviewed again and brought up. For instance I read that 7 men all but one posthumously…
Horner: Right. Baker was in my regiment. We were very good friends.
Morehouse: Baker was in your regiment? Vernon J. Baker. […] But Baker’s records were pulled and reviewed and he was given the Medal of Honor. Did anybody contact you about reviewing your records or…
Horner: Uh huh…as I said my old regimental commander who…he continued to contact me and then the officers that…he lives in somewhere around San Mateo California area…he’s the officer that handled the firing that I called for. I talked to him before you know…he didn’t want to do that because he didn’t want to wipe me out too.
Morehouse: Harry Cox.
Horner: Cox. He asked he said Reuben the regimental commander wants to know if this is what you want done. I said well nobody’s going to take me a prisoner. I said if the artillery kills me or don’t kill me these krauts are going to do it.
Morehouse: So I’m just curious what they ever said. Why they didn’t upgrade you or distinguish service cross to medal of honor now. You know in the last year. They tell you that pulled your records?
Horner: No because the people that reviewed it were a bunch of black educators from South Carolina A & M. They knew nothing very little of the 92nd division or its personnel. Actually they groped around to find somebody just to have a black net.
[On Discrimination Decreasing when in Italy]
Morehouse: Alrighty and the last question that we were talking about now to come back up to you…did the segregation and discrimination at home affect your ability to fight for democracy in WWII?
Horner: No it did not at all. I after we left _________ the constant contact with discrimination yes I it is almost you might say one of the major factors in my daily thinking. But once we were overseas and were ordered into combat why then it was strictly a matter of winning the war. At least taking the different defensive lines held by the Germans which would eventually help end the war and which it did. But as I said once we went into combat and I began to I and members of my unit began to become quite successful at fighting why the treatment became different. In fact after we went into combat in Italy we had little or no contact with the people who were in Huachuca…in day-to-day combat I mean day-to-day contact with their bias.
Morehouse: Interesting. But you had overseas you still had some of the same white officers and even new white officers that were brought in. Was there less discrimination when you were fighting in the…
Horner: Much less. […] And after I would say a number of weeks of daily engagement in the Romarno campaign then contact with the whites were very limited except within the battalion. Right.
Morehouse: Right. Actually I found that to be the case even for the people who were in the Pacific. They really only dealt with their own battalion.
Horner: Now our battalion commander who was from Anniston Alabama and he was not very aggressive. He left most of his disciplinary measures to his executive officer. As I mentioned before after we had been in combat a number of weeks in engagement interesting to me towards me he changed his actions started to change. In fact Daughette when he learned that I was at Fort McClellan at one period right after WWII he invited me to visit his home while I was stationed at Fort McClellan. We talked over the phone and everything and he invited me to visit him for a short time. I did stop by one Sunday and we rehashed different incidents in Italy. Never never commenting or discussing Huachuca in those days. He later became a congressional representative from Alabama.
[On becoming a “troubleshooter” for black troops]
Horner: I left to go to RG 7th army headquarters RG as a troubleshooter for black troops in the 7 states that the 7th army […] I was visiting the various posts. __________ who held the job previous to me had set up a pretty good network of information through black chaplains on these posts. Club hostesses and so forth and ministers in those areas. When there was a large complaint or a number of complaints the orders were cut ordering me to the to this particular post. In other words I investigated the sources and analyzed the extent of the so called complaint and so forth. As one example at Fort Jackson, North Carolina they were having a lot of trouble. Naturally the complaints came in and I was sent down there. __________ at the post according to headquarters and the __________ took me in to introduce me to the post commander. He was very nasty. He wanted to know what I was doing there and why. So I said sir you’ve been informed by letter preceding my visit stating the purpose of my visit. He says I never received any letter. But I had an open line or access to the 7th army commander a General Bush who was an armored officer and had supported my unit in Italy at one time. He welcomed me aboard very much and I did show up with my well he had read my awards and everything. He just discussed them and he evidently like took quite a liking to me. Anyways the this colonel ordered me off of the post. So I asked if I had permission to use his phone. He gave me the phone. I guess he thought I was going to call in for transportation. But I call headquarters in Atlanta we were headquarters at that time of the 7th army was in Atlanta right in the heart of Atlanta. I got in touch with General Bush and he asked what’s going on? I said, “I’m having a rough time down here.” I said, “I’ve just been ordered off of a post.” He says, “what?” I said, “yes.” He says, “Who ordered you off the post?” I said, “The commanding officer here Colonel Hulighan.” He says, “Is he there?” I say, “yes sir.” He says, “Put him on.” As the conversation with the colonel went on and the colonel got redder and redder. His face never…yes sir yes sir yes sir! So he said, “I’m sorry. We misplaced your letter and we weren’t expecting you.”
So he told a his adjutant to take me to where I would be billeted. Where I was to be billeted was his service room the recreation room of one of the black organizations there. In the day room of one of the black organizations there. So when he said that I said I will not accept billeting in anybody’s day room. I said you have guest quarters here where officers who like myself are here on official business. I said I will not accept such billets. So he told me off. I said I thought you wanted to be close to your troops. I said I want accommodations that befitted my rank and the services that went with it which includes a staff car and driver. So that ended that. And I came back.
When that was happening and some of the things that were happening were there was blacks were not permitted in certain sections of the post as an example. They were not permitted to catch the buses into town at the regular bus station on the post. They their laundry was not done in the laundry but given to colored families to do the laundry for the blacks. The sheets and so forth like that in the billets. Segregation in the theater. Civilians were permitted to attend the movies on the post but the black families were limited to just a few seats in the rear of the theater. The men instead of having suntans…this was in the summer…instead of having suntans were still in with hot heavy ODs. The chaplain was not permitted to give the soldiers and their families spiritual help or guidance. The service club was just a pigpen.
So in my official report when I got back I reported all of this. I also gave a verbal report where General Bush and I sat down and we discussed. He says, “What is your opinion?” I said, “It seems to me that the command there is still living in the days of slavery. He treats the blacks just like they were slaves.” And I said, “and to me the whole bunch of them if you want to know are bigots.” He was very upset about how rude he was, this colonel. __________ was with me. Colonel __________ was incidentally within two weeks was relieved of his post command there.
[On Fighting Germans Soldiers and Imagining them to be his White Officers]
Morehouse: OK. But in the black press at the time there was quite a bit of writing about fighting racism at home and having victory at home and then having victory abroad and I wondered what your thoughts on that were. Whether that was something you concerned yourself with or…
Horner: Yes I did but there’s one thing that when I first went into combat and encountered the Germans. Well I vented a lot of my feelings by placing the faces of our officers who had treated me extremely rude and rough as you might say. The face of a person that I had either well killed there was the face of the guy that…
Morehouse: Had mistreated you? That might even be counter to what you’re taught in your military training is to not think of the other person as human even so you’re not supposed to humanize the other person…
Horner: That’s right. But as I mentioned that was something of an idea that came with my initial contact with…because the first trooper is that I captured on patrol I looked at him and I saw the face of one of the officers at our headquarters. So he came in for a bit of roughing up. I vented my feelings, which I shouldn’t have done. I realize that now but I’ve known…
[Excerpts from Interview with Reuben Horner Conducted by Maggi Morehouse, Tucson, AZ 1998]