Early on the rain-soaked morning of June 25, 1950, North Korean forces launched an artillery and mortar barrage on South Korean positions south of the 38th Parallel. At 11:00 AM, North Korea issued a formal declaration of war against the south, beginning what would forever be known as the Korean War.
The first days of the war went poorly for the South and its allies. The North, well-armed with Soviet materiel, quickly took the South Korean capital of Seoul, with the South’s military in full retreat.
North Korean hopes of a swift victory were dashed, however, when the United States and other foreign powers decided to intervene in the war, following United Nations approval. Still, the North had the momentum, and by August, South Korean and U.S. forces had been pushed to the far south of the Korean peninsula to a small area around the port city of Pusan. There, they would either make a desperate stand or be driven into the sea.
Meanwhile, reinforcements from the United States were beginning to arrive en masse. Among them was a young Army Lieutenant by the name of Julius W. Becton, Jr. Becton had joined the Army in 1944, graduating from OCS in 1945 and serving in the Pacific just prior to the end of World War II.
In 1950, black officers were rare in the Army. While President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 had officially desegregated the military, in practice it was slow to take effect. Upon arrival in Korea, Becton’s all-black battalion was at first relegated to guard-duty at Yonil Airfield by officers skeptical of their abilities. In the desperate defense of Pusan, however, every man was needed. After rejoining the rest of the regiment, Becton’s battalion began to prepare for battle. On the morning of September 17th, Lt. Becton was ordered to lead his platoon in an attack against enemy positions near the Naktong River on Hill 201.
Under intense mortar, automatic weapons, and small arms fire, Becton led his men in a spirited charge up the hill. Despite being hit by enemy fire, Lt. Becton ignored the pain and encouraged his men onward. His platoon plowed ahead, killing and wounding many enemy troops, and forcing them to withdraw.
The other platoons from Company L assigned to back up Lt. Becton’s charge had been pinned down by heavy fire coming from a nearby ridge, and were unable to move forward. Despite being cut off from the remainder of his company, Becton urged his men forward, inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy. Upon reaching a position with favorable terrain, he stopped and skillfully deployed his troops to form a defensive perimeter.
For the next ten hours, Becton and his men defended their position, repelling several enemy attempts to overrun their small force. Becton was wounded three additional times during the fight, but refused to give in and stubbornly held his ground. That night, under the cover of darkness, Becton was able to lead his men back to the main elements of his battalion.
Though the U.N. forces were unable to break out from the Pusan Perimeter that day, Becton’s initiative and skillful leadership prevented the North Koreans from making a counterattack, allowing the 3rd Battalion to occupy an advantageous position from which they would later drive the enemy from the entire area.
Julius Becton would receive the Silver Star for his heroism on that day and after a short time in the hospital recovering from his wounds, he rejoined his regiment, becoming Executive Officer for Company I. Through the years he would continue to be promoted, and in August of 1972 he became only the sixth African American to attain the rank of Brigadier General in the United States Army.
General Becton would hold several distinguished commands, and in civilian life has served as Director of FEMA, President of Prairie View A&M University, and Superintendent of Washington DC public schools. He was a pioneer whose service helped prove that in the United States military, it is a man’s character and ability that count. Sixty years after Truman’s Executive Order 9981, we all owe him, and his comrades, a debt of gratitude. For his outstanding service in the Korean War and the decades since, the American Veterans Center is proud to award Lt. General Julius W. Becton Jr. the Raymond G. Davis Award.