The following story is based on an oral history interview with educator and Korean War veteran Edward Theodore Taylor (1932 – 2020). Oral historian Kelly E. Navies conducted the interview on July 18, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. The interview is part of the Donor Oral History Collection at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Museum specialist Tulani Salahu-Din collected the photograph that is the subject of this story. Edward Theodore Taylor is her father.

The chattering crowd shuffles along the corridor leading to the military history gallery. Opening Day at the National Museum of African American History and Culture finds me and other excited visitors gathered near the military gallery entrance. Our eager eyes are glued to a silent, silver screen mounted high on the wall. Beneath the screen a label reads “Faces of Those Who Served.” Among the black and white photographs fading in and out of the slideshow is my own face—a young man in an army uniform, the name “Taylor” scrawled in black ink across the front of my insulated cap. My countenance bears the weight of a nineteen-year-old, who has just fought for nine months and twenty-three days in a frigid place we soldiers called “Hell.”

My image gradually fades from the screen, and I move to the extreme margin of the crowd. I stand in front of a Korean War display of medals and a folded American flag, and my mind wanders back to the day of my return from Korea and my long-awaited journey home to rural Wetipquin on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

The troop transport ship, the S. S. Mitchell, glides silently across a calm Pacific Ocean. The vessel carries me and five thousand other weary survivors newly paroled from Hell. A heavy fog that blankets the ship finally lifts and standing in all its grandeur before our eyes is the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge. We disembark into the noisy hustle and bustle of San Francisco, and still decorated in our army uniforms, we all disperse to our duty stations around the country. I heave my heavy duffel bag across my shoulder and soon board a PanAm jet to Fort Meade, Maryland, only a three-hour drive from home. A Trailways bus shuttles me 125 more miles.

Medal of Honor bestowed on Sergeant Cornelius H. Charlton. 1952.

Medal of Honor bestowed on Sergeant Cornelius H. Charlton. 1952.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Ray R. and Patricia A.D. Charlton in memory of Cornelius H. Charlton

Only a few stern white faces stare at me when I plop into one of the vacant front seats on the  bus and place my duffel bag at my feet. The air outside is thick and warm, so the air conditioned bus brings rapid relief. But before I settle comfortably into my seat, the white bus driver hovers fretfully over me, commanding me to get up.

“You can’t sit there, boy!”

I stare back at the infuriated pale face. No one has called me “boy” in over two years. Aggravation and anger overwhelm me, and only control of my temper prevents me from seizing his thick neck with my bare combat hands. As commanded, I get up. My eyes shut tight, I whisper the mantra, “I’m going home, I’m going home.” I snatch my duffel bag and find a seat in the rear of the bus.

The sturdy bus rolls onto the huge ferry boat that crosses the Chesapeake Bay and brings me within two hours of Wetipquin. I get off the bus, stand near the bow of the boat, lean on the steel rail, and stare into the gentle, ruffling waves of the murky Bay. My anger turns to tears that stream down my face, and visions of the war-torn battlefield emerge.

We are positioned on the frontline, black and white huddled together in bunkers and trenches, dodging the whistling shells grazing our heads. Rolling down the hill with roaring engines are three large, ten-wheel trucks loaded with dead bodies dripping with blood—corpses of the enemy bound for burial in mass graves. I step over the dead bodies of our own troops, black and white, before they are tagged and placed in body bags. Our medic’s head is blown off as he races with me to get ammunition to the frontline. The blazing rapidity of machine gun fire prevails as I shoot to death twenty enemy soldiers sneaking toward me on their bellies in overgrown grass. Ingrained too are the grunts and groans of hundreds of enemy troops we stave off in hand-to- hand combat that lasted almost until daybreak. The general pins two bronze stars to my lapel for my valor in these two battles.

I release my grip of the ferry boat rail, and my warm tears flow on. Then, piece by piece, I rip the two bronze stars and other insignia from my uniform and toss them into the dark water. The weakening nausea of humiliation and degradation and the belittling betrayal by my country are horrible! An overwhelming urge to jump into the Bay and end my life thankfully subsides.

Purple Heart medal bestowed on Sergeant Cornelius H. Charlton. 1952.

Purple Heart medal bestowed on Sergeant Cornelius H. Charlton. 1952.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Ray R. and Patricia A.D. Charlton in memory of Cornelius H. Charlton

The hum of the ferry boat engine is overshadowed by the deep voice of a stranger—another man in army uniform, a white man who has placed his arm on my shoulder.

“I saw what happened back there sergeant. I saw the whole thing, and I don’t blame you. You should throw them all away, but you’re only hurting yourself.”

Then he walks away as easily as he had approached me.

Purged by my tears, I stand quiet now and as calm as the waters of the expansive Bay. I reach into my shirt pocket and retrieve a black and white photograph of me taken in Inchon, just twenty-two days prior to leaving Korea. The cold, stark reality of war shows in the sadness on my face. Instead of throwing it overboard, I return the photograph to my pocket and mount the bus. Duffel bag firmly across my lap, I settle back into my seat at the rear of the bus. We reach the banks of Maryland’s agricultural shore, and Route 50 East guides us along the sobering terrain of bean fields and towering loblolly pines that assure me I am safely home.

Leaving the medal and folded flag display, I return to the slideshow, where the crowd has now dispersed. I take one final glimpse at my image on the screen. Sixty-five years ago on the bow of the ferry boat, I could never have imagined offering my photograph for display in the Smithsonian. 

Exiting the gallery, I reflect on the 600,000+ African Americans who served in Korea and on those who received medals for their valor in this nation’s first desegregated war. I then celebrate in my mind my six decades of engagement in civil rights and public education that followed my return home from Korea. I learned the hard way that service in the U. S. military did not guarantee an African American full citizenship, that the struggle for respect and equality had to be fought on numerous other fronts, and that this battle would remain ongoing. But with the inclusion of my photograph in the military gallery and the story it represents, this valuable lesson is more easily learned through an engaging tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture rather than through the heart-wrenching humiliation of still being relegated by law to the back of the bus.

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