First organized in 1937, the unit that became the 1279th Combat Engineer Battalion was the Michigan National Guard's only all-African-American organization. The 1279th saw service in the South Pacific during World War II, including the Philippines, Solomon Islands, and Luzon. The 1279th Combat Engineer Battalion was one of the state's African-American units to serve with distinction during that war. Unlike other Michigan African-American units, though, the 1279th was led by African-American officers. And, despite the 1948 Executive Order issued by President Harry S. Truman, the battalion remained segregated. Following World War II, the unit was redesignated as the 1279th Combat Engineer Battalion.
Korean War Service
In June 1950, the world was well on its way to recovering from the devastation of World War II. Europe, Japan, the Philippines and many other countries were consumed with rebuilding their lives, homes, farms, businesses and landmarks laid to waste during five years of unimaginable destruction. Americans, from all walks of life, were intent on putting the horrors of war in the past and looked to the future with great optimism and hope. The GI Bill, Marshall Plan, United Nations and North Atlantic Treaty Organization ushered in the second half of the twentieth century with all the promise for peace and prosperity America longed for.
But our nation's dream for world cooperation and stability was once again, abruptly shattered. On June 25, 1950, communist North Korea invaded its democratic neighbor, South Korea. The news was greeted with utter disbelief.
In the few short years after World War II, Russia and the United States made the inevitable transition from allies to adversaries. Many military and political strategists feared that North Korea's attack on the South was part of a global communist plot. The objective of the attack, they reasoned, was to lure U.S. military resources away from a crippled Europe, and mount a swift offensive through the continent, that would be met with little or no resistance.
Responding to the communist aggression, on June 27, President Harry Truman ordered U.S. forces to assist United Nations forces repel the invasion, and put General Douglas MacArthur in command. With America's armed forces committed to the hostilities, a familiar call to arms was issued to marshal troops. Defense industries comprising the world's undisputed "arsenal of democracy" were again asked to provide our soldiers with the technology and weaponry to achieve overwhelming victory.
All across America, national guard units and young men were being recruited to meet the growing needs of commanders in Korea. On July 29th, the Adjutant General of Michigan, Brigadier General George Moran, received orders to activate a relatively new unit in Detroit, the 1279th Combat Engineers, commanded by World War II hero, Lieutenant Colonel Felix McDavid. In three short weeks, nearly five hundred members of the proud unit stationed in an old, dilapidated building called Roosevelt, would find themselves on their way to Fort Lewis, Washington to begin their pre-deployment training, prior to shipping out for service in Korea.
The members of the 1279th didn't have much time to put their affairs at home in order before they found themselves saying good-bye to loved ones at the Fort Street train station. This emotional trip and departure would only mark the beginning of many more uncertain and challenging experiences the unit would face as they set out to defend freedom and nobly serve their country.
Training at Fort Lewis was often demanding. Preparing for the tests of combat was a serious matter and the members of the unit soon established excellence as the only acceptable standard. Spit and polish was always the order of the day and 1279th members were readily recognized for their attention to detail and exceptional appearance.
In striking contrast to their characteristic "by the book" training regime, one afternoon, the 1279th found themselves center stage in an incident that likely remains unrivaled to this day. During the execution of an unusually large demolitions charge, an unexpected crater was created that changed the topography of Fort Lewis and rattled windows as far away as Tacoma. The isolated occurrence didn't cause any damage, but it still offers unit members a powerful reminder of the effectiveness of dynamite.
With their November 15, 1950 embarkation date for Korea quickly approaching, Colonel McDavid asked for an extension of several more weeks to complete the units training. Shortly after the extension was approved, the Army moved quickly to address America's growing concern for an impending Soviet attack in Europe. Suddenly, the 1279th was needed in Germany to repair roads and bridges rendered impassable during World War II. Allied forces needed reliable transportation routes to conduct effective offensive and defensive operations, so the 1279th was reassigned to duty in Europe.
This change in plans was received by unit members with mixed feelings of welcome relief and uncertain fear. While their transfer would certainly take them out of the line of fire in Korea, it may have just postponed their destiny with an even greater threat. But, for the time being, this change in plans gave them longer to prepare and one-third of them received an opportunity to take engineering courses at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. There, they learned to construct bridges, conduct reconnaissance and received more demolitions training.
The unit members remaining at Fort Lewis also continued their demolitions training, as well as delaying tactics, weapons qualification, and defensive operations. At the conclusion of their 27 week pre-deployment cycle, General J. Lawton Collins, Chief of Staff of the Army, inspected the 1279th and certified them ready to join America's forces preparing for the defense of Europe.
In late June, 1951, members of the 1279th Combat Engineer Battalion boarded the SS General William Darby for their transatlantic trip to Bremerhaven, Germany. Upon arrival at the seaport, the unit was assigned to the U.S. Seventh Army.
Seventh Army stationed the 1279th at a renovated McNair kaserne near Hoechst, Germany. From this location, the unit would perform its mission to prepare for a rear guard action, in anticipation of a Soviet attack, through the Fulda Gap.
The unit assumed its mission with uncompromising purpose. Throughout its area of operations, unit members constructed timber trestle, bailey and pontoon bridges with speed and efficiency that earned them incomparable honors and recognition. One distinguished mission accomplishment stands to this day. While on assignment to cross a particularly treacherous stretch of the Rhine River, unit members erected a pontoon bridge over the span, faster, better and safer than any unit before or since.
When the members of the unit weren't building their bridges, or getting some well deserved rest and relaxation, they were often doing what they could to help the people and children in the local community. For their volunteer service, the mayor of Oberrisenburg presented Colonel McDavid with the key to his city. Before the unit returned stateside, the Duchess of Holland presented the members of the 1279th with national honors and citations.
In 1952, a little more than a year after they set sail for Germany, the 1279th began a protracted period of reassignments and redeployments. Seventh Army was authorized to begin sending selected soldiers stateside, some to other units in Europe and still others remained in Europe until the Korean War truce was declared.
By war's end, the 1279th was reunited for a brief time, but soon had its battalion colors and streamers retired and placed in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. In 1954, the unit was redesignated the 227th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion, a racially integrated unit. The lineage of the 1279th ended with the retirement of 1st Missile Battalion (Nike-Ajax), 177th Artillery in 1974.