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Hyman Yates Chase

Throughout his life, Hyman Y. Chase was a man of great intellectual stature who liked to remind mere mortals, in a booming voice, that he had a PhD from Leland J. Stanford University. In 1936, at the age of 34, he was appointed Chairman of Howard University’s Zoology Department, which was financed by the Julius Rosenwald Fund.

Chase was undoubtedly a brilliant academic, but by 1939, he was getting restless in the winds of war. Thanks to supporters like Eleanor Roosevelt, blacks were going to play a larger part in this war, and would no longer be relegated to the roles of truck-drivers and cooks. Talk of a black infantry regiment forming at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, stirred Chase to action. He left his job at Howard and entered active military service in 1940. His education earned him an officer’s rank and made him one of the first black commanding officers.

It was a tough road ahead. Chase’s first regiment was delayed at port in Virginia because the state government would not tolerate a large battalion of armed blacks in one of its ports. Chase endured this indignity, and the 366th Infantry Division was eventually deployed to North Africa. Chase’s unit ended up in Italy, where they were cut down by German fire on the Po River. Later, during occupation duty in Germany, Chase helped to mastermind the brilliant logistical plan to airlift supplies to the embattled city of Berlin, which had been blockaded by Soviet forces.

Throughout the war, charges of cowardice were made against black soldiers. Chase saw first-hand that the white officers assigned to black units were substandard, and believed that the real issue was poor leadership. (In the 1990s, Medals of Honor were awarded to seven black soldiers who served in the units that had been so harshly criticized during the war.) He knew that, in the future, it would be necessary to include well-trained black officers in the officer corp. By the time the war ended, Chase was motivated by a fury that only a man of his intelligence could focus and control. His fiery attitude angered many white officers, and he was forced to defend himself against charges that were intended to ruin his career.

In 1950, the Korean War erupted. Though the Truman administration had issued an executive order to integrate the armed services, a few segregated units still remained, and Chase was assigned to one of the last all-black fighting battalions. General Julius Becton was among his young officers. Stories of Chase’s efforts to toughen the battalion for war are near-legendary, suggesting that he meant to drive them to the very brink of sanity to test their mettle. Though not everyone approved of his means, Chase achieved his goal and produced a tough fighting unit.

Just before the battalion set off for Korea, Chase – who was nearing fifty years old, and was perhaps past his fighting prime – was reassigned to Prairie View A&M University in Waller County, Texas, where he would be the head of the ROTC program. Chase was not a happy man when he arrived, and he was feared by everyone at the university – students, faculty and administration. By the time he left the university four years later, Prairie View had developed a tradition of producing well-equipped black officers – some of whom gave their lives in Korea.

Chase served for several years as the Professor of Military Science and Tactics at Howard University, before he passed away in 1983. By then, most of his infamous exploits, manner and accomplishments had been forgotten by most of the world. But his former cadets and soldiers remember well how he trained them - like a force of nature - and they count themselves lucky to have been shaped by such a leader.

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