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.
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
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.