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Interview with Ira T. Neal [2002]

Larry Ordner:

-- 14th, 2002, with Ira T. Neal. Birth date 11/14/1931. Mr. Neal resides at 329 Holly Hill Drive, Evansville, Indiana. He is a native of Memphis, Tennessee. Served in the United States Army the 24th --

Ira T. Neal:

Infantry Regiment --

Larry Ordner:

-- Infantry Regiment --

Ira T. Neal:

-- 25th Division.

Larry Ordner:

-- 25th Division. His highest rank obtained was sergeant first class. He enlisted in December 1947, and -- at the age of 17. And he'll be talking primarily of his experiences in the Korean Conflict. Mr. Neal, would you just start the discussion by -- by saying what made you enlist and -- and -- and at what age and where do you go to enlist here?

Ira T. Neal:

Well, actually, I enlisted in 1947. And for those folk who don't know, the services were segregated. They would only take 10 percent black in each branch of the service. And I enlisted initially and attempted to join the Air Force. I left Memphis, my home. We went to Biloxi, Mississippi, the Keesler Air Force Base. And once we got down there there were a large number of black guys that went. So the Air Force had their quota of black troops. So they gave us an opportunity to go home or join the Army. And we left Keesler Air Force Base in December -- around December 28, 29, of 1947, and went to Fort Dix, New Jersey, and joined the Army. It was kind of like going from heaven to hell 'cause Mississippi, right on the Gulf Coast, you know, that whole bit. Went to New Jersey with tons and tons of snow, you know, in the -- kind of in the middle of the winter kind of thing. And that was kind of heinous. I joined the service primarily because other people were doing it, other guys. We were dropping out. I was a high school drop out. There wasn't a lot for a black kid to do at that day and time in the South where I grew up at. No jobs. I wasn't interested very much in staying in school if I had a chance to go in the military and so I begged my mom to sign the papers and let me go. And she did. That's kind of how it all got started.

Larry Ordner:

But explain that age, at 17.

Ira T. Neal:

Actually, I was 16. But I -- my mother -- I put my age up and I got my mother to sign the papers and say I was 17.

Larry Ordner:

What'd your mother say to you at that time about that?

Ira T. Neal:

Well, I think my mother was kind of glad in a sense because I was able to help provide support for the family. You got 75 dollars a month for pay in the service, and I sent 40 dollars of that home. My mother had eight kids. My father had passed away. There were nine of us living in a three-room-shot-gun house in Memphis, Tennessee. We were on welfare. One of my brothers was working at a little job at a place called Hickory Tamales (ph). If I'm not mistaken he's making 15 to 16 dollars a week or something like that. There was another opportunity to help with the family and help support the family and that sort of stuff. Actually, in the 40 dollars that I sent home I sent 20 dollars to my mom and I sent 20 dollars to my sister who was attending Le Moyne College -- it's Le Moyne-Owen now, then it was just Le Moyne College -- to try to help her through school. And I had, you know, three hots and a cot. And that was pretty important. And there were a lot of young black men doing that. It wasn't just me. I mean, lots of kids I know dropped out of high school and went in the service. I was in the 11th grade. But I'm glad I did that. As I look back on it, it -- it probably was a turning point in my life in many ways.

Larry Ordner:

What was Memphis like for black people at that time? How did that __+ in Memphis translate to what you experienced in the military?

Ira T. Neal:

Well, at least initially, Memphis was segregated. There were schools for blacks, schools for whites. It was the back of the bus. There was water fountains for white, water fountains for colored. We were called colored. There was literally two of everything. I remember even in the service when we were traveling with troops, troop frames, we get to some place and stop the white guys would go to the dining room and the black guys would go to the lunch counter. We didn't mix even in the service then. So I actually left one segregated situation for another. It -- it wasn't as bad, I guess, in the military because in most instances in the units that I was in there was only black troops. If there were white people in the unit they were officers. So I -- and -- and, you know, we pretty much stayed to ourselves, didn't venture out. It was a way of life. And at that particular time there wasn't a whole lot of people challenging the system. Even in the military there weren't a lot. And so it's just the way things were.

Larry Ordner:

So as a kid from Memphis you ended up in New Jersey?

Ira T. Neal:

Yes.

Larry Ordner:

Is that where you took basic?

Ira T. Neal:

I took basic training in Fort Dix, New Jersey. Thirteen weeks of basic and then left Fort Dix.

Larry Ordner:

What was -- what was basic training like for you? How rigorous was it for you?

Ira T. Neal:

I guess in many ways I joined it was kind of a macho thing, you know. The only thing that really got to me was the weather. It was, you know, because we're in Jan -- December I joined. My -- I think my actual enlistment date in the Army was December 30, which meant that I was taking basic training January, February, March. Right in the middle of the winter. And so we spent a lot of time, of course, outdoors. A lot of, you know, snow and ice and ...

Larry Ordner:

I'm sure that was cold and -- that you had never experienced in your life before.

Ira T. Neal:

Extremely. Extremely cold and a lot of -- a lot of miserable days, you know, out in the cold out on the fire range, whatever jobs we were doing. But we managed to survive. And we spent 13 weeks at basic at Fort Dix. And I got a leave and I went home for a few days, and then went to Japan. And I actually got -- went to Japan about April of '48, and I stayed there until -- Japan until June of 1950. The Korean War started the 25th of June. I came back to the States on the 5th of June of 1950. I was -- had -- still had enlistment to do. My enlistment was on -- because I enlisted for three years. In the meantime, after the Korean War started President Truman extended everybody's time one year. We commonly referred to it as the "Truman Year". And we were extended one year and I decided then to reenlist. And so I reenlisted for six years and that's how I wound up going to 1957. The one thing that, I guess, I would like to share, I have a doctorate. In fact, I have two doctorates. One I earned and one I was given an honorary, but that whole educationary thing kind of got started in the military. When I was in Japan, during that period of '48 to 1950, the military started a Career Ladders Program. In order to be promoted you had to have a high school diploma or GED or something of the sort. And so I took the GED test in Yokohama, Japan, probably in 1949, somewhere in there. Got my GED. Of course, then, after I got out I actually wound up with a high school diploma because I took my GED scores to the Memphis Board of Education and they gave me a high school diploma as of 1950 when I came back from Japan. And, of course, when I got out of the Army after having served in Korea and all of that stuff I was eligible for the GI Bill. And so I took that GI Bill and I went to school. And really had about completed my master's program before I ran out of GI Bill money. So that's kind of how it all got going.

Larry Ordner:

Well, while you are talking about education, where did you earn your doctorate?

Ira T. Neal:

I went and I got my doctorate from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. And then a couple of years ago the University of Southern Indiana gave me an honorary Doctor of Laws Degree, which was quite an honor. But I initially started the doctoral program at IU and then I dropped out. And then after about 20 years I guess I decided I needed to get this done, I mean, so I enrolled at the Nova Southeastern University.

Larry Ordner:

Tell me about some of your experiences while you were in the military.

Ira T. Neal:

Well, that was -- the military really, as I said before, in many ways until they desegregated the services wasn't very much different from being in the -- in the South. I mean, because the -- I mean, the two didn't mix. There were the separation of races. The only thing that was in the black units they did have white officers. But we were in separate camps. The one thing that I thought about in Japan, and I shared this with somebody the other day, that being in Japan, in Yokohama, Japan, was just like being here in the United States. I mean, by that I mean most of the black troops -- and again, we were probably still being called colored or negro back then -- were located, like, center city, inner city. Most of the white troops were in the suburbs. And I think that's largely because even though I was in a combat unit, an anti-aircraft unit, there were lots of black troops over there who were on quartermaster and transportation and all that stuff. So you were down at the port unloading ships and trucking and all that kind of stuff. They called that sweat battalions because that's what you did, you worked. And so there was a lot of that. And in many ways it was like that because in Yokohama, in that inner-city area, black man was king. I would go to the truck yard to get a -- just the exact opposite in terms of reception. Because Tokyo was mostly white troops. And I'm sure that a lot of those innuendos and names and stuff that were being used back were the same there. So I was never very comfortable in the Tokyo area or outside of, say, downtown Yokohama. But in Yokohama black man was king. Down there in the city we had all the clubs, all the women, all the whatever we wanted we had it right there. A lot of guys reenlisted because they wanted to go back. In fact, when I reenlisted I said send me back to Japan. I was a young buck, you know. But I never made it back. But that was kind of like it was. And then once the services desegregated -- actually, for my unit, the 24th Infantry Regiment, it occurred during the time I was in Korea.

Ira T. Neal:

Philip Randolph, whom a lot of people don't know much about -- and everybody talks about the march on Washington and Martin Luther King. Well,

Ira T. Neal:

Philip Randolph threatened to march on Washington in 1941, because blacks were not allowed to work in the defense industry and the services were segregated. And in an effort to break all of that up he threatened President Roosevelt to -- to have a march on Washington and do that. But nothing really happened until President Truman became president. President Truman issued an executive order desegregating the armed services in 1948. And it was kind of what we call benign neglect. It was on the books, but nobody pushed it, you know. But for some reason or other in 1950, in October of 1950, apparently he said enough's enough. I want it done and done now. And my unit, which was on line in Korean, was brought to the rear. And in three days we didn't exist. Everybody who had at least six months of combat time was sent back to the States. And that's how I wound up over here at Morganfield, Kentucky, with the 101st Airborne Division. That's what used to be Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky. It's now the Earle C. Clements Job Corps Center. But at that time it was the 101st Airborne Division was there. We were doing basic training. And I came from Korea to that unit over there. But that's when it all happened. And I guess I don't remember the exact date, but prior to that particular time I didn't smoke. And as -- in celebration of my going home I lit up a cigarette and I smoked for 40 years after that. But I don't do that anymore. I quit that quite a while ago. But in October of 1950 was when they desegregated my unit. Those fellows who were in Korea who had not been there six months was reassigned to other units. Folk who had been there six months or longer were sent back to the States and those units were no longer -- the 24th Infantry Regiment only exists in the record books anymore. It was completely disbanded. I don't know who took our place in the 25th Division. Divisions have three regiments. We had the 27th, the 35th, and the 24th Regiments made up the 25th Division. So I don't know -- I don't even know whether the 25th Division still exists. I -- I just don't know. But that was kind of how it happened.

Larry Ordner:

Can you be a little more specific about some of the -- some of the encounters you had while you were in the military, particularly in Korea?

Ira T. Neal:

Well, for -- for me, Korea was not as eventful as it may have been for some other troops because I was blessed in some ways even after joining the 24th Regiment. I only spent a few weeks in a rifle company. You understand the make-up of the military? There are three rifle companies in a -- in a -- in a -- in a unit and three rifle companies in a regiment and then there's a weapons company. And the weapons company has your -- like your mortars and your -- and your recoilless rifles and all that kind of stuff. So I only -- when initially when I got in Korea, I was in a rifle company. But shortly after that I was transferred to a weapons company and I became an FO, forward observer, for an 81-millimeter mortar platoon. Which meant that I did not experience any hand-to-hand combat or anything at close quarters. Because I was always with the command unit or somebody and I'm up here on a hill somewhere observing the battlefield and calling in mortar fire, you know, rounds of mortar and directly not firing things. Because in a -- in a weapons company for that you have what is called a fire direction center. And the FO, you know, tells these people, like, what the range is, how far they need to fire, and then it -- you adjust up or down, right or left, you know, until you're on the target. And that's what I did until I came home. And that's quite different from being in a rifle company. The one thing that I -- I guess that I remember about it I got pretty good at my job, so it meant that a lot of times when people were going out on patrol, when the rifle platoons were going on a patrol, a lot of times they would request my services. I didn't appreciate that too much. Because even though I wasn't, you know, down there in the trenches with the guys who were, you know, I was still going out on a pretty regular basis. Because if -- if -- if one company was sending out a patrol they needed, you know, cover, they would request an FO from the weapons company back there. And a lot of times I got those assignments. I guess on the one hand it was, you know, kind of an honor. People respected your work and that sort of thing. But on the other hand you were exposed to whatever happens when you're out there more often. But, you know, as I said before I was blessed, you know, because I could have been in a rifle company and, you know, a lot ... And so much of what I saw in the combat area was saw from afar, you know. I was not there in the -- when folk was engaged in the up-close stuff. So that's kind of what my experience was like.

Larry Ordner:

How well apprised were you of the progress of the Conflict?

Ira T. Neal:

By what?

Larry Ordner:

By the progress of the Conflict? How well -- how well apprised were you of that?

Ira T. Neal:

I don't know that a lot of information was shared with us about that, you know. I don't recall. You've got to remember that's been a long time ago. Now that's, you know, 50 years ago. Fifty plus years ago.

Larry Ordner:

When they -- I know there was probably so much talk of a truce and a truce never came. Do you recall where you were when that Conflict ended?

Ira T. Neal:

Oh, I was back in the States.

Larry Ordner:

You were in the States?

Ira T. Neal:

Yeah.

Larry Ordner:

Okay.

Ira T. Neal:

See the -- the war -- I don't remember now exactly when the war was over, but it started in 1950. I didn't go to Korea until 1951. And I came home. I was only there, like, six months. And I came home in October '51. So, you know, I didn't -- I didn't see a whole lot of that. When it -- when it was over, I was back in the States, maybe in Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

Larry Ordner:

How do you think you changed from that -- that young boy that enlisted from the time you came back home?

Ira T. Neal:

I credit the military with whatever it is I've been able to achieve especially in terms of my education. I left Memphis as a high school drop out. I came from a very poor family. I didn't start out that way. My dad lost his business and stuff in the depression and we kind of hit rock bottom. But we were nine of us in a three-room house, you know. No outdoor plumbing, you know, no electricity, none of that stuff. Then I went into the Army where I had, as I said before, three hots and a cot, I had a little money, I got to see the world or a good portion or it or some of it anyway. But the most important thing, it provided me with the resources I needed to go to school. And fortunately for me -- and let me tell you something, things work out. When I got out of the Army I had met this girl, my wife, my current wife, while I was over here at Morganfield. And we got married. And when I got out of the Army I came back here to Evansville. As opposed to going back to Memphis, I came back to Evansville. I got -- I got out in December. And about the only place here at that particular time where you could really get a good job was at Chrysler. Chrysler had a plant here assembling cars. And I finally got hired at Chrysler in January of '57. And in the meantime I decided I was going to try school again. My wife was a first year teacher -- second year teacher by then or maybe a third year teacher by then. But anyway, I decided I was going to try school. So I enrolled at the University of Evansville. It was Evansville College back in the day. And shortly after I enrolled in school Chrysler laid me off. I enrolled in school in June, Chrysler laid me off in July. So the GI Bill became my main source of income. I -- from that point until I graduated from college I bussed dishes at a place called Wicks (ph). It was a restaurant at 41 and Maxwell Avenue back then. It was a pretty popular restaurant. But I bussed dishes for a buck and a half an hour. Normal busboys only got eighty an hour, so but this guy paid me a buck and a half. And a many a night when I would work particularly it was extremely busy he would always shake my hand when I would leave and there may be 5 dollars in his hand or 10 dollars or something like that. The man's name was Zerno (ph). But anyway, so the GI Bill became an important source of income for me. It forced me to go to school in a sense because in order to get the money I had to go to school. In order to get the money, also, I had to matriculate, I had to pass. And so I did it. And that -- that's a -- was a big step. And immediately after I graduated from undergraduate school I enrolled in the master's program at IU. But after the first semester -- I don't know if I even completed the first semester -- I was just kind of burned out. So I took a year off and then I enrolled in the graduate program again using the GI Bill. I didn't finish the graduate program before I ran out of money for the GI Bill. But, you know, it -- and the process of going to school and achieving those goals changed my perception of myself in terms of my ability. You know what I mean? I mean, if you haven't done it, you don't know that you can do it. Bot once you do it then it's kind of like well, gee, what's the next step. And that's kind of the way it was. And, of course, it wound up I got a teaching job here. I took a job in Milwaukee and was going to go to Milwaukee. That was kind of my game plan all along. But then, late that summer after I graduated, they offered me a job here. My wife was already teaching here and so I just decided to stay. And I did. And the rest is, as they say, is kind of history.

Larry Ordner:

So you've had a long career as a __?

Ira T. Neal:

I've been here with the school district in some capacity for 40 years. I've been connected with the University of Southern Indiana for 27 of those 40 years. I've achieved the highest rank of any black person within the system. I was the director when I retired from full-time employment. No other minority person had ever been that high on the totem pole.

Larry Ordner:

What was your task before you retired? What was your responsibility?

Ira T. Neal:

I was director of state, federal student programs. Probably, I don't know now how many, but maybe 20 programs, different programs, or probably six, seven, eight million dollars worth of stuff that I was kind of overseeing. I didn't have hands-on stuff with everything, but I had over site of those programs because they had other people working them. I did a lot of grant writing and stuff like that. So as far as I'm concerned it's been a nice ride. I've been blessed.

Larry Ordner:

Then the military, in some ways, it helped a lot?

Ira T. Neal:

If it hadn't been for the military -- 'cause see, when I left home my idea was I'm going to go do 20 years in this man's Army and I'm going to chill out the rest of the way. But once I got that GED, that helped me in terms of the military. 'Cause then I was promotable. I didn't have to do KP and walk guard and all that stuff. I could be corporal of the guard shift. That opened up some avenues, as well. Fortunately enough for me I had a decent IQ and I did well on the Army General Classification Test, they call it AGCT, so I was able to go to some other schools. And so my final school in the military was I went to the missile school at Fort Bliss, Texas, and where they were training on corporate -- Corporal and Nike missiles. And when I left there I went to New Jersey again, but we were on the missile sites that at that time were deployed all around the East Coast. And so the last several years I was in the service I spent it in New Jersey at a small missile site right outside of Paterson, New Jersey. You probably wouldn't even know we were there because we were down behind a lumbar yard. The only way you would know we was there is if one of those missiles were elevated and you'd see it, but other than that you couldn't see what was back there. We stayed at the -- actually, the fire direction center, which you heard me mention before, was in Passaic Lake, New Jersey. And that was maybe around three miles from -- well, maybe not that far but, anyway, from the actual missile site. But they had cut up swamp down through the woods so that the radars could lock in on those missiles. If you were at the fire direction center you could look back down there. You know how if you drive you see the electric poles and stuff across there, it looked like a road had been put there or something, you probably noticed if you were driving around out in the country, you know, where they've got a wire strung across. Well, it's kind of like that. And so I spent the last couple of years I was in the service, '54 to '56, in New Jersey, in various places in New Jersey at missile sites. I was in a place called Fort Hancock, New Jersey. Then I left there and went -- which was -- the town was Highlands, New Jersey, but I was at Fort Hancock. And when I left Fort Hancock I went to this little place called Passaic Lake, New Jersey, which was outside of Paterson. And Fort Hancock was down Asbury Park, Long Branch, down in that area of New Jersey. So then that was nice duty too because you were 25 miles from New York. And back then you could wear a uniform and you could get in baseball games and stuff. I've seen all of the famous Yankee giants and Dodger ball players, you know, back in the day before -- when all three teams were in New York. You could do a lot of television shows and stuff just by wearing a uniform. If you didn't then you could go down to the USO and they would have tickets and you could pick up a ticket. Toward the end of the month when you didn't have any money you just get enough money to buy some gas and pay the toll, go across the bridge and go through the tunnel and you're in New York, and you'd have a nice evening. But, I mean, I was there with Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, all those guys were playing, Jackie Robinson, Campanella, Willie Mays. All that crowd was, you know, when all three teams were in New York City.

Larry Ordner:

Evansville, the __+.

Ira T. Neal:

Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Larry Ordner:

Interesting.

Ira T. Neal:

And I -- in some it was -- it -- and aside from -- but I think just being in the service, being able to travel and that, I got the kind of exposure which helped me get through school. Because I didn't have formal education. And so a lot of what I knew about some things is stuff that I got in the service. I mean, like, when I was in missile school, for example, down at Fort Bliss, you had to make 75 on the exams to keep from having to go to night school. I probably spent the whole time I was down there at night school because I didn't have the math background. You had to make 70 to pass. You had to make 75 to stay out of study hall. I spent a lot of time at study hall because I didn't have a math background really that you needed to be at that missile school. But because there was a practical side where you would assemble and disassemble and all that and you get a grade, my composite scores were good enough for me to pass. But not always good enough for me to stay out of study hall. And plus I had people helping me and people who had much more experience and training exposure and that kind of stuff. But it helped a lot now because the military basically made up for what I lacked in terms of public education. I kind of got the rest of it in the service. And in addition to that, you know, living like you have to live in the service, with a bunch of guys, you learn people skills, how to get along with another. How to mix and mingle, you know, that whole bit. And then to be able to travel, you know, it's -- it's -- if I were able to do it, I would require mandatory military service for all young men post high school. I would do what the Israelis do if it were left up to me. I just see -- because it's an opportunity for young men to earn some money but there's also some discipline they have to gain and some training. And they get just enough freedom to develop on their own. But you learn how to go places, do things, how to mix and how to be a part of all the cultures, you know, when you're in Japan or when you're in Korea or whatever. When I was in Texas, like, I was just across the border from Mexico. So at that particular time in my life I suppose I'd seen all the world's greatest bull fighters right there in Mexico. But that exposure is all a part of growing and developing. So for me it was a great ride. I wouldn't exchange it for anything.

 
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