Don Nestrud served in an early integrated Army unitIf Don Nestrud had his way he would have stayed home and worked on the St. Croix County farm in the early 1950s, but the powers that be had other ideas.
By: Jon Echternacht, Hudson Star-Observer
If Don Nestrud had his way he would have stayed home and worked on the St. Croix County farm in the early 1950s, but the powers that be had other ideas.
Nestrud was drafted into the Army during the Korean War and wound up at Camp Chaffee, Ark., in 1953 as part of an integrated unit with the Fifth Armored Division. His outfit was sent to Stuttgart, Germany, where he served 17 months before returning to the States.
“I grew up on the farm,” he said during a recent conversation in his Burkhardt home. “I had only seen black people two times in my life.”
President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order on July 26, 1948, calling for equal treatment and opportunity for black servicemen, a move that officially integrated the U.S. Army.
Nestrud said one-third of Company A, Medium Tank Battalion in boot camp at Camp Chaffee included black soldiers. “They took black soldiers from the Deep South and put them together with farm kids from Minnesota and Wisconsin,” he said.
A check of the boot camp roster for Company A shows a cross section of the country including soldiers from Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, men from rural towns in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa and several from urban areas such as Chicago, Kansas City and St. Louis.
Reflecting back over more than five decades, Nestrud said that the integrated company didn’t have any more or any less conflicts than a unit that wasn’t racially mixed. There was the normal amount of scuffles akin to any Army unit that included multiple personalities living together.
He remembered one in particular between a 6-foot-4, 245-pound white farm kid from Minnesota and a black soldier of about the same size. “They squared off in the middle of the company street with white soldiers on one side and black on the other.” Nestrud said.
He didn’t say who won the fight, but after the altercation, he said everything went back to normal.
Nestrud, who said he stood 5-foot-5 and weighed 145 pounds in his prime, has a boot camp photo of an equally sized friend, Don Remrey, standing under the outstretched arms of the 6-foot-4 Tom Musser.
Nestrud said that a lot of the black troops went to Korea out of boot camp and he thinks that had to do with a re-enlistment pitch.
“Toward the end of boot camp, they offered more money to soldiers who would extend their time from two years to six years,” he said. “A lot of the black soldiers took up the offer and with more time to serve were sent to Korea.”
Reflecting on the experience of the Army’s early days of official integration, Nestrud said, “It wasn’t bad. We didn’t know much about the blacks and they didn’t know much about whites.”
He served as a jeep driver in Germany for a captain and a colonel. When he got a 30-day leave, he put it to good use.
“I traveled to Denmark, Norway, Sweden, France and Holland,” Nestrud said.
He said devastation of World War II was still apparent throughout Germany. As a man close to the land, he noticed some old farming techniques still in effect in Europe.
“They used a lot of animal power. They had oxen on the farms and once I saw an ox and a horse harnessed together,” Nestrud said.
He returned from Germany and served a short time at an Army base in Illinois before he was discharged with about 22 and one-half months of active service.
Nestrud worked for Armour and Co. in South St. Paul for 26 years while working a farm with his wife of 52 years, Virginia. In 1964 he bought the 100 acres where he currently resides and his two sons, Dave and Jamie, maintain 30-35 head of beef cattle on the property.
Editor’s note: The long road to desegregation in the country that led to the election of the first African-American president, Barack Obama, last November was built on a number of significant steps, not the least of which was President Harry Truman’s executive order to integrate the armed forces.
Establishing the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity In the Armed Forces.
WHEREAS it is essential that there be maintained in the armed services of the United States the highest standards of democracy, with equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve in our country’s defense:
NOW THEREFORE, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, by the Constitution and the statutes of the United States, and as Commander in Chief of the armed services, it is hereby ordered as follows:
1. It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale.
2. There shall be created in the National Military Establishment an advisory committee to be known as the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, which shall be composed of seven members to be designated by the President.
3. The Committee is authorized on behalf of the President to examine into the rules, procedures and practices of the Armed Services in order to determine in what respect such rules, procedures and practices may be altered or improved with a view to carrying out the policy of this order. The Committee shall confer and advise the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Army, the Secretary of the Navy, and the Secretary of the Air Force, and shall make such recommendations to the President and to said Secretaries as in the judgment of the Committee will effectuate the policy hereof.
4. All executive departments and agencies of the Federal Government are authorized and directed to cooperate with the Committee in its work, and to furnish the Committee such information or the services of such persons as the Committee may require in the performance of its duties.
5. When requested by the Committee to do so, persons in the armed services or in any of the executive departments and agencies of the Federal Government shall testify before the Committee and shall make available for use of the Committee such documents and other information as the Committee may require.
6. The Committee shall continue to exist until such time as the President shall terminate its existence by Executive order.
Harry Truman, The White House
July 26, 1948
Source: Harry S. Truman Library and Museum at www.trumanlibrary.org.