Sunday, June 12, 2016

Black Soldiers: Duty, Courage, and Opportunity

DeCostas in the Military

By Miriam DeCosta-Willis

Herbert Alexander DeCosta (1894-1960)
There is no evidence that any DeCosta men participated in the Civil War, Indian War, or Spanish-American War but, in 1917, soon after the United States entered World War I, Herbert Alexander DeCosta (1894-1960) registered for the draft and joined the U. S. Army. In that war, over 350,000 African Americans served in segregated units and most were confined to support units that provided labor and service. Initially, Black combat units fought alongside the French Army, where they performed heroically. The second son of Anna and Benjamin Rhodes DeCosta, Herbert was twenty-three years old, single, and anxious to see the world. After basic training, he was sent to Europe, where he worked as a barber, probably under a French commander, because he learned to speak a little French. During his tour of duty, he lent soldiers money to gamble, charging high rates of interest. As the pay "Sergeant," he didn't have to worry about getting his money back, because he deducted the soldiers' loans from their pay. This way, he accumulated enough cash from lending money and cutting hair to open his own construction company when he returned home after the war ended in November 1918.

                                    Raymond Theodore DeCosta

More than a decade passed before another family member, Herbert's brother, enlisted in the military, and the story of Raymond Theodore DeCosta (1904-1941) is fascinating. (It is a story that I wrote about in an essay “Living 'On the Other Side'.”) The best looking of Anna and Benjamin's seven sons, Raymond joined the Marines in June 1931, but the first African Americans were not accepted into that military branch until April 22, 1943.* Until then, they served in all-Black segregated units. I wondered how on earth Raymond accomplished that legerdemain. Well, I found out that, after moving to Brooklyn in the 1920s, he changed his first name and passed as a Latino, so he's listed in military records as Private First Class Ramón T. DeCosta, 303rd Company, 1st Battalion, 19th Marines. In June 1932, he was promoted to the rank of Corporal, Company "A" (413th), 19th Reserve Marines. His photo album includes many images of White military men—with Raymond, on occasion—attired in brown fatigues or dress uniforms, marching, holding rifles, or posing in front of barracks, outside of tents, and on horseback. Stamped on the back of one photo are the words “—Shop.—Quantico, Va.,” a reference to the U. S. Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia. When I mentioned his military service, his niece Anna Hunter laughed, “He was just pretending. Raymond was never in the Marines,” but her brother, Charles William DeCosta, says he remembers his mother Gertie (Gertrude DeCosta) taking him to visit Raymond at Quantico when he was a youngster. Ramón had the last laugh on the U. S. Marines, because my uncle was also a closeted gay man at a time when there was discrimination against homosexuals, as well as Blacks, by the U. S. military.

Laler Cook DeCosta (1917-1980)

Several of Anna and Benjamin's grandsons were eligible for the draft when the United States entered World War II in December 1941. Laler Cook DeCosta (1917-1980) was born to Gertrude and Benjamin Robert DeCosta, Jr. When he was drafted, Laler was twenty-five, had a degree from S. C. State College, and had married Geraldine H.

Stevenson in 1940. He joined the U. S. Army at Fort Jackson, S. C. on Oct. 23, 1942. According to his service record, he was a Private, married, had completed four years of college, worked as a teacher, was 5' 9” tall, and weighed 179 lbs. With a B. S. degree, he was soon promoted to Lieutenant, served valiantly in Italy as a Captain, and was honorably discharged  as a Major when the war ended in 1946.

Charles William DeCosta


Other DeCosta cousins served in what has been called the “Good War,” World War II, but they were in different branches of the military: the Air Force, Navy, and Army. Laler's younger brother, Charles William DeCosta (1923-2014), volunteered for the U. S. Army Air Corps (now the Air Force) in 1942, and served until the war ended in 1945. When he enlisted, he was promised enrollment in officer’s candidate school because he had completed a year of college, but the Air Corps reneged and he served as Private First Class.

According to his son Steven, Charles was trained as an aircraft radio operator and gunner, who later installed and adjusted radios in B-24 and B-17 bombers, as well as fighter planes, and tested them in flight. He was not deployed overseas, however, perhaps because the Air Corps did not have racially integrated crews. He and his brother Laler were both in the military and wore their uniforms when Charles married Carmen in Brooklyn in 1944.


Herbert U. Seabrook, Jr. (1925-1970)

Herbert U. Seabrook, Jr. (1925-1970), the son of Miriam DeCosta Seabrook and Dr. Herbert Seabrook, was in the Navy from 1942 to 1946. Herbert was only seventeen years old and had graduated from Avery Institute and spent two years at Talladega when he was drafted. According to public records, on April 7, 1942, he left Halifax, Nova Scotia for New York aboard the ship George Washington, and, according to the Navy Muster Rolls record, on July 10, 1945, he sailed from Guam to Saipan, two of the Mariana Islands located in the Pacific.

Herbert's first cousin, L. Bennett Caffey (1924-1997), the son of Daisy DeCosta Caffey and L. Bennett Caffey, also fought the Japanese in the Pacific. Drafted at age eighteen on April 12, 1943, Bennett was a Corporal in the U. S. Army during WW II, and he was discharged from Fort Dix on January 17, 1946. He also picked up a bad case of malaria in the Pacific, because he suffered from attacks of the tropical disease when he attended S. C. State in the late 1940s. According to his daughter, Chris, he was always angry about the discrimination that Black soldiers faced in the segregated armed forces and, as a result, refused to look at movies like Gone with the Wind, which romanticized the lives of slaves. At the age of seventeen and eighteen, these young DeCosta men, who had led relatively sheltered lives in Charleston, must have been traumatized by the harsh conditions of war and the racial injustices of life in the United States military.

L. Bennett Caffey (1924-1997)

Because of their military service, the four cousins—Laler, Charles, Herbert, and Bennett—took advantage of the G. I. Bill to complete college and graduate school, which enabled them to advance professionally without assistance from their parents, several of whom were ill, had died, or were adversely affected by the Depression. For example, the parents of Laler and Charles died (Benjamin in 1948 and Gertrude in 1950) soon after their   sons' discharges, but the brothers continued their education. Laler received an M. S. from S. C. State in 1950 and a Ph. D. from Cornell in 1954, and Charles completed a bachelor's degree in architecture from Brooklyn's Pratt Institute. Following a long illness, Herbert's father died in 1941, leaving a small estate, so his mother had to go to college so that she could teach. After his discharge, Herbert received a bachelor's degree from Talladega College and a medical degree from Meharry. Bennett's father became chronically ill and was hospitalized from the 1930s until his death in 1959, so his mother went to college to become a teacher. With funds from the G. I. Bill, Bennett graduated from S. C. State and then finished dental school at Howard University.

Bennett is in the middle of the first row.

Four years after the Second World War, two DeCostas were drafted to serve in the Korean War. The war started when North Korea, aided by China and the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea in June 1950.

Laler Cook DeCosta

Although Laler was beyond the draft age of 18 to 25 years, he was again conscripted because of his military experience during WW II and his leadership as a Captain. Between his two stints in the Army—1942 to 1946 and 1950 to 1952—President Harry Truman had desegregated the military by executive order in 1948. However, service to his country was particularly difficult for Laler at that time. He had completed his M. S. degree at S. C. State in 1950 and planned to pursue further education, when suddenly he was again inducted into the U. S. Army! According to his wife Geraldine, he served for two years in Korea, and she moved from their home on the outskirts of Orangeburg into the city during his stint in the Army. As soon as he was discharged, he began doctoral studies.

The Korean War ended in July 1953, and, a month later, Frank A. DeCosta, Jr. (1935-1999), the son of Beautine and Frank A. DeCosta, entered Howard University, where he joined the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps.

Frank A. DeCosta, Jr. (1935-1999)

Later, he was appointed Cadet Commander of his Unit and selected as the Most Outstanding Air Force R.O.T.C. Student. Upon graduating, he served for five years, from 1957 to 1961, as a Second Lieutenant in the U. S. Air Force, was sent to Yale University to study intensive Mandarin Chinese, and was assigned to the Pacific as an Attachment Commander.
His family did not hear from him for two years, heard that he went under cover in Communist China, and was given suicide pills to take in the event of capture. Like many DeCosta veterans of this nation's wars, Frank seldom talked about his painful and often traumatic experiences in the military.

Dr. Robert “Bobby” Samuel DeCosta Higgins (1932-1964)

During the 1950s, another member of the family, Dr. Robert “Bobby” Samuel DeCosta Higgins (1932-1964), the son of Eugenia DeCosta Higgins and Bishop Samuel R. Higgins, also served in the military. Bobby's son and namesake reported that his father joined the Navy right after his 1956 graduation from Meharry Medical College and was in the Navy from 1956 to 1958, primarily at Camp Pendleton, California.

Charles Raymond DeCosta (1936-2010)

In the 1950s, Charles Raymond DeCosta (1936-2010), the son of Olive and Benjamin Robert DeCosta, Jr., entered the Marine Corps as a Private and completed the course as an engineer equipment mechanic at the Engineer School Battalion, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina on May 28, 1955. He had a standing in the course of 9 out of 30, meaning that he was in the top third of his class. On July 13, he flew from Moffett Field, California and arrived at Kadena, Okinawa on July 20. On September 4, 1956, he flew from Japan and arrived in San Francisco on the 5th. He was promoted to Sergeant on September 15, 1958. Seven years later, the country became involved in another war when U. S. combat troops arrived in Vietnam to support the South Vietnamese.

Roger DeCosta (b. 1947)

The long, drawn out war ended in 1973, with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords. Charles Raymond's brother, twenty-year-old Roger DeCosta (b. 1947), participated in the Vietnam War as an Airman 1st Class E4 in the Air Force from 1967 to 1971.

Joseph “Joey” Hunter

The 1980s ushered in the first military career officers in the family. Joseph “Joey” Hunter, the son of Jerry and George W. Hunter was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force, serving in duty stations from K. I. Sawyer, Michigan; Kunsan, South Korea; and MacDill, Florida.  Joey served almost ten years, leaving the service as a Captain. 

James Anthony "Tony" Price

The three Price brothers, sons of Georgiana Hunter Price and George Price, all served over twenty years each in the U. S. Army. George retired as a Brigadier General, after 28 years in the military, during which he served in the Korean War, Vietnam War, and Cold War. His last position was Chief of Staff of 1st U. S. Army, located in Ft. Meade, Maryland.

William "Billy" DeCosta Price

His oldest son, James Anthony “Tony” Price, was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and received a B. S. degree in civil engineering from The Citadel in 1980. Later, he completed the Engineer Officers Advanced Course and received a degree in civil engineering from N. C. State University. He served in Germany during the Cold War, participated in Operation Golden Pheasant in Honduras, and supported operations in Bosnia and Kosovo. He was promoted to Major in 1992, after holding various leadership positions: Executive Officer, Company Commander, and Platoon Leader. Tony served with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers from 1980 to 2003, when he retired as Lieutenant Colonel (LTC).

William “Billy” DeCosta Price

His brother, William “Billy” DeCosta Price received a B. A. degree in economics from Davidson College and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the U. S. Army. He completed U. S. Army courses in nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) weapons, as well as ranger, airborne, and jumpmaster training. He became a leader in the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division. He participated in Operation Golden Pheasant in Honduras, Operation Just Cause in Panama, and Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. In 1997, he received an MBA from Averett University, while working in the Pentagon. During a two-year stint in South Korea, he assisted with a presidential visit and participated in six joint exercises between U. S. and Korean forces. His last assignment was working in the Office of the Administrative Assistant to the Secretary of the Army at the Pentagon, where he was responsible for over $3 billion in operational funds. He served in the Army from 1982 to 2003, when he retired with the rank of Major. (In the photo, his parents, Georgianna and Brigadier General George Price are pinning Second Lieutenant insignia on Billy.)

Billy and Bobby
are standing
George and Tony
are seated

The third brother, Robert “Bobby” Edward Price, was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the U. S. Army after completing ROTC and earning a B. A. degree in psychology from the University of Virginia in 1984. Later, he received an M. S. degree in International Relations from Troy State University and another M. S. in Information Technology Management from Colorado Technical University.  He also completed graduate study at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center, Command and General Staff College, and the National Defense University. Bobby participated in Operation Desert Shield in Saudi Arabia, Desert Storm in Kuwait, and Operation Bright Star in Egypt after the terrorist attack on September 11. He held many responsible positions in the Army and led a team that prioritized over 4,000 construction projects valued in excess of $37 billion. Highly decorated, he received the Legion of Merit Medal, Bronze Star Medal, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, and the Army Meritorious Service Medal. After twenty-two years of active duty (1984-2007), he retired as Lieutenant Colonel. (In the photo, Billy and Bobby are standing and George and Tony are seated.)         

Dr. Robert S. D. Higgins

During the waning years of the last century and the early part of the 21st Century, family members in the military included not only the three Price brothers but also John DeCosta, Robert Higgins, Darrell DeCosta, and Charles Raymond DeCosta, Jr. In the 1990s, John, the son of Senora and Frank A. DeCosta, Jr., served in the Air Force, where he became a communications technologist. Several others were affected, in one way or another, by the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, because those events led to a war in Afghanistan (2001-2014) and another in Iraq (2003-3011). Although some of the family were not deployed to the Middle East, they performed vital support services to the troops. For instance, Dr. Robert S. D. Higgins, the son of Patricia Higgins and Dr. Robert Samuel DeCosta Higgins, had finished medical school and had completed a residency in heart surgery. He joined the U. S. Army Medical Corps as a Major and was attached to the 339th General Hospital in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, where he served from 1989 to 2005.

Darrell DeCosta

More recently, Darrell DeCosta, the son of Janet and Steven DeCosta, served in the U. S. Army, 1st Infantry Division, from 2001 through 2005, including a fourteen-month deployment in Iraq, during which he was promoted to Sergeant.

Darrell is in the middle behind the kneeling soldier

The most recent recruit is Charles Raymond DeCosta, II, the son of Gertadine “Greta” and Charles Raymond DeCosta, who joined the Navy in 2016.

*Marine Corps Major General (ret.) Leo Williams, who is married to DeCosta descendant Vicki Davis Williams, added this clarification: “Beginning in 1943, Black Marines began serving in segregated units in the Marine Corps. Prior to 1943, Blacks served in segregated units in the Army and Army Air Corps, and had long served as stewards and cooks aboard ships in the Navy. These segregated units in the Army, Army Air Corps, and Marine Corps continued until President Truman ordered the desegregation of the U. S. military in 1948.” DeCosta in-laws, such as Leo Williams, Benny Dukes, Russell Sugarmon, A. W. Willis, and others, have also contributed their part to the defense of our country.

Charles Raymond II

This preliminary study of the role that DeCostas  have played in the United States military forces in the last century--from 1917, when Herbert A. DeCosta joined the Army during World War I, to 2016, when Charles Raymond II entered the Navy during the unrest in the Middle East--reveals that men in this family have contributed patriotically and heroically to their country. They have defended the United States through its wars in Germany, Italy, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, as well as during military conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Panama, Honduras, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Afghanistan, and Iraq. They have done so in spite of the initial segregation of troops, harrowing conditions, and sacrifices of their health and careers.

Although DeCosta women have not yet experienced active duty, they have made many sacrifices in support of their military partners. This is a history of which the DeCosta family can be very proud.

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Miriam DeCosta-Willis Table

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We Were SoldiersOnce...and Young: Ia Drang - The Battle ThatChanged the War in Vietnamby Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. GallowayIn November 1965, some 450 men of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, under the command of Lt. Col. Hal Moore, were dropped by helicopter into a small clearing in the Ia Drang Valley. They were immediately surrounded by 2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers.

Three days later, only two and a half miles away, a sister battalion was chopped to pieces. Together, these actions at the landing zones X-Ray and Albany constituted one of the most savage and significant battles of the Vietnam War.How these men persevered--sacrificed themselves for their comrades and never gave up--makes a vivid portrait of war at its most inspiring and devastating. General Moore and Joseph Galloway, the only journalist on the ground throughout the fighting, have interviewed hundreds of men who fought there, including the North Vietnamese commanders.

This devastating account rises above the specific ordeal it chronicles to present a picture of men facing the ultimate challenge, dealing with it in ways they would have found unimaginable only a few hours earlier. It reveals to us, as rarely before, man's most heroic and horrendous endeavor.



  1. Hi Rudolph,

    Would you mind telling me how you tracked down such a wonderful image of Romare Bearden's "Slapping 7th Avenue with the Sole of my Shoe" for you page banner?

    All the best,

    Catherine Huff

  2. To Miriam DeCosta-Willis: Where can I find your essay “Living 'On the Other Side'.” I have to admit the history of Afro-Americans in Charleston has always interested me and I enjoy reading a lot of what you write.

  3. Hi. I am the granddaughter of Charles R. DeCosta, Sr. I'm not sure who the moderator or editor of this post is but there is a major correction needed.

    "Although DeCosta women have not yet experienced active duty, they have made many sacrifices in support of their military partners. This is a history of which the DeCosta family can be very proud."

    Tracey A. DeCosta Byer, daughter of Charles Raymond Decosta, Sr, older sister to Charles Raymond II, is the only woman of the DeCosta Clan to have served in the US Military. Specifically the US Army.