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Turncoats and traitors: A National Guard mission revisited. 

UNPOPULAR: The Guardsmen's "U-turn" after federalization didn't go down well, says one.
  • UNPOPULAR: The Guardsmen's "U-turn" after federalization didn't go down well, says one.

Gov. Orval E. Faubus ordered 250 National Guardsmen to Little Rock's all-white Central High School on Monday, Sept. 2, 1957, to “keep order” and prevent integration by nine black students scheduled to enter the next day. A month later, my 15 minutes of fame would be thrust upon me as the leader of the first Arkansas National Guard soldiers to escort those same students into Central. I soon learned that the Guard's U-turn was not a popular move.

Central High had become the major battleground over federally mandated school integration. The legal disputes between Faubus and the federal courts culminated on Friday, Sept. 20, when a federal judge enjoined the governor from further interference with court orders. Faubus withdrew the National Guard. The following Monday morning, Sept. 23, a mob of 1,000 gathered at Central to challenge the Little Rock police. The police slipped the Nine in through a side entrance but soon realized they would be unable to control the volcano of hate outside. Assistant Police Chief Gene Smith had the black students taken out through a delivery entrance in the rear of the school, placed in police cars, and driven to their homes.

President Eisenhower ordered the military into action. On Tuesday, 1,100 officers and soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division based at Fort Campbell, Ky., landed at Little Rock Air Force Base in eight giant cargo planes. By 7 p.m., they had deployed around Central. The president also federalized the Arkansas National Guard, wresting it from Faubus' control. Deployment of the 101st Airborne was meant to be a temporary measure until National Guard units could be assembled in Little Rock as replacements.

Eisenhower wanted Guardsmen from outside Little Rock to avoid cases of “brother against brother.” That was how my soldiers and I came to be at Central High School. I received a phone call that night from the company commander of our local National Guard unit at Walnut Ridge, summoning me to the armory. I quickly dressed in my Army fatigues while telling my wife that it was probably only a practice drill and I expected to be back in about an hour. It would be two weeks before I returned.

Our unit — Company K, 3rd Battalion, 153rd Infantry Regiment — had been ordered to move our rifle company to Camp Robinson, a National Guard facility near Little Rock, and report to our battalion commander, Lt. Colonel Ernest McDaniel. Not only was there no time for written orders, there was confusion about their source. We were not clear whether we were responding to commands from the governor or from federal authorities. Television news that evening had informed us that President Eisenhower had ordered a contingent of 101st Airborne troops to Central High School, but the role of our National Guard unit had yet to be defined.

As we loaded our vehicles that night at the Walnut Ridge armory, rumors began circulating. Some of our young men hoped we were going to Little Rock to confront the “Yankee invaders,” assert our “state's rights,” free Arkansas of “occupation by federal troops” and restore Central High School to its rightful owners.

As for me, I was satisfied that the argument between the federal government and Southern states had been settled a century before. Moreover, I had worn the screaming eagle insignia of the 101st while on active duty with the Army. My experience cautioned me that 10,000 Arkansas National Guard troops would be no match for the U.S. Army in a street fight.

Practically all of our soldiers were born and raised in northeast Arkansas, as had their parents and grandparents. Most of them lived either in Walnut Ridge or its twin northeast Arkansas town of Hoxie, about 130 miles from the state capital. Our roster included rice and cattle farmers, unskilled farm workers, truck drivers, construction workers, sawmill workers, auto mechanics and gas station attendants, with a few schoolteachers and insurance agents sprinkled into the mix. They grimaced at the thought of “federal interference” with their public schools.

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