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Forgotten Soldiers Of Oxford

September 28, 2002

Forgotten Soldiers of the Integration Fight


On Tuesday, Oct. 1, Oxford, Miss., will be coming to terms with one of the major events of its past. Forty years ago on that day, in the early morning, a force of nearly 30,000 American combat troops raced toward Oxford in a colossal armada of helicopters, transport planes, Jeeps and Army trucks.

Their mission was to save Oxford, the University of Mississippi and a small force of federal marshals from being destroyed by over 2,000 white civilians who were rioting after James Meredith, a black Air Force veteran, arrived to integrate the school.

The troops were National Guardsmen from little towns all over Mississippi, regular Army men from across the United States and paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions.

They had to capture the city quickly; the F.B.I. had intelligence that thousands of Klansmen and segregationists from California to Georgia may have set off for Oxford, many of them armed.

The first troops to reach Oxford found over 100 wounded federal marshals at the center of campus, 27 of them hit by civilian gunfire. Packs of hundreds of rioters swarmed the city, some holding war dances around burning vehicles.

Snipers opened fire on the Army convoys and bricks struck the heads of American soldiers. Black G.I.'s in one convoy were ambushed by white civilians who tried to decapitate them in their open Jeeps with metal pipes.

Maj. William Callicott of the Mississippi National Guard had served in World War II; he said he "never was as terrified as I was going onto the campus that night."

"It was the fact that I knew there had to be some local people from my hometown probably over there in that mob," Major Callicott said. "That's what really worried me. If we killed anybody it could be my next-door neighbor."

The Army troops restored order to the school and the city, block by block. A girl watched a team of infantrymen under attack on the Oxford town square and, according to a reporter at the scene, wondered aloud, "When are they going to shoot back?" Except for a few warning shots, they never did.

Yet when the soldiers left the city a few weeks later, they marched into oblivion. Most were under orders not to talk to the press. The Cuban missile crisis unfolded just weeks later, wiping Oxford from the front pages.

What the troops did in Oxford was so courageous that their commanders nominated them for scores of medals. But an internal Army memo from May 1963 states: "The focus of additional attention on this incident would not be in the best interest of the US Army or the nation. . . . decorations should not be awarded for actions involving conflict between US Army units and other Americans." Memories of what the troops did then faded away.

On Tuesday, there will be an epilogue to this dramatic battle. Oxford's mayor, Richard Howorth, and the city council of Oxford have tracked down as many of the troops of 1962 as they could and invited them to the city to be honored as heroes. They will march back through Oxford's Courthouse Square to receive the official thanks of the community they saved from destruction two generations ago.

William Doyle is author of "An American Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962."

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