Nolan J. Coleman was an 18-year-old Berkeley High School student when he volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army in 1948.
Coleman was living with his aunt on Harmon Street at the time. He’d moved to California from New Orleans after his mother died of a heart attack when he was 12. He was the sixth of nine children and, at age 14, he’d followed an older brother out to Berkeley to stay with their mother’s sister. She would ultimately raise him and several of his siblings as her own.
Coleman played basketball at Berkeley High. He liked the school and his new home. But he decided to sign up for the Army to help his Aunt Minnie, who was like a mother to him, and because many of his friends — as well as his older brothers — had also enlisted. He didn’t realize at the time that he’d end up on the front lines of the Korean War and, eventually, receive a Purple Heart and Silver Star for his bravery during combat.
After basic training, Coleman was stationed in Japan. It was his first time living in another country. Initially, his fellow troops were all African American. But over time, he said, they became more mixed. President Harry S. Truman had already signed the order to integrate the armed forces by the time Coleman got to Japan, but it would take six more years for the U.S. to complete that work.
Coleman remembers his early days in Japan as happy ones.
“It was good before the war,” he said, during an interview Saturday at his home on Grant Street in central Berkeley. “We just had a good time. It was nice, with no fighting or nothing.”
Coleman said he was homesick for Berkeley and his relatives when he was stationed overseas, but they stayed in touch by writing letters. Black-and-white photographs he kept from those days show jubilant friends and musicians messing around with props and going out to eat in restaurants, the men in dapper uniforms and the women in stylish dresses.
One photograph, a portrait of a lovely young Japanese woman, has her address written in longhand on the back. Coleman was a single man in those days and would not meet his wife and start their family until he returned to the Bay Area after the war and got a job at the Naval Supply Center in Oakland. He would go on to work at the facility for 32 years.
There were quite a few young, beautiful women in those photographs from Japan, Coleman’s daughter Danita observed Saturday. She’d asked her father who they were, but answers had never been forthcoming. So the women’s identities remain a mystery. Her father had never been a big talker, she added.
“We never heard the war stories growing up,” Danita said.
In fact, she hadn’t known much at all about her father’s time as a soldier until she took a stack of paperwork to the office of Veterans Affairs to set up his medical benefits when his health took a turn.
“He’s a war hero!” staff members exclaimed to her when they reviewed her father’s file. It was the first time she’d heard it put that way, she said.
Coleman’s carefree days training in Japan ended abruptly in June 1950 when U.S. forces were dispatched to South Korea at the outbreak of the Korean War to halt an invasion from the north. It was quite a turn of events. When he signed up for the military, Coleman said, he’d never believed he’d actually be sent into a large-scale battle — let alone as part of the vanguard.
“It didn’t feel too good,” he said. “When the war started, we were the first ones over there.”
Coleman was part of the 24th Infantry, which was the first division on the ground in South Korea because it had been stationed closest to the front lines when war broke out on June 25, 1950.
Coleman, who was a machine-gunner, arrived with his unit about two weeks later. They “got off the boat fighting,” he told the East Bay Times in 2012.
“The 24th Division’s first mission was to ‘take the initial shock’ of the North Korean assault, then try to slow its advance until more US divisions could arrive,” according to Wikipedia. A number of U.S. soldiers in the 24th Infantry were captured, taken prisoner and executed in those early days of the Korean War.
At one point during the fighting, Coleman found himself alone, surrounded by Korean troops. He thought he would be captured. But, instead, they asked him if he was lost, pointed him toward his fellow U.S. soldiers and let him go.
About two months after being sent to South Korea, Coleman and his company were “subjected to an intense attack by numerically superior enemy forces” near an area called Haman, according to the military order from 1950 that awarded Coleman the Silver Star “for gallantry in action.” It’s the U.S. military’s third-highest medal for valor in combat.
“Corporal Coleman remained at his machine gun and continued to fire at the onrushing enemy despite having suffered a wound himself during the initial phase of the attack. His effective fire greatly assisted the company to defeat the attackers,” the order reads. “Corporal Coleman’s courageous devotion to duty is in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Army.”
After the onslaught, Coleman returned to Japan for medical treatment. He remembers being honored with a huge parade when the military presented him with the Silver Star, for valor, and the Purple Heart, which is given to service members who are killed or wounded in action.
“I was on the reviewing stand with the captains and the generals,” he recalled. Bands played music as the procession flowed by him, and marchers saluted him as they passed. It was a proud moment, he said. He felt emotional but did not cry.
When he was released from the hospital, after four months of recovery, Coleman was assigned to the military police on the U.S. base in Japan. The 24th Infantry, meanwhile, remained heavily engaged on the front lines of the Korean War. The division suffered more than 10,000 casualties over 18 months.
Coleman — who will turn 90 on Nov. 28 — says his right hand is still numb from the wound he sustained in battle. He never fully recovered. But, considering the fate of many others in his division, he knows he’s one of the lucky ones. For the most part, he added, he’s just tried to put those days behind him.
“I’m just glad to be alive,” Coleman said. “And glad to be out of Korea. I know that.”