93 Year Old Carl Walker with his letter of invitation from President Biden to attend the arrival of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol. Photo by Noah Washington/The Atlanta Voice

Carl Walker has a story to tell. 

The 93-year old United States Army veteran has seen his fair share of action. Born in West Virginia to E. Harrison Walker and Virginia Dare Walker, Walker’s early years were entwined with the coal mining industry. Walker faced the challenges of a childhood marked by economic struggles and the demanding life of a coal miner’s family. The conditions of living in a mining town in the 1940’s and 50’s often meant limited opportunities and financial hardship, according Walker. 

In June 1951 at the age of 20, Walker would be drafted into the Army at the height of the Korean War. Looking back 70 years later Walker has earned one Purple Heart and several other accommodations and honors, as well as years serving as the chaplain at his local Purple Heart Association for the past 14 years. 

During his tour in the Korean War, Walker operated in the artillery operations working closely with the calculations required to ensure precision in hitting targets. He vividly remembers the commands, such as “deflected 2147, quadrant 684,” which determined the artillery settings. 

From the outset, Walker’s military experience defied the racial norms of the time. Assigned to a racially mixed unit during basic training, he was part of a new wave challenging the entrenched segregation within the armed forces. His initiation into a culturally diverse training environment laid the foundation for his role as an unwitting pioneer in racial integration. 

A defining moment occurred when Walker, displaying his musical talents, sought a place in the 1/73 Army band at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Breaking the racial boundaries, he negotiated his way into the band despite its segregated nature. This early incident set the tone for Walker’s future experiences. 

Initially deployed to Korea as a musician in the 25th Infantry Division band, Walker encountered a twist of fate. The North Korean military threat prompted a reassignment, pulling him from the band and placing him in the 9th Field Artillery Battalion.

Walker emphasized the camaraderie among soldiers and the impact of war on the human psyche. “My time in the military during the Korean War was a defining chapter that shaped my perspective on duty and sacrifice,” Walker told The Atlanta Voice. “The Korean War wasn’t just a battle, it was a crucible that forged bonds and revealed the strength of the human spirit.”

Among the many chapters in Walker’s life, one stands out – the story of how he earned the Purple Heart for his service in the Korean War. 

The circumstances leading to Walker’s Purple Heart unfolded during a heated encounter with North Korean forces. Serving in the 9th Field Artillery Battalion, Walker found himself in the midst of a fierce exchange with enemy troops. As the artillery unit faced intense fire, Walker played a role in the operations of the cannon as a cannoneer.

During one engagement, the intensity of the battle reached a crescendo and in the chaos of the firefight, fate dealt Walker a life-altering blow. As he moved to retrieve ammunition for the cannon, a shell struck dangerously close, detonating with a force that left Walker injured.

“It was Mother’s Day in 1952,” he remembered. “The firing was so heavy on us that they hit an ammunition truck, and it blew up and lit up the sky. It was at night, and they lit up the sky so that encouraged them to pour it on even harder, and one shell came in, but it just burned in the ground. It was a dud; it did not go off.”

He continued, “Then there was another shell that landed right behind it. When it exploded, three pieces of the tail hit me, slashed my upper thigh on the left side, and missed my abdomen.”

Having come face to face with racial animosity during his time in the military, it was an unexpected ally that would come to Walker’s aid. A white soldier from Alabama, who had been purposely shunning Walker during their time in South Korea helped him. “When I was knocked down, he came and picked me up and put me on the shoulder and carried me to an ambulance to come and get me out,” Walker said.

Integration of the U.S military had taken place as a result of President Harry S.Trueman’s executive order 9981 on July 26th, 1948. But, Walker described full integration as being accepted fully only in two institutions, the military and professional sports such as baseball. Walker suggested that integration, from his perspective, was not aided when individuals had a choice in the matter, only in forced circumstances were individuals able to see past the color barrier. 

“Integration means having interchangeable people without being alarmed over the fact that, ‘“Oh, there is a black person.”” That’s what integration meant to me,” Walker told The Atlanta Voice.

Walker remembers his military service becoming a transformative chapter for him. Through the crucible of conflict, Walker forged deep bonds with his fellow soldiers, experiencing the highs and lows amid the challenges of war. “The military instilled in me a sense of discipline and resilience that stayed with me throughout my life,” he said. 

Those lessons and experiences accompanied Walker back home in the United States. After completing his military service as a sergeant in May of 1953, Walker faced uncertainties about pursuing higher education. Having been out of high school for five years, Walker opted for a small, lesser-known college, West Virginia State, to test his academic abilities. He would excel and emerged with the highest average in his freshman class. Eventually transferring over to Ohio University where he would earn a bachelors in Education. Despite the challenges, Walker reflects on his service, stating, “Sometimes it was fun, sometimes it was hell, but here I am.”