ALAMEDA -- For young men, especially for those of past decades, becoming part of the military was a major milestone in one's life. For some, it meant the start of a career. Others saw it as an alternative to the civilian workforce, possibly a steppingstone to better things. And for others, it meant putting their lives and future plans on hold.
So it was for the men of the California National Guard 719th Anti-Aircraft Gun Battalion, one of the last all-black units in U.S. history. Stationed in Alameda, this group of 462 officers and enlisted men received a call to national duty on Aug. 21, 1950, during the rise of the Korean conflict.
On Monday, the City of Alameda commemorated this event and honored the 719th itself -- known as the "Can-Do Battalion" for its many accomplishments -- in a ceremony inside the City Council chamber.
Mayor Marie Gilmore read a proclamation and added a few words of her own.
"I want to thank you for your service not only to Alameda but to our great country," Gilmore said before a gathering of some surviving battalion members and guests. "You guys were a historic outfit. It's because of what you guys did and what you stand for that I'm standing here today."
For the veterans in attendance, the ceremony served as a reunion, a chance to reminisce and to catch up with longtime friends. It also served as an opportunity to pay tribute to Gilmore herself and to the progress made by Alameda through the decades.
Eddie Abrams, who organized this reunion as well as previous ones, recalled the Alameda of 1950 as a segregated town.
"When I heard that Alameda had a black mayor, a black female mayor, I couldn't let this history just die," said Abrams, a former Oakland resident living in Austin, Texas. "And I'm so glad to see the fellows that we haven't seen in a long time."
Abrams went on to recognize the achievements of fellow 719th member Al DeWitt, who later became Alameda's first African American city councilman. DeWitt, who also served as vice mayor and acting mayor, died in 2003.
Abrams concluded the formal ceremony by presenting the proclamation to the family of the late battalion leader, Lt. Col. Warren W. Morse.
"Col. Morse was like a father to all of us," Abrams said. "I was just 17 when I got in. At our last reunion, he was very sick, but he helped me grow to where I am."
After the 719th was released from national duty in 1952, Abrams -- who turns 81 Friday -- embarked on a long career of civilian employment, first at the Alameda Naval Air Station and then at the Oakland Naval Supply Center. Others attending the ceremony, such as Roosevelt Garrett (formerly of Berkeley, currently of Oakland), and longtime Oakland residents Carl Martin and Joe Villa continued their military careers for many years.
Villa's brother, Louis Villa, also served with the 719th.
"We were fortunate to serve together," Louis Villa said.
Sims Thompson Jr., currently of Richmond, lived in North Richmond when he received his draft notice in 1952. He went on to serve as a corporal in Korea.
Fellow battalion members Leemon Brown, Robert Battle and Isaac Smith lived in Alameda at the time the 719th was called to national duty. Brown and Battle currently live in Oakland. Smith came to the ceremony from Rio Vista.
Also on hand for the proclamation were Oakland's Walter Key and El Cerrito's Gerald Martin (no relation to Carl Martin), who lived in Berkeley when the 719th was called to duty.
Abrams, retired since 1986, has dedicated his life to the telling of African-American history, a chapter of which ended when the 719th was officially deactivated on Feb. 28, 1958.