A group of black Korean War veterans is attempting to halt circulation of a newly released Army history that depicts the nation's last all-black combat regiment as cowardly and inept.

The veterans argue that the Army's book, "Black Soldier, White Army" reinforced an undeserved reputation of the 24th Infantry Regiment, whose performance has been disparaged by the Army since the unit was disbanded in disgrace during the Korean War.

A five-member panel, which included two black Korean War veterans, was appointed last year to review the government publication after objections were raised about its unflattering portrait of the 24th. But beyond a new introduction, the panel's work resulted in few changes to the book, despite objections from the only civilian historian on the review board.

"The regiment performed as well as (or perhaps better than) other Army units," said a letter to Army Secretary Togo D. West Jr. from Arnold & Porter, a law firm retained by the black veterans.

"However, the overall impression one draws from Black Soldier, White Army' is that the soldiers of the 24th Infantry discharged their duties in a manner that was demonstrably inferior to other troops in the Eighth Army."

The new history says members of the 3,600-man regiment freely caroused during the American occupation of Japan, chasing women and generally living it up, before the Korean War broke out in 1950. Suddenly thrown into battle, the ill-prepared troops frequently panicked into disorganized retreat, according to the book.

"In Japan all the soldiers were carousing around, and when they got to Korea, many soldiers panicked, so to focus on the 24th that way is unfair," said David Carlisle, a West Point graduate who fought beside the 24th as a member of the black 77th Engineer Combat Company.

The new book, first released in draft form last year and on the verge of being widely circulated by the Government Printing Office, says the regiment's shortcomings were magnified by the pervasive racism of many of its white commanders. The book said white commanders typically expected less from black troops, left the unit as quickly as possible, and often blamed problems encountered by the troops on their presumed racial inferiority rather than the commanders' failures of leadership.

Also, white troops who fought beside the regiment often made the black soldiers targets of racist remarks and actions, dissolving the trust that is essential for troops to operate effectively in combat.

But according to the black Korean War veterans protesting its publication, the book presents a racially tinged view.

For example, they argue, it does not compare the performance of the 24th with that of white regiments and if it did it would likely show their performance was no worse than any other.

The critics also argue the book unfairly focuses on the early months of the war, which went badly for most U.S. troops.

Lawyers for the veterans say they are searching for legal footing to file a suit to block further dissemination of the book, which is published by the Army's Center of Military History.

"After all of the stuff these soldiers went through, here we are years later and the Army publishes this crap about them," Carlisle said. "The 24th fought as well as any regiment."

Clay Blair, a widely published Korean War historian, also has criticized the book for presenting an "unbalanced" portrait of the 24th. Blair served on the final panel to review the publication, and black veterans are angry that his comments critiquing the book largely were ignored. Army officials, however, say the comments came late and offered few "salient" points.

Even one of the regiment's white commanders questioned the accuracy of the book. "I am devastated that . . . the Army has released the book in its present (and completely unacceptable) form," wrote retired Col. Thomas D. Gillis, the 24th Regiment's last white commander, in a Jan. 14 letter to Blair.

Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) had asked the Army to delay publication of the book until after meeting with the dissatisfied veterans. The request, however, came too late.

But while some call the book unbalanced, those who oversaw its publication, as well as some other historians, call it an unblinking portrayal of a flawed regiment based on nine years of meticulous research.

"Since the first time I read a draft of it I thought it was a balanced account," said David R. Segal, director of the University of Maryland Center for Research on Military Organization.

"I think that in this day and age, writing regimental histories is a bad thing to do because it almost by definition takes events out of context. . . . {I}t comes out reading to some people as if these problems were unique to this regiment."

Assistant Army Secretary Sara E. Lister, who chaired the book's final review panel, said she is "sympathetic" to the concerns of the angry veterans, but she defends the book as the product of honest work.

But some former members of the 24th are dissatisfied with that explanation and vow to do what they can to block further dissemination of the book or to pressure the Army into publishing an addendum to it.

"To me, this is a continuation of a long history of blacks in the military. It is nothing new to us," said John L. French, a District restaurant owner who was a staff sergeant with the 24th in Korea.

"I am not bitter. I love the Army. It's helped me live the American dream. But my thing is that I'm concerned about the guys who died, what their children and grandchildren will read about them."

Ironically, "Black Soldier, White Army" grew out of an effort led by Carlisle and other black veterans who were dissatisfied with the first volume of a Korean War history produced by the Army in 1961, which sketched what they saw as an unfair and embarrassing portrait of the 24th's effort in the war.

Disbanded in the midst of the Korean War, the 1st battalion of the 24th -- which is now integrated -- was reactivated at Fort Lewis, Wash., in 1995.

After years of agitation by the black veterans, the Army began work in 1987 on a separate history of the unit, which was among four black regular regiments established by Congress in the late 1860s to honor the nearly 200,000 African Americans who fought for the Union Army during the Civil War. But instead of extinguishing tensions, the book rekindled them, and left the Army once again on the defensive.

"There is no shortage of the individual heroism and individual successes that attended this regiment and I think that is reflected," said Gen. John W. Mountcastle, the Army's chief of military history.

"I think you have to be attuned to the fact that this is not a feel-good book. . . . This is not a pretty story. We would like to say things were different, but I think there is a lot to be said for a dead-on look."