Army Finally Recognizes WWII Black Heroes
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 15, 1997 More than a million African Americans served in the military during World War II. Not one received a Medal of Honor for valor during that conflict.
More than 50 years later, the military is making amends. President Clinton presented Medals of Honor to seven Americans soldiers denied the award because of their race. Only one -- 1st Lt. Vernon J. Baker -- was alive to see his country finally honor his heroism in Italy on April 5, 1945.
The road to the award was long and hard, and the Army didn't address the anomaly until 1992, when John Shannon, then the acting Army secretary, ordered a research study. The Army awarded a contract to Shaw University of Raleigh, N.C. Five historians -- Elliot V. Converse, Robert K. Griffith, Daniel K. Gibran, Richard H. Kohn and John A. Cash -- produced a report entitled "The Medal of Honor and African Americans in the United States Army During World War II."
The report, delivered in January 1995, concluded there was no official proof African Americans had even been considered for the award. Anecdotal evidence suggested that four of the men who received the honor had been recommended for the award soon after their deeds.
The study found no official documents that proved racial bias in the award policies. However, the report makes it clear that African-American soldiers put up with a wave of racism.
"The Army entered World War II with racial assumptions about the inferiority of black soldiers as combat troops ... ; these assumptions dominated Army thinking, supported the policy of segregating African Americans in separate units and underlay the policy which relegated blacks overwhelmingly to service in noncombatant units," the report states.
The Army, under pressure from African Americans, formed two black divisions in 1943. The 92nd Division went to Italy and the 93rd to the Pacific theater. The 93rd was used most to mop up islands after other units captured them. The 92nd saw much combat, serving in the front lines from August 1944 through May 1945. The report characterized the leadership of the 92nd Division as racist, and the leaders listened to its prejudice when making awards.
"It must be understood that a pattern of racial prejudice on the part of the white leadership of the 92nd Division pervaded the experience, contributed to the very low morale of that unit and poisoned the relationships between the senior officer leadership and African-American junior officers and enlisted men," the report states.
The report recommended the Army examine whether the men should receive the award. The Army agreed the men deserved the medal, but Congress had to waive the 1952 time limit for awarding the medals. Congress included a time limit waiver in the Fiscal 1997 Authorization Act passed in October 1996. Clinton awarded the medals Jan. 13.
Those who received the medals were:
o Baker, 77, of St. Maries, Idaho, was a platoon leader with C Company, 370th Infantry, 92nd Division, when he led his 25-man platoon against a German stronghold at Castle Aghinolfi, Italy. He personally wiped out a bunker and a machine gun nest and killed two Germans with a submachine gun he had picked up. His company commander ordered him to withdraw. Only seven men returned unhurt from the mission, but the platoon killed 26 Germans and destroyed six machine gun nests and four dugouts.
o Staff Sgt. Edward A. Carter Jr., Los Angeles, Company No. 1 (Provisional), 56th Armored Inf., 12th Armored Division. Carter received a Distinguished Service Cross for his actions on March 23, 1945, near Speyer, Germany. Carter volunteered to lead a three-man patrol across an open field to check out a warehouse after the tank he was riding on started taking fire. Small arms fire killed one of his companions. He ordered the others back as he provided cover. One was killed and the other wounded. Carter pressed on, taking wounds in his leg and arm and a bullet through his hand before taking cover. Two hours later, eight German soldiers approached him. He killed six, took the remaining two prisoner and used them as shields to get back across the field. Carter died in 1962.
o 1st Lt. John R. Fox, Boston, was a forward observer with Cannon Company, 366th Inf., 92nd Div. The battalion he was supporting had 1,000 men to man 30 miles of front near Sommocolonia, Italy. On Dec. 26, 1944, Germans overran the battalion. Fox called for artillery fire. As the Germans closed in, Fox called for fire directly on his position. The fire direction control officer balked, and so did the colonel who had never heard such a suicidal request. Fox replied, "There are hundreds of them coming. Put everything you've got on my OP [observation post]!" The colonel still balked and called to division headquarters for approval. He got it, and high explosive shells then rained on Fox's position. The unit later retrieved his body from the shattered wreckage, surrounded by about 100 dead German soldiers.
o PFC Willy F. James Jr., Kansas City, Kan., G Co., 413th Inf., 104th Div. As his regiment crossed the Weser River near Lippoldsberg, Germany, on April 7, 1945, James drew fire and volunteered to scout the German positions. He reported and took the point in the attack. When his platoon leader was killed, James went to help him and was killed himself.
o Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers, Tecumseh, Okla., A Co., 761st Tank Battalion, 3rd Army. Although wounded when his Sherman tank hit a mine near Geubling, France, Nov. 16, 1944, Rivers refused first aid and evacuation. He took command of the tank leading the column and fought on. Three days later, his battalion was attacking the village of Bourgaltroff when German anti-tank fire hit the lead tank. Although ordered to pull back, Rivers advanced, radioed he spotted the enemy positions and attacked. The duel with the Germans continued until an 88mm shell hit his turret and killed him.
o 1st Lt. Charles L. Thomas, Detroit, commander, C Co. 614th Tank Destroyer Battalion, 103rd Div. On Dec. 14, 1944, Thomas volunteered to serve as a decoy for an armored task force attacking Climbach, France. Thomas led the way in an M-20 armored car. The Germans opened up mortar and artillery fire on the platoon. Glass and lethal shards wounded Thomas, and his vehicle was hit and immobilized. Although wounded, Thomas crawled under the vehicle and deployed his men and anti-tank guns. Thomas died in 1980.
o Pvt. George Watson, Birmingham, Ala., 29th Quartermaster Regiment. Watson drowned while rescuing others after Japanese bombers sank his ship near Porloch Harbor, New Guinea, March 8, 1943. The ship was so badly damaged that the commander ordered it abandoned. Watson remained in the water and helped other soldiers who could not swim reach the life rafts. He was caught in the turbulence when the ship sank. His body was not recovered.