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Racism Kept Some WWI Troops from Receiving Medal of Honor, Lawmakers Say

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Lawmakers and advocates are calling for a detailed review of the battlefield valor of African-American troops in World War I, saying many were denied the Medal of Honor due to racism.

Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland and Roy Blount, R-Missouri, announced Thursday that a bipartisan effort had begun in both houses of Congress to pass bills authorizing the review.

It’s a matter of simple justice, said Dr. Timothy Westcott, a historian who would lead the review if Congress approves.

“We should not be determining their valor based on the color of their skin or the circumstances of their birth,” said Westcott, director of the George S. Robb Centre for the Study of the Great War at Park University in Missouri.

On the House side, the legislation is sponsored by Rep. J. French Hill, R-Arkansas.

“To require the review of the service of certain members of the Armed Forces during World War I to determine if such members should be awarded the Medal of Honor,” the bills read.

The bills would waive the statute of limitations to ensure that any veterans of World War I recommended by the review to receive the Medal of Honor would be legally eligible for it.

If this effort is successful, a Valor Medals Review Task Force for World War I would become part of the annual National Defense Authorization Act, set to be debated this summer.

The effort has been endorsed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission.

“While the United States military has studied Medal of Honor awards to minority service members in WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and subsequent American conflicts, no such systematic review has ever been conducted for minority veterans of the First World War,” commission officials said in a release. “Under current law, the exact same act of heroism completed by the exact same veteran would be eligible for review if it occurred in 1941, 1951, 1971, 1991, or 2001, but not 1918.”

“We at the U.S. World War One Commission, established by Congress in 2013, are aiming to rectify that and ensure our World War One heroes are forgotten no more,” the release added.

In a statement, Van Hollen said “Hundreds of thousands of minority veterans served their country during World War I, and their sacrifice was essential to our victory. But for far too long, their heroism has not received the recognition it deserves.”

Blount said the review was essential to making sure “those who were denied the Medal of Honor because of their race or religion finally receive the recognition they have earned.”

Of 400,000 minority veterans who served during World War I, about 40,000, the vast majority African-Americans, saw combat in France, according to the Department of Defense.

No African-American was awarded the Medal of Honor during World War I or its immediate aftermath, but two were posthumously honored many years later after limited investigations.

In 1991, Army Cpl. Freddie Stowers, who was killed in combat while serving in a unit under French command, was awarded the Medal of Honor by then-President George H.W. Bush.

President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor in 2015 to Army Sgt. Henry Johnson, who fought in France with the New York Army National Guard‘s famed 369th Regiment, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.”

In his statement, Van Hollen singled out the case of Army Sgt. William Butler, an African-American veteran from Salisbury, Maryland. Butler received the Croix de Guerre with Palm from France, as well as the Distinguished Service Cross from the U.S. military and a recommendation for the Medal of Honor.

“But he never received that medal before his death,” Van Hollen said.

At an Association of the U.S. Army event last October to promote the review of World War I awards, Jeffrey Sammons, a history professor at New York University, said his research discovered that Butler, who also served with the 369th Regiment, had been nominated for the Medal of Honor but the award was denied.

Sammons also found that Butler had been nominated for the nation’s highest award for valor on the same day as 1st Lt. George S. Robb, the namesake of the Robb Centre at Park University. Robb, who received the Medal of Honor, was a white officer who commanded an all-black platoon on the Western Front.

“George Robb had written a glowing treatment of William Butler’s exploits, in which he saved his commanding officer, 1st Lt. Gorman Jones, and a number of men from being captured by the Germans, who had actually infiltrated their trench,” Sammons said at the AUSA event.

Westcott and Zachary Austin, adjunct director of the Valor Medals Review Task Force, said the intent was to begin the research with African-Americans who served in World War I and then extend it to other minorities.

“There’s never been systematic approach to this,” Westcott said of the review.

He and Austin said the research would be conducted with the aid of donations and at no cost to the government.

The main focus for possible upgrades to the Medal of Honor would be on those who were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the French Croix de Guerre with Palm, and those who were recommended for the Medal of Honor but never received it, Westcott and Austin said.

Once the review is complete, the findings would be presented to the Department of Defense for a determination on whether the Medal of Honor should be awarded, Westcott said.

— Gina Harkins contributed to this report.

— Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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