Blacks' WWI valor gets another look

Posthumous medals spur researchers’ call to review heroics of other soldiers

WASHINGTON -- Researchers are calling for a systematic review to determine whether black servicemen were unjustly denied medals of valor for service during World War I.

The proposal, which is backed by the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, was detailed last week during a news conference at the annual meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army in Washington.

On Nov. 11, the nation will mark the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day -- the moment when World War I active hostilities ceased.

More than 350,000 black men served in Europe with the American Expeditionary Force. None of them received the nation's highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor, until 1991, when it was given posthumously to Cpl. Freddie Stowers by President George H.W. Bush.

Stowers, who was gunned down while leading a charge on a German machine-gun nest, urged his comrades to keep advancing and died on the battlefield. Against incredible odds, they were able to seize the hill, military officials said.

A second black soldier, Sgt. Henry Johnson, was posthumously awarded a medal in 2015 by President Barack Obama. Wounded 21 times during a surprise attack, he still freed a fellow soldier who had been taken by the Germans. Johnson's weapons that day included the butt of his rifle, his bare hands, a bolo knife and grenades, according to contemporaneous accounts.

The military has conducted limited reviews in the past, but supporters of the latest initiative say it's time to do something more extensive.

Timothy Westcott, director of the George S. Robb Centre for the Study of the Great War at Park University in Parkville, Mo., said researchers will do an "archival, military, international, genealogical and newspaper review of digital and nondigital records."

"This is a real deep dive," he said.

The plan is to create "a single, searchable, digital database," he added.

The effort also has the support of the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission.

New York University history professor Jeffrey T. Sammons said it's time for a "serious, unbiased, comprehensive, systematic review of valor medals, especially the Medal of Honor."

Black servicemen faced "systematic segregation and discrimination" on the battlefield and, upon their return to the States, encountered "disparagement and denigration of the role that the African-American soldier played in World War I," Sammons said.

"There could be no greater testament to the courage and gallantry of the African-American soldier than proper recognition of their accomplishments and sacrifice and service than reconsideration for the Medal of Honor," he added.

The announcement comes amid a number of World War I centennial events.

In Arkansas, officials are preparing to award a Purple Heart and other medals to the descendants of Leroy Johnston, a bugler with the 369th Infantry Regiment who survived a mustard-gas attack in World War I only to die during a 1919 massacre of black people by whites in predominantly black Phillips County.

The medals ceremony is expected to occur on Nov. 11.

Johnston, who served overseas from December 1917 until June 1919, was listed as "severely wounded" on the "Daily Casualty List" published on Dec. 8, 1918, in the Arkansas Gazette. (The report came nearly a month after hostilities had ceased.) But his military service records were altered, the word "severely" was replaced by the word "slightly."

University of Arkansas at Little Rock history professor Brian Mitchell, the researcher who uncovered the altered records, said the contributions of black service members were often unacknowledged.

"African-Americans were likely commonly disregarded for medals of honor and things that would make them stick out as exceptional or make African-Americans believe that they were entitled to better treatment as citizens of the United States," Mitchell said in an interview.

U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., who helped obtain the medals for Johnston's descendants, said withholding military honors on the basis of race is "wrong and shameful."

"After my team and I found out that the late Bugler Leroy Johnston was denied medals because of his skin color, we fought against that injustice and now his surviving family members will be awarded Bugler Johnston's medals in his honor," Hill of Little Rock said in a written statement.

"I'm pleased that members of the World War I Valor Medals Review Task Force are undertaking this worthy effort to ensure that all African-Americans who served in WWI are honored with the recognition they deserve," he said.

Because of Johnston's injuries, he would have qualified, retroactively, for the Purple Heart when the award was first created in 1932.

Despite his lengthy hospitalization -- nine months, according to some accounts -- he was eventually listed as having suffered no disabilities.

Classifying Johnston as "zero percent" disabled would have had economic consequences, Sammons said when asked about the case. Soldiers with a disability rating of even 10 percent would have been entitled to monthly government aid, he noted.

"Someone needs to do a real serious study, systematic study, empirical study of disability ratings of African-American soldiers versus white soldiers based on the sort of characterization or classification of their wounds," Sammons said.

Researchers would need "to look at those who are severely wounded, slightly wounded, see what their disability ratings are, see how many blacks were listed as slightly wounded versus severely wounded. That's the kind of thing that has to be done. It's an enormous undertaking," he added.

Metro on 10/15/2018

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