(NOTE: This is one of several stories that focus on World War I's black soldiers, bigotry and Medals of Honor. For the complete presentation, including photos and graphics, pick up a copy of Friday's Richmond Daily News.)
JACK 'MILES' VENTIMIGLIA
KANSAS CITY – Jim Crow attitudes may have denied Medals of Honor to minorities in World War I.
An associate professor of history and the George S. Robb Centre archivist at Park University, Dr. Tim Westcott, leads a research team that has embarked on a national review. They want to know whether racists barred minorities from receiving this nation’s highest military honor.
There is no doubt the military, like other segments of American society, embraced racism in 1918. In Georgia that year, based on an NAACP report, after a mob had killed Mary Turner’s husband for an alleged murder, she said she would call down the law on the perpetrators. On May 19, a mob reacted by hanging the pregnant black woman from a bridge on the line between Brooks and Lowndes counties, dousing her with gasoline, setting her on fire and riddling her body with bullets.
Against a backdrop that made such atrocities commonplace in the South, blacks joined the U.S. military. The military rejected training them for combat, based on writing at the time by a Jewish man, Joel Springarn. He took issue with the lack of training for black soldiers: “The South does not want colored men to get any kind of military training; nothing frightens it more than the thought of millions of colored men with discipline, organizing power and a dangerous effectiveness. … That is why the General Staff of the Army has decided to exclude colored men from the training.”
Springarn’s criticism helped blacks receive military training, but that did not change some attitudes.
“We’ve got senior, senior, senior military officers that are quoted in letters and documents that they had no intention of fighting with – I’ll put it this way – African-American troops,” Westcott said, pointedly not using the word some officers used to describe black soldiers. “You’re talking senior military officers, bigots … (describing blacks) as ‘worthless,’ they should be assigned menial tasks and so on. It was pervasive.”
Under such circumstances, American blacks joined the war to – as one period poster stated – “Defend American Freedom.”
IN THE BACKGROUND
An obvious reason more blacks did not receive the Medal of Honor in World War I is white prejudice kept them out of combat. At the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, archivist Jonathan Casey said the military relegated most blacks to menial tasks, such as clearing roads.
“Typically, they were labor-oriented jobs – stevedores, dock workers, to load and unload ships,” Casey said.
Assignments would have been based, in part, on the standardized Binet test administered by Harvard University Professor Robert Yerkes to American soldiers.
“During World War I, standardized tests helped place 1.5 million soldiers in units segregated by race and by test scores. The tests were scientific, yet they remained deeply biased,” the National Education Association reported.
Although not allowed to fight, blacks and whites who labored behind the front lines contributed mightily to the war effort by sending supplies to the front lines. Without supply lines, there would have been no victory, in keeping with an observation by Gen. George S. Patton: “Gentlemen, the officer who doesn’t know his communications and supply as well as his tactics is totally useless.”
Most of the 350,000 blacks who joined to fight for the United States had little opportunity to show their courage during the war.
“The combat soldiers were a minority” of the blacks who served, Casey said.
The commander of the U.S. Expeditionary Forces, a Missourian, Gen. George “Black Jack” Pershing, decided to assist the allies by turning over control of roughly 30,000 black soldiers to the French Army.
“The French Army definitely needed service members after three-and-a-half years of war. Pershing saw an opportunity to supply the French Army with fresh American troops,” Wescott said.
French officers did not view black soldiers with the same disdain displayed by some white U.S. officers.
“As a European colonizing nation, they had a number of colonies in Africa, the Middle East and other areas, so they were very used to integrated units,” Wescott said. “The French Army knew how to integrate and how to deal with troops from across the colonies, which provided an ample opportunity for African-Americans to serve but also be in viable fighting units.”
Casey agreed the French displayed an accepting attitude toward black combat troops.
“Overall, the cultural view would be different. The French had experience with African troops, like West Africa, Senegal,” Casey said. “That’s not to say the French weren’t prejudiced. … Just that they had experience.”
Black soldiers appreciated fairer treatment, authors
Jeffrey T. Sammons and John H. Morrow Jr. wrote in “Harlem’s Rattlers” about blacks in the war.
“The African- American soldiers appreciated the manner in which their French counterparts treated them, and many of them had begun to learn French,” they wrote.
Wescott said the French welcomed the fresh recruits.
“The French placed our African-American service members in front-line engagements. They needed them,” he said.
Casey said the French armed the newcomers for war.
“Black soldiers in the 93rd Division – the four regiments of infantry – would have had French weapons and equipment, and that includes even the helmets,” he said.
The uniforms remained American.
MEDALS OF HONOR, MEN OF HONOR
Two black men who gave their lives for the United States in World War I each received a Medal of Honor – Cpl. Freddie Stowers, who destroyed one enemy position and died leading his squad to attack another; and Sgt. Henry Johnson, who fought at least a 12-man German raiding party, suffered serious wounds, prevented a fellow soldier from being captured and kept the enemy at bay until relieved, which made him “one of the five bravest American soldiers in the war,” Theodore Roosevelt Jr. wrote in “Rank and File.”
Wescott and his team, called the Valor Medals Review Task Force for World War I, are reviewing records to decide whether a case can be made for any minorities – blacks, Jews, Native Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans – to receive the top medal. Prejudice appeared to make minorities less likely for medals, he said.
“That will be part of our cover narrative when we move all of these recommendations up to the Department of Defense,” Westcott said.
So far, there is no “smoking gun,” no correspondence that states clearly a command staff member denied a Medal of Honor to a minority member due to prejudice, Wescott said.
“There’s no verifiable information that the officers that made (bigoted) comments were in the chain of command for approval or denial,” he said.
Casey said he also has no on-point example of bigotry as the reason for denying a minority the medal.
“I can’t think of an example that’s overt. … There’s always the undercurrent of that, just given the nature of what our society was then,” he said.
Park University’s review could take at least five years and would have little value without congressional support.
“The legislation’s in front of Congress now,” Westcott said.
U.S. Reps. Emanuel Cleaver II and Sam Graves, Missourians from different parties, introduced a House bill to support the work at Park. U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, and Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, proposed similar bipartisan legislation in their chamber. If the legislation passes, then the Department of Defense must consider the findings at Park, though the DoD still would have the final say over whether any nominee’s actions meet requirements for a medal.
“They’re going to go through the process any other Medal of Honor nominee has to go through. There’s a review board we will have no input in,” Westcott said.
The task of reviewing wartime records, often in French, is daunting, he said.
“This is 101 years ago, so we want to make sure that the Department of Defense personnel also understand the study, that I cannot go back and do an oral interview of somebody on the battlefield to validate. It’s a little different than that. Once we recommend, all we can do is give DoD our suggestions – 20, 25, however many passes our review board. Then we go from there,” he said.
Medals of Honor are awarded for heroic acts in combat that go beyond putting one’s life at risk, which is typical in combat, to include a display of “self-sacrifice” to save the lives of others. One example would be jumping on a grenade to save the lives of fellow service members, which is why Missouri’s only living Medal of Honor recipient, Navy Corpsman Don Ballard, Grain Valley, received the medal in Vietnam. Marines who saw the series of actions Ballard took to save their lives, while risking his own, nominated him for the medal. In Ballard’s case, the grenade on which he threw his body did not explode.
Casey cautioned few valorous acts rise to the high level required for a Medal of Honor.
“There are criteria for it, but it’s just sort of a judgment call,” he said
Wescott said some records he has seen may deserve another look by the DoD, based on medal recommendations made during World War I.
“There are, right now, five to six African-Americans … that actually had a recommendation for the Medal of Honor written up and forwarded to the command structure (in World War I),” he said.
Each of those recommendations will receive close scrutiny, Westcott said. One is tied to a 1912 Park University alumni member, George S. Robb. He served as a white officer in the mostly black “Harlem Hellfighters” regiment, much like Col. Robert Shaw in the Civil War led the black 54th Massachusetts Infantry, which provided the basis for the 1989 film, “Glory.”
Westcott said that when he visited the National Archives in Maryland he located the recommendation for Robb’s medal. On the bottom half of the same sheet of paper is another Medal of Honor recommendation, for Sgt. William Butler, 27, a thin black soldier.
“Robb received the Medal of Honor, Butler received the Distinguished Service Cross,” Westcott said. “(Butler) also received the Croix de Guerre with Palms, which is (roughly) the equivalent of the Medal of Honor.”
Research provides the reason Butler received the Medal of Honor nomination, but not why he instead received the Distinguished Cross – the second-highest medal possible – for his actions Aug. 18, 1918.
“Sgt. Butler broke up a German raiding party, which had succeeded in entering the trenches and capturing American service members,” Westcott said. “With an ‘automatic rifle,’ Butler killed four of the raiding party and captured or placed in flight the remainder of the invaders.”
Casey elaborated on what occurred.
“They were advancing and then they were trapped by machine gun fire,” Casey said. “(Butler) decided to see what he could do to end this firefight to save the lives (of his wounded men). He first had to attack the nest and eliminate that (to) ... save these men. Maybe that rises to the criteria we’re talking about for the Medal of Honor. It gets up there.”
Butler’s “automatic rifle” may have been the French chauchat, a machine gun, Casey said. The Germans lost 10 men in the firefight.
“But that wasn’t it. Butler also took a German lieutenant prisoner, freed all the American prisoners and hustled them back to the safety of the trenches,” Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak wrote.
To rescue his fellow Americans from a superior number of enemy troops, Butler put his life at risk, something many thousands of combat soldiers did in the war, but an argument can be made that he did so to save the lives of others – the key criteria for receiving a Medal of Honor.
Westcott has a copy of Butler’s personnel file from the National Personnel Record Center in St. Louis.
“We are now starting to dig down into it. We are looking at the maps of the battlefield, trying to substantiate the location,” Westcott said.
WHY DREDGE UP THE PAST?
After having fought for freedom, many minorities returned stateside to the same Jim Crow hate they had experienced before the war. Many had trouble finding jobs. Some turned to drink. Racists murdered others, with at least 13 veterans lynched, the Equal Justice Initiative reported. Butler, at age 56, hanged himself.
“They’re treated as they had been treated before they left, as if they weren’t any type of hero or had served this country,” Casey said.
After more than 100 years, with soldiers and officers now long dead, Wescott has a ready answer for how scraping scabs from historical wounds is part of the healing process.
“As a Marine, I was trained that no Marine, or soldier, sailor, Coast guardsman, airman on any battlefield should be left behind. I feel that in some of these cases, we may have left a little piece of these young service members on the battlefield, basically because of the circumstances of birth or the color of their skin,” he said. “As a nation, we owe these gentlemen, these service members, one last, final review.”
Casey said the historical record should be accurate.
“Everybody recognizes that – because it’s the highest decoration and it’s such an honor – it’s important for our history,” he said. “It’s a kind of historical justice. It’s like looking ... into somebody who’s been wrongly imprisoned … and then finding the facts demonstrate otherwise, that the person wasn’t guilty.”
Wescott said the research is meaningful to the relatives of men who fought for their country.
“We owe it to their families,” he said. “The daughter of one of our recent Medal of Honor recipients … said, ‘You know, Dr. Westcott, my grandfather would be very proud of what you’re doing.’ But she said, ‘Also remember, he can’t tell you that. But I can. The families appreciate what you’re doing because it might bring some solace to their family stories of service to this nation in a very difficult time.’”