When you find yourself traveling to tourist destinations such as France, Germany, Vietnam, Korea, or anywhere there has been conflict, take a moment to recognize that you are standing on hallowed ground; marked and unmarked memorials. Do your research in advance so you can fully understand the conflicts and appreciate why it happened. Try to imagine what standing in that spot would have meant had you been there during the war. Consider what the world would be like if the war had turned out differently and question whether you would still be welcome to visit/tour those places.
This and every Memorial Day is a day to reflect on those who paid the ultimate sacrifice to secure our freedom and way of life. But this Memorial Day, I want us to think more about our fallen Black soldiers who fought and died for the country they loved even though the country didn’t necessarily love them back the same way. All our fallen heroes and heroines deserve recognition on Memorial Day and every day, but I’ve selected a few Black Medal of Honor* recipients from different conflict eras to highlight how Blacks contributed to our global history.
Henry Johnson (Army)
On May 14, 1918 in Champagne, France, Henry Johnson (Army) received 21 wounds while fighting against a 24-man German patrol in hand-to-hand combat. Miraculously, he survived the assault for another 11 years before succumbing to complications due to the injuries he received in action on July 1, 1929. Johnson was later buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Henry Johnson, originally from Winston-Salem, North Carolina was referred to by Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (not the President, but his son) in 1919, as “one of the five bravest Americans to have served in World War I (WWI).” When Johnson returned from France after recuperating, he was paid to share his experience in WWI as part in a touring lecture series. However, instead of talking about racial harmony in the trenches he revealed the abuse black soldiers received at the hands of white soldiers, which resulted in a warrant being issued for his arrest for “wearing his uniform after leaving military service.” Over the years, there were several attempts to secure the Medal of Honor for his valor in battle, but each attempt failed for unknown reasons. In June 1996, Johnson was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart**by former President Bill Clinton. Later in 2014, New York State Senator Chuck Schumer spearheaded a new campaign to recognize Johnson’s actions, resulting in President Obama posthumously awarding Johnson the Medal of Honor in 2015.
Ruben Rivers (Army)
Ruben Rivers was an Army Staff Sergeant in the 761st Tank Battalion, a black tank battalion (aka, the “Black Panthers”), which served with distinction in Europe during World War II (WWII). Sgt. Rivers received the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions posthumously, but tragically not until nearly 78 years after his death by former President Bill Clinton in 1997.
When the United States entered WWII, Rivers and two of his brothers joined the military, though Rivers was the only one assigned to a combat unit. Rivers played a critical role in some of the earliest action his battalion would see. On November 8, 1944 Rivers and the 761st launched an attack on German combatants in northeastern France. The Germans got the drop on the 761st and Rivers quickly realized that following protocol would fail to give his unit the upper hand. So, “with utter disregard for his personal safety, Rivers courageously dismounted from his tank in the face of direct enemy fire, attached a cable to obstacles on the road and opened a path that permitted the combat team to proceed. His prompt action thus prevented a serious delay in the offensive action and was instrumental in the successful assault and liberation of Vic-sur-Seille, resulting in the battalion receiving its first Silver Star***.”
A little more than a week later, Rivers distinguished himself again, leading the platoon into another assault that resulted in a significant injury to his leg that became infected when Rivers refused medical care in favor of returning to the front lines. As usual, Rivers’ tank led the way as the battalion advanced towards German positions. When his group came under heavy fire, Rivers located a German anti-tank unit and, with one other tank, moved to fire on the area and cover the retreat. In the process, Rivers was fully exposed and as he was ordered back to cover, the Germans quickly concentrated their fire on his tank, killing Rivers instantly.
William Henry Thompson (Army)
William Henry Thompson (Army) sacrificed his life on August 6, 1950, to allow the rest of his unit to escape a group of enemy soldiers during the Korean War. Thompson was born in New York City to a single mother. He grew up in the projects, dropped out school, and lived in a homeless shelter until he turned 18. Thompson viewed the military as a way to escape poverty and as one of the few places African-Americans could enjoy relative comfort, given the limited opportunities available to African-Americans during this era. Despite Thompson’s selfless sacrifice for others, his battalion commander, Lt. Col. Melvin Blair, refused to submit a recommendation for an award for five months after his passing. It was only after a battle of conscious after reflecting on his personal accounts of Thompson’s valor did Lt. Col. Blair have a change of heart and submitted him for the Medal of Honor, resulting in a posthumous presentation to Thompson’s family on June 21, 1951.
This article is a personal “thank you” to these and all fallen heroes/heroines for making the ultimate sacrifice in defense of the American way of life and for upholding the rights we hold most dear. I believe it is our duty as beneficiaries of their sacrifices to not only honor their legacy in memoriam, but to also honor those who are still living and out there in the world working, defending, and sacrificing every day for all of us.
*The Medal of Honor is the highest and most prestigious personal United States military decoration that may be awarded to recognize U.S. military service members who distinguished themselves by acts of valor. The medal is normally awarded by the President of the United States in the name of the U.S. Congress.
**The Purple Heart is a United States military decoration awarded in the name of the President to those wounded or killed while serving, on or after April 5, 1917, with the U.S. military.
***The Silver Star, officially the Silver Star Medal, is the United States military’s third-highest decoration for valor in combat. The Silver Star is awarded primarily to members of the United States Armed Forces for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States.