FACEism: Why black solders during WWII were denied recognition for heroism

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Saturday, February 4, 2023
Once-secret document sheds light on racism in military during WWII
A once-secret military document shines light on why black soldiers in the U.S. military for decades were denied the recognition they deserved.

Castle Aghinolfi has been sitting high above a stunning Italian coastline for 1,500 years.

There are many stories in its past. But there's one in particular that teaches us about America.

During World War II, an incredible American soldier named Vernon Baker single-handedly did something unimaginable.

Baker was part of a segregated African American unit whose mission was to capture the castle.

He set out with 25 men. Almost all were killed, the rest wounded.

But Baker kept fighting - dodging minefields, knocking out machine-gun nests and watchtowers and taking on German after German.

Thanks to his courage, the castle was captured.

And Baker was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

But, with such an incredible feat, why not our highest award - the Medal of Honor?

Simple answer: No African Americans received that honor for World War II, at least during that era.

To understand why, retired Army Col. Krewasky Salter, a military historian, first must explain the history of the black soldier in America.

"Minorities in the military have always been an integral part of our military service," Salter says.

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It's a crucial reminder on why remembering that dark chapter is so important in today's world.

From the Revolutionary War on, the African American soldier has always distinguished himself with honor - fighting for our freedom, even though in many cases, freedom was denied to him.

In fact, one of the most legendary units in our history was known as the Buffalo Soldiers, all African Americans famous for their toughness. Between 1866 and 1891, they were awarded 18 Medals of Honor, Salter says.

Salter has a Ph.D. in military history specializing in African Americans. He says Vernon Baker's story is just a glimpse at the realities of being black in WWII.

To explain, the colonel displays a once-secret document from 1925.

It's from the Army War College, which at the time was where officers - primarily white men - in the army would go to further their military education.

The subject of the document is "The use of Negro man power in war." It's a hateful study the Army War College used right up to World War II, teaching officers about African American soldiers.

It's 60 pages but its main points are summarized on the first page in a series of blatant racist stereotypes.

For example, it describes the Negro as "subservient" to the white man. It says the Negro "cannot control himself in the fear of danger" and says he is "mentally inferior."

"It turns back all of the great things that African Americans had done," Salter says.

Due to this study and other stereotyping, African American weren't allowed to fight until late in the war. And that's when Vernon Baker - and so many others - proved that study wrong.

But it wasn't until decades later that Baker and others got the recognition they deserved.

A special review determined seven African Americans were denied the Medal of Honor in World War II due to prejudice. But by that time, 1997, Vernon Baker was the only one still alive.

President Bill Clinton honored Baker at the White House 52 years after his amazing feat.

"They were denied this nation's highest honor but their deeds can not be denied," Clinton said.

As the crowd stood, finally recognizing him as a hero, Baker was moved to tears.

When World War II ended, there were many accounts of our brave African American soldiers elated to board the ship home.

But upon their arrival, the gangplank to shore split in two directions: The sign said whites one way, coloreds the other.

The war against Jim Crow was far from over.