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Issue 05/26/11 - Vol. 42, Issue 20

Black Patriots - America's Forgotten Legacy
By Frederick Gomez  

­Often times, real life surpasses anything found in fiction.  And because it is fact, not fantasy, such renderings resonate with greater drama, passion, and wonder.  In 1916, during the Punitive Expedition into Mexico, the 13th U.S. Cavalry, led by Major Frank Thomkins, became trapped by forces sympathetic to Mexican revolutionary leader, Francisco “Pancho” Villa.  When things could not look worse for the trapped Americans, the all-Black U.S. 10th Calvary, led by a Black commander, Major Charles Young, made an 11th-hour rescue of the all-white regiment!  Major Thomkins, realizing that he and his men would, indeed, live to see another day, proclaimed, “By God, Young, I could kiss every Black face out there!”  Smiling broadly, Young answered back, “Well, Tomkins, if you want to, you may start with me!”            
It stirs the human soul to know how humankind can galvanize itself to self-sacrifice, in the name of loyalty and love of country.  Despite cruelty, bigotry, inhumane treatment, and even the threat of death, there are rare and uplifting examples of how the human spirit can overcome all of this, to raise itself to a level of altruistic nobility.  There is something in the human heart – and spirit – that can deflect corruption and despair.  As Emerson has it:  “From the debris of our despair we build our character.”

Flowery prose, to be sure.  But there have been real people who have “walked that talk.”  History records authentic examples of how a rarified sampling of Americans – Black Americans – rose to new heights in defending their country, the same country that often elected to destroy them outright, or to relegate them to sub-human slavery.  Or, at the very least, to ostracize them, as lepers were.  
Yet, America’s black military patriots distinguished themselves and, in so doing, vilified and debased their detractors in contradistinction.  History would judge the injustice in retrospection. Those who hated them and wished them dead, would only fall upon their own swords.

In 1940s America, very little opportunities were afforded military black enlistees.  As such, few black military personnel were able to reveal their true heroic colors.  “They could not expect to rise in the ranks or even to serve in combat positions.”  (African American Military Heroes, by Jim Haskins, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998.)  Despite this restriction of combat duties, one fateful day would prove differently for a very ordinary, non-combat-trained black sailor, Seaman Dorie Miller, who served as a simple Mess Attendant on board the USS West Virginia, anchored at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  As a lowly Seaman Second Class, Miller’s perfunctory chores included waiting tables in the mess hall.  For the big, strapping, former Texas farm boy, Seaman Miller would soon come face-to-face with a part of himself that he never – in his wildest dreams – knew existed!    
On December 7, 1941, at around 7:53 a.m. on a quiet Sunday morning, events would forever change, not only the world, but a young black patriot not far out of boot camp.  The sound was wicked, like rolling thunder in the distance, getting louder, and getting closer!  Then a chill was felt on his skin when he first heard the ship’s public address system go off:  “AIR RAID! AIR RAID! THIS IS NOT A DRILL!”  Miller climbed up to the main deck, just as a bomb instantly ripped apart the ship’s bridge, badly wounding his captain, Mervyn Bennion.  In addition to the carnage, and confusion, were the deafening sounds of huge explosions all about him.  Chaos and disorientation took root as destruction after destruction continued to take its grisly toll everywhere!  With no regard for his own safety, Miller dragged his captain to a safer spot, where the captain soon died, his last vision being of Miller, who cradled him in his massive arms, trying in vain to save him.  But now, Capt. Bennion -- family man -- lay dead.  In one fell stroke, his wife was widowed; his children without a father.  With a vengeance, Miller, the Mess Attendant, dodged bombs and explosions of torpedoes to zig-zag his way to the anti-aircraft machine guns, where only half of them were being manned.  Miller had never touched such a weapon of destruction before, let alone fired one!  Yet instinct took over and he kept up a steady stream of fire while a heavy hail of enemy counter-fire strafed and scarred the deck he stood fast upon.

While many lay dead and many more took for cover, the young black patriot gave not an inch in defense of his sacred country.  How dare they claim his captain!  How dare they attack his country in such a vulgar, obscene bloodbath!  Nothing prepared him for this.  Nothing could.  After all, he was a galley busboy; a simple country boy who once worked on his daddy’s farm. He had never seen a person die before; never before touched the weapon he now possessed; nor felt the ungodly vibration of explosions that now surrounded him.  But, one thing was clear:  until all hands were ordered from the burning ship, Seaman Miller, who only previously cleaned off food tables, helped the Pearl Harbor fleet shoot down twenty-nine Japanese planes – accounting for four strikes of his own -- before his ammunition ran out! When all was said and done, history had seldom seen such modern, heroic bravery, especially  from a member of a downtrodden people, who might easily have been infused with a feeling of detachment, with little or no affinity for country.  Yet – personal feelings aside – the young Texan showed love and loyalty when his country, and countryman, needed it most!  The young man from the Lone Star State made his own history that day.  He was decorated like no one else before him.  He became the very first African American to receive the Navy Cross.  But prejudice ran deep within the military ranks; the black patriot’s heroism was widely ignored by the white press.  However, his exploits were extensively covered by the African-American press corps.

How did Miller feel about all this discrimination for all he had just done?  He could not have cared less.  What he did, he did out of principle and love of country.  That was reward enough for him.  No one could take that intrinsic joy away from him.  All he wanted to do was travel with the navy and enjoy life and defend his country.  Sadly, in December 1943, he was killed with his entire crew of 700 when a Japanese torpedo sank his ship, the USS Liscome Bay in the South Pacific.

But, Miller’s legacy lives on, to this very day.  In 1971, a barracks at the Great Lakes training camp was named in his honor.  In 1973, a destroyer-escort warship, named the USS Miller, was commissioned in his memory.  And in 1985, a memorial monument was erected at the Veterans Administration hospital in Waco, Texas, the city where he first entered into this world.
But, discrimination continued to nip at his heels, even after he gave up his life for country.  In 1988, a bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to give Seaman Dorie Miller the Congressional Medal of Honor, posthumously.  The Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest possible military award; the award that made Gen. George Patton utter, “I’d give my immortal soul for that medal.”   The medal that would have made the down-to-earth Mess Attendant, and farm boy from Waco, Texas, the first African American to receive it in World War II, for his heroic patriotism on that fateful Pearl Harbor day.  The day he thought nothing of himself and everything for his country.  The day he, personally, shot down four Japanese Zeros; Zero fighter planes that took away some of his best buddies, and his beloved captain.  The day he found a part of himself he never knew was there.  The day he showed the world how glorious America can be, and how resilient she is under siege.  

Seaman Miller’s Medal of Honor nomination failed to pass.

However, his namesake, the USS Miller, still sails onward -- like his spirit which lives onward in all the crewmen that board his ship!  The warship he begat through his valor.  His warship, the destroyer-escort USS Miller, that sails the very seas that he rests in.  

From the first African slave to leave footprint on colonial soil, to present-day America, so also
spans the timeline of African American military history:  there has never been a war waged by the United States – abroad or within our own country – in which African Americans did not participate – and die.  Not one.  A fact that, to this day, is not widely known.  Sadder yet, that few have been inspired to chronicle this military history of African-American patriotism. It remains only a lingering footnote to an overlooked legacy.

From the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, both World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the contemporary wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and various other skirmishes across the planet – African Americans were, and are, involved.  (Military History of African Americans, Wikipedia, 2008)

One must turn the pages of history back to colonial America to taste and feel the beginnings
of black patriotism.  It was then, that the roots of African American military history first found soil.

Black slaves often served without conscription, unlike that which is manifest in the draft.  And though it is true that early blacks gained their freedom when they enlisted, it is equally true that many were already free when they entered service.  In short, they often served by their own volition, sans pressure or coercion.  And whether slave or free black, they often fought in
uniform with little or no regard for themselves, raising the bar for bravery, to the point where their legacy has only itself as a point of reference.  They were often unequalled in the field of  
battle.  This, by the very testimony and diaries of their white commanders.  But, what motivated them?  How does one learn to embrace the entity that enslaved them?  How does one overcome injustice, and slavery to the level of forgiveness?  How does love overcome the hatred?  It is an indefinable quality.  

Patriot, Crispus Attucks (1723?-1770), an African American, died during the pre-Revolutionary War period.  He was the first patriot – black or white – who was killed in colonial protest against the British.  This was long before the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord.  This black patriot involved himself as part of a mob rioting against British soldiers and was subsequently killed when he attacked said soldiers who were guarding a custom house.  Attucks was not the only one killed that day; but he was the first.  The episode is widely known as the Boston Massacre.  What is not widely-known is Crispus Attucks’ supreme sacrifice at that historic confrontation; a fact not prevalent in some American history books.  The year was 1770.  Attucks perished defending the principles of the country he was, ironically, brought to . . . as a slave!  For the record, Crispus Attucks was the scion of an African slave and Native American mother.  (African American Military Heroes, by Jim Haskins, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1998)  
From the very onset, African American patriots were there, but the scope of their achievements was often curtailed by racial constraints.  How much more would they have contributed as patriots, if left unrestrained?  No one will ever know.  As it is, they already contributed mightily.  
Black soldiers served in various northern militia groups, but they were not allowed to participate in the southern counterparts.  Southern whites feared arming them, keeping them only as subdued slaves.  

Not all black slaves fought on the side of colonial America.  Over 100,000 escaped to the  British invaders, who promised them freedom.  (A sanctified right all humans should be pardoned for pursuing.  For want of freedom, no reasonable fault can be found.)  

For the record, the British, for the most part, reneged on their promise for freedom.  The descendants of those early Black Loyalists currently reside in Canada, to this day.  An estimated 5,000 African American soldiers fought as Revolutionaries.  Perhaps 20,000 fought with the British.  Among the black patriots to emerge during this conflict were Peter Salem and Salem Poor, to name but two.  One striking example was Loyalist Colonel Tye, who actually became one of the most successful commanders of the war!  

One of the more startling examples of military service was that given by Deborah Sampson (1760-1827), an African American woman who disguised herself as a man, and did so with great success.  She sewed her own suit and took the alias, Robert Shurtleff.  Sampson joined not for comfort or freedom; she joined for valiant battle and her bravery was celebrated.  In the battle at Tarrytown, New York (July 15, 1781), she was wounded three times, a saber slashed a deep gash on her head, and two musket balls were shot into her leg!  Not wanting to reveal her true identity as a woman she protested going to the hospital, and had to be carried there by her fellow soldiers, a distance of six miles!  Once there, she remained adamant about keeping her gender a secret and only reported her head wound to the doctors.  Hiding her agony, she did not mention the two musket balls still buried deep in her leg!  Few people could have endured the pain or masked the excruciating expression on their faces.  Yet she did.  And while there, Sampson did something else few people could have endured.  While convalescing at the hospital she managed to get her hands on some surgical instruments and in resolute silence – without crying out in hellish torment – she dug out one of the deep-rooted musket balls!  Try as she did, the second musket ball was imbedded too deeply among the flesh and bone to be retrieved.  And so it stayed with her.  Along with her other masquerade.  

But Deborah Sampson’s disguise as a man was a secret that was soon to be exposed!  A few months after the bloodletting at Tarrytown, she again marched into battle, this time at the famous Battle of Yorktown, the pivotal donnybrook which would win America’s independence from England!  And she was there, battle scars and all, and she helped set colonial America on the road to become a new republic that would morph into present-day United States of America! Sampson was again ferocious in that battle.  This time she was shot through the shoulder and said not a word, nor a whimper.  Only afterwards did she collapse during the march north.  The black patriot warrior – the likes few have seen through the prism of time – was now unconscious when taken to a field hospital, where her pulse was so delicate, and so slight, that she was almost pronounced dead.  By the grace of God, a Philadelphia physician, by the name of Dr. Barnabas Binney, discerned an ever-so-slight pulse and proceeded to operate.  It was then, that this legend of a fighting ‘man’ was discovered to be a delicate flower in disguise.  Fierce and strong, yes, but a feminine creature, nonetheless.  Before she became a free black (which, by the way, she was before she entered military service), she earned her endurance and strength as a small slave child in bondage.  

So moved was the good doctor -- looking down at the unconscious black woman patriot --
that he took pity on her and took it upon himself to preserve her precious secret so that she could continue to do in life what she so dearly loved:  to serve and protect her country.  Dr. Barnabas even offered his home for her to continue her recovery, and there she stayed until she was strong again, and able to return to her regiment.  She finally died, on April 29, 1827, her secret fully exposed.  Today, if you ever visit Sharon, Massachusetts, and you find your way to the Rockridge Cemetary, you can pay her a visit.  Carved on the back of her simple tombstone are these very words:   “Deborah Sampson Gannett, Robert Shurtleff, The Female Soldier:  1760-1827”  

And there she lies.  Her tombstone sits like a sentinel, as she once was.  As an orphaned slave child of five, Deborah Sampson was later given over to a kindly Baptist pastor when she was still a little girl, eight years of age.  That small, innocent child grew up strong, and self-sacrificing, to become one of the greatest, most imposing, black patriots in the whole sweep of American history.  We may never again see the likes of her again.  She is now in the best of hands.

Realizing the value of black soldiers, a white military commander, Francis Marion, of “Swamp Fox” fame, added black volunteers to burgeon his guerilla units by 50-percent!  Black soldiers proved critical in his victories!  Another ingredient to success was the fighting in the swamps:  Black troops were often found to be immune to malaria through sickle-cell anemia, while Marion’s other white guerillas were incapacitated with malaria and yellow fever!

In the War of 1812, a staggering one-fourth of all the combatants in the American naval squadrons during the Battle of Lake Erie -- were black!  If you should stroll, today, through the Nation’s Capitol, you will see portraits of the Battle of Lake Erie on the walls:  they show how black servicemen played a critical role!  Also, paintings on the rotunda of Ohio’s Capitol reveal this!

The tapestry and richness of hero black soldiers and sailors is, sadly, mostly unknown to the general American populace.  Even amongst blacks, themselves.  Hopefully, newspapers, such as this one, will perpetuate and keep alive accurate historical renderings that have played a critical role in the formation of this American republic.  Hopefully, both blacks and whites (and other thnicities), will find this reading to be a powerful testimony of how we all merge together in a common history, as Americans, of every stripe, and background.  Because, once we become blasé, and unmoved, by our common history, then we run the danger of becoming stagnant and dormant as a people -- and a nation that has no interest or pride of American heritage.

During the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), black military men served as both soldiers and naval personnel on various warships, such as the USS Treasure and the USS Columbus.  The U.S. Civil War marked their involvement also, but not so in the South as in the North.  The southern whites moved more along reluctant lines and distrust of Black slaves bearing firearms.  Nevertheless, over 38,000 free and Black slaves died fighting in the Civil War.  

And then came the Indian Wars (intermittently, 1822-1918), with Black regiments attaining note as Buffalo Soldiers.  The Native Americans associated the black soldiers’ dark skin, stamina, and short curly hair to that of the plains’ buffalo, hence the name, Buffalo Soldiers.  

Blacks subsequently served through the Spanish-American War (1898) where they garnered
an impressive five Medals of Honor, for their bravery, and self-sacrifice beyond normal levels of combat!  How impressive were black soldiers in their combat roles?  Well, it was so remarkable as to move some white commanders to begin to prefer black soldiers over white ones!  This occurred in the case of Maj. Gen. William Shafter, who went on record as preferring his “Buffalo Soldiers” over their white counterparts!

In addition to serving in Regular Army units during the Spanish-American War, Black Americans served in five African American Voluntary units, as well as seven African American National Guard units!  Their contribution was off the charts!  World War I was around the corner and, again, black patriots rose to new levels of combat achievement.

Because U.S. Armed Forces remained segregated during World War I, African Americans eagerly – and enthusiastically – volunteered to join up with the Allied forces.  There was no holding them back.  And though it is true that many African Americans were not permitted to see combat roles but only support roles, many did see combat.  Case in point, one of the most distinguished units was the 369 Infantry Regiment, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” and for good reason:  they were placed on the front lines for six months, longer than any other American unit in the entire war!  Out of this group of “Harlem Hellfighters,” 171 members were
Awarded the “Legion of Merit.”  Impressive!

Seems even the lowly black corporals gave the ultimate sacrifice, as hell-bent soldiers.  Their morale seemed to tap into some unknown reserve.  Corporal Freddie Stowers, a young black soldier of the 371st Infantry Regiment, was so towering in his bravery as a  U.S. soldier that he was awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously, when he willingly gave up his life so that others might live, during World War I.  Stowers died from his wounds, on the battlefield, after he led a charge on German trenches.  The lowly-ranked corporal continued to lead and encourage his men, even after being painfully wounded – twice, before he closed his eyes for the last time.  The supreme insult was yet to come.  After being recommended for the Medal of Honor after his valiant death on the battlefield, the U.S. Army “misplaced” his nomination.  Many believed --
with justification – that the American Army, intentionally ‘misplaced’ Stowers’ Medal of Honor nomination because of “institutionalized racism.”  In 1990 – only after pressure from the U.S. Congress – the Department of the Army launched an investigation.  Based on investigative findings, the Army Decorations Board approved Corporal Freddie Stowers’ award for the Medal of Honor.  On April 24, 1991 – 73 years after he died for his country – Stowers’ two surviving sisters journeyed to Washington, D.C.  They had an appointment at the White House, a long-awaited appointment that they vowed to keep on behalf of their late, heroic brother.  Their brother’s voice had been silenced for three-quarters of a century, but his sisters would continue the ‘good fight’ for his memory and love of country.  President George H.W. Bush met Freddy’s two living sisters and with great emotion bestowed Freddy’s ‘misplaced’ Medal of Honor to their waiting, out-stretched hands.  Closure had finally been reached.  To some degree, at least.  The young black corporal never lived to see the day.  Nor the discrimination that kept him from being truly honored as a patriot warrior.

How prevalent was this?  How many “misplaced” medals were kept from their rightful owners – merely because they were despised for being born black?  An ongoing investigation was conducted that resulted in not a skeleton found in the Army’s closet, but a cemetery!  Seven other African Americans were found to be “ignored” of receiving their Medals of Honor in a subsequent war -- World War II -- by the U.S. Army, merely because of the color of their skin.  Apparently the army did not learn its lesson with Corporal Freddy Stowers!  An investigation gave these seven Black American patriots their due reward that racial prejudice had misplaced for far too long.  On January 13, 1997, President Bill Clinton, awarded these seven Black patriots their Medals of Honor.  There was only one who lived to see the day, Second Lieutenant, Vernon J. Baker.  The others had since died.

The actual historical number of “overlooked” African Americans who should have been medal-recipients will never be known for certain.  Much has been lost through the years, and what has survived is often sketchy at best.  Details and reports were altered and edited to downplay black heroics, as in the case of Vernon Baker.  Baker’s original report praised his “magnificent courage” in expansive detail.  Sadly, the report was sullied by the hand of bigotry.  The U.S. Army’s own retrospective investigative report found a sad saga:  “But the report was edited by top army officials.  They downplayed Baker’s heroism.  The service hierarchy was far too racist to give a Black man the nation’s highest military honor.”  (African American Military Heroes.  Ibid)

From war to war, from engagement to engagement, from bloody death to bloody death, Black American patriots were never fully treated equally.  And this, for all they have done to ensure our freedom.  Our safety.  Our lives.  During World War II, racial discrimination flourished.  At parades, church services, in transportation, and canteens, the races were dutifully kept separate.  About 125,000 African Americans served overseas during World War II.  Despite their mistreatment, they emerged as diamonds out of the rough.  Their deeds and accomplishments were their voices – their testimony – as to who they truly were.

Famous segregated fighting units, such as the Tuskegee Airmen, and the 761st Tank Battalion proved themselves in actual combat.  They paved the way – by demonstration and action – for President Harry S. Truman to finally desegregate all the U.S. Armed Forces, by Executive Order 9981, on July of 1948.  Once the color barrier had been lifted, valiant black servicemen flexed what they were really capable of doing!  Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who first served as a Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, made textbook history:  he became the first African-American general in the United States Air Force!  This same Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. commanded the all-Black 332nd Fighter Group, an elite flying force whose pilots were awarded more than 800 medals for their heroism!  ( “Black Americans of Achievement,” Schlessinger Video Production, 1992).  O’Davis, Jr. made his father proud.  His father?  None other than Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. -- the first African American Brigadier General of the Army (1940).  Great gene pool, wouldn’t you say?

Have we truly learned from our past?  Is it a bit of a stretch of the imagination that such racial malfeasance pervades our military today?  It seems highly unlikely.  Or does it?  It has been documented that many post-World War II survivors have either denied or ignored their black counterparts.  And when they did acknowledge them, they downplayed their heroics.  (“The Right To Fight,” by Gerald Astor, Presidio Press, 1998).

Is it well to remember our past transgressions?  And if so, for what purpose?  Quite simply, because it happened.  And as much as fact can be disturbing to the reader, it is much, much more disturbing to ignore or alter such facts in our history books.  Because, once we begin to deliberately hide or distort human history, then we begin to fail ourselves as enlightened, civilized human beings who may never learn from our past.  The good, as well as the bad.  For we learn from the fonts of both.  As famed philosopher, George Santanya, phrased it:   “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  

There is an indelible reason that America remains unchallenged as the greatest nation of people on this Blue Marble.  In the final analysis, we are not fearful of staring down our shortcomings, thereby allowing us to correct them as best we can.  There will never be a perfect nation.  There will never be such a thing as a perfect collection of people.  But we Americans come closest to it, on God’s green Earth.  We are the torchbearers for all others.  This article comes not as an indictment but, rather, as an affirmation as to how far we have risen.   Anyone can become an American.  But, a true American will cherish our country, and love our country -- not with ‘blind love,’ but valid love – to keep her honorable, and free, and on the path to righteousness.  On this task, we cannot waiver, nor afford to fail.  Because we are the last best hope of the Earth.  Lincoln said it best, “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of Earth.  Other means may succeed; this could not fail.  The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just – a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”

Aside from the conventional photo credits, I wish to acknowledge Ms. Brooke Cruthirds, Museum Curator, at the African American Military History Museum, at Hattiesburg, Mississippi, for her behind-the-scenes hard work in assisting me.  Also, Ms. Kay Peterson, in the Archive Dept. of the Smithsonian Institute at Washington, D.C.

May God forever bless our great nation, and keep safe our troops, who defend us daily.  May we always stand united, and strong.  For there comes a time – when we are challenged – that we are no longer a spectrum of color – we are only Americans.