Blacks and Latinos proudly served their country in uniform overseas during the Great War, even as they faced discrimination at home, and a long-overdue records review may reveal that some were unfairly denied the nation's highest military decoration.
At a Nov. 8 event honoring minorities' contributions to the U.S. war effort, retired Army Col. Gerald York – special adviser to the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission and grandson of Sgt. Alvin York, recipient of the Medal of Honor – praised the Valor Medals Review Task Force, which is conducting the research necessary to identify and correct injustices.
"People say, 'Why are you looking back, that's 100 years ago,'" York told an audience gathered at Pershing Park in Washington, D.C., site of the future National World War I Memorial. "If we made mistakes, we need to rectify those mistakes. We're not a perfect nation, but we try."
York noted that his grandfather was initially awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery in the Argonne on Oct. 8, 1918. Further investigation resulted in an upgrade to the Medal of Honor. "Unfortunately, a lot of African-Americans and a lot of Latinos who did heroic things on the battlefield got lesser awards because of their race, because of their color," York said.
The 1918 armistice ended the fighting between the Allies and Germany, but the work of the American Expeditionary Forces is still not complete, said retired Maj. Gen. Christopher Leins, chairman of the Valor Medals Review Task Force.
One significant post-war task was to make sure that the brave acts of U.S. soldiers were appropriately honored, leading to the initial awarding of 118 Medals of Honor. Yet seven decades passed before a black servicemember, Cpl. Freddie Stowers of the 371st Infantry Regiment, was recognized for his heroism. Reasons included an inconsistent understanding and application of standards, unclear writing, misplaced paperwork and, unfortunately, prejudice, Leins said. In 1991, Stowers became the first African-American soldier from World War I to receive the Medal of Honor, opening the door to retroactive award recommendations for minorities who served in World War II, the Korean War and other conflicts. Yet there was little interest in expanding reviews to include World War I.
Since then, isolated efforts have resulted in the posthumous awarding of Medals of Honor to only two more minority servicemembers from that period, in 2015: Sgt. William Shemin, a Jewish-American soldier from the 47th Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, and Sgt. Henry Johnson, an African-American soldier from the 369th Regiment. Last summer, the World War One Centennial Commission established a partnership with faculty at New York University and Missouri's Park University to see if there are others like Stowers, Shemin and Johnson; a systematic effort is underway to determine if minorities who received the Distinguished Service Cross and foreign valor awards were downgraded due to racial or ethnic bias.
The work will take years and be difficult due to the passage of time and loss of Army personnel records in a 1973 fire, Leins said. Nevertheless, the task force is pressing Congress to officially authorize the records review for 2019, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the return of American forces from Europe.
"The gravity of this award means its rarity must be jealously safeguarded," Leins said. "(The Medal of Honor) can never be allowed to be diluted in the name of making a political point." Yet the nation has an obligation to ensure that every American who demonstrates gallantry and intrepidity in action "receives due recognition regardless of the circumstances incurred or the color of his skin. Only then can we truly say that no veteran, no hero, has been left behind."
Construction of a national memorial is another way to honor all who served, particularly those who fought for a country that did not yet treat them equally under the law, said Eleanor Holmes Norton, U.S. representative for the District of Columbia.
"Once Woodrow Wilson declared that we had entered the war to make the world safe for democracy, the black press took hold of this slogan, and it inspired African-Americans to join the effort," Norton said. "Most saw going to war as an opportunity to show their patriotism and equal citizenship." In fact, black veterans of World War I laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement, she added.
Also delivering remarks was Lawrence Romo, national commander of American GI Forum, a congressionally chartered Hispanic veterans and civil rights organization, and former director of Selective Service System.
Romo told the stories of two highly decorated Latinos who fought in World War I: Army Pvt. Marcelino Serna, a Mexican immigrant and the first Hispanic to receive the Distinguished Service Cross, and Army Pvt. David Barkeley Cantu, the first Spanish-American to receive the Medal of Honor.
On Sept. 28, 1918, during a battle in the Meuse-Argonne, Serna wounded a German sniper and followed him to a trench, throwing in three grenades. Altogether, he killed 26 German soldiers and took 24 prisoners, and became Texas' most decorated World War I soldier. In 1924, Serna became a U.S. citizen, and upon his death in 1992, was buried with full military honors at Fort Bliss National Cemetery in El Paso.
David Barkeley Cantu is one of three Texans awarded the Medal of Honor during World War I. He swam the icy Meuse river in France to gather information behind German lines, but drowned during his return. Cantu was honored posthumously, his Hispanic heritage unknown until 1989.
Romo praised the diversity of today's armed forces, pointing out that roughly 1 percent of Americans are serving in uniform. "Our military today is a true representation of our population and the melting pot we are," he said. "No matter one's ethnic group, religion or gender, their service provides the freedom that everyone in this great country enjoys daily without notice."
The Pershing Park event concluded with a concert by the 369th Experience, a re-creation of the legendary 369th Infantry "Hellfighters" Band that introduced France to ragtime, jazz and blues.
Bobby Sanabria, a drummer, percussionist and leader of his Multiverse Big Band, said every jazz musician today, himself included, owes a debt of gratitude to the 369th Infantry Band, led by Lt. James Reese Europe. "They spread what we call jazz today, which really represents the best of who we are as Americans," Sanabria said. "Jazz represents only one thing, freedom, and that's something to be proud of."
Sanabria, who is of Puerto Rican descent, spoke of Puerto Ricans' contributions to the 369th's role as a musical and cultural ambassador to Europe. One of the most famous was Sgt. Rafael Hernandez Marin, a trombonist who played with the band overseas and later became part of the Harlem jazz scene.
Emceeing the show were James Reese Europe III, grandson of the original 369th Infantry's bandleader, and Noble Sissle Jr., son of the 369th's lead vocalist. Together, they spoke briefly of the band's history and the songs it helped make famous, including "Memphis Blues," "Tiger Rag," "Darktown Strutters' Ball" and "Ja-Da."
The original 369th Infantry Band had 65 African-American and Puerto Rican members. The younger Europe and Sissle assembled a similar group for the 369th Experience over a couple of years, recruiting and auditioning dozens of student musicians from historically black colleges and universities (HBCU). Their first time playing together was a rehearsal for their first performance, on the Intrepid Air, Sea & Space Museum last Memorial Day weekend.
"I’ve been able to listen to some of those original 1919 recordings that Jim Europe and my dad went into the studio and recorded," Sissle said. "Now I’m hearing them in stereo, updated just a little but played pretty much to the note. When they re-create that sound I’m up there tapping my feet like everyone else."
Europe said that as the Great War's centennial began, he saw an opportunity to educate himself on his family's musical roots. "My grandfather and (Sissle's) father brought jazz to Europe and introduced the world to a whole new style of music," he said. "I'm proud of my legacy now, and I'm proud of all these young men who are reviving it. Together we're bringing it back."
The 369th Experience is led by Isrea Butler, a sergeant in the North Carolina National Guard and chairman at the music department at North Carolina Central University who enjoys educating young people on "lost music" like that played by the 369th Infantry Hellfighters.
"This is really part of the fabric of my mission because I’m the secretary on the board for the HBCU Band Directors' Consortium," Butler said. "As a band director, I had started incorporating this music almost by accident, because I was teaching about it in my jazz history course ... students before this, none of them heard about James Reese Europe."
There's also the challenge of helping students reproduce the band's improvisational sound. "If you try to play what’s on the page, it just sounds nothing like what you hear in the recordings," Butler said. "We go back and forth, and it’s a lightbulb moment for them."
Stephen Gregory of Beaumont, Texas, heard about the 369th Experience opportunity from his school's band director. He attends Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., where he plays French horn in SU's Human Jukebox Marching Band.
"I auditioned and I was accepted, and the first trip we took was to New York," Gregory said. "This program today at Pershing Park has opened my eyes even more. I've been able to learn more about the Harlem Hellfighters and the 369th Regiment. It's a grand occasion. They could have gotten any other musicians from around the country, but they chose HBCU students, so I’m really blessed and honored."