By DAVID WILLIAMSON
UNC-CH News Services
CHAPEL HILL -- Research by a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill history professor helped lead President Bill Clinton to award the Congressional Medal of Honor to black World War II veterans today (Jan. 13). Until now, no black soldiers have been so honored for bravery during World War II.
Vernon Baker of St. Maries, Idaho, a member of the all-black 92nd Infantry, or Buffalo Division, was the only one of seven recipients to receive the top military medal personally. The other six already had died in combat or after the war ended.
"In 1993, Dr. Daniel Gibran, an international studies expert at Shaw University, told me he had heard of a U.S. Army proposal to research why no black soldiers had won the Medal of Honor in World War II," said Dr. Richard Kohn, professor of history at UNC-CH and former chief historian for the U.S. Air Force. "Daniel asked me if I'd like to submit a research proposal with him, and the army decided to fund our proposal. They gave us a year to do the work."
Kohn and Gibran were asked to determine if any black soldiers had been nominated for the medal, what happened to their nominations and if there were any irregularities in the process in the War Department or theaters of combat. Kohn chairs the university's curriculum in peace, war and defense and is the executive secretary of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies.
"Even though thousands of black soldiers served in combat in World War II and won many combat awards, none had won the Medal of Honor," Kohn said. "The black community was upset about this, and we were to look for evidence of racism or impropriety so that an injustice could be righted if one had occurred."
The researchers put together a team of top military historians familiar with government records, including three retired senior officers who spent a year poring through combat records of black units in archives throughout the United States. While they found no written evidence, they got word from sources that four men had been nominated for the top honor.
The Army then asked for recommendations, Kohn said, and the historians suggested that recipients of the Distinguished Service Cross -- the nation's second highest military honor -- be re-evaluated. They also discovered other black soldiers whose heroic efforts had been lost to memory.
"We explained that the Army was segregated during World War II and reflected racist assumptions of that era, including the idea that blacks could not fight as well as whites, which is obviously not true," Kohn said. "Not until later in the war did the two black divisions see combat, and so blacks did not have the same opportunity to win the Medal of Honor."
Many instances of black heroism were uncovered through records and more than 40 interviews, and at least a few instances of racism, including a temporary battalion commander who killed a Medal of Honor nomination.
Kohn suggested the names and unit designations of the 10 black men identified be removed from their records and submitted to a senior officer board for re-evaluation along with 10 whites who actually won the medal for comparison. Through the anonymous re-evaluation, seven of the 10 black soldiers were selected as deserving recognition and sent up through the chain of command, eventually reaching the U.S. Senate and the White House.
"We are very excited about this, and so is the black community," Kohn said. "One of the ways you act fairly in society is to right past injustices whenever you can. This is an instance where the Army, the Department of Defense, the White House and the Congress have acted together for the benefit of the entire country."
A book Kohn, Gibran and others wrote on their research will be published soon. Royalties will go to Shaw University and to UNC-CH's Arts and Sciences Foundation to support minority graduate students and others researching black U.S. military history.
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Note: Kohn can be reached at (919) 962-3093 (w) or 419-0323 (h).
Contact: David Williamson