Kansas City Historians Will Spend Years Seeking Medals Of Honor For 1918 Soldiers Of Color
One day in September of 1918, First Lieutenant George Robb's job was to take a French town called Sechault from the Germans who'd claimed it. At the time, he was commanding a group of African-American soldiers of the 369th Infantry called the Harlem Hellfighters.
Robb was wounded in what became a machine-gun fight that day, as were many of the men he fought beside. Some of them, including Robb, were recommended for the Medal of Honor, the highest award for valor in action against an enemy, and typically presented by the president of the United States.
"On the same piece of paper (as Robb's recommendation) is a recommendation for a Medal of Honor for a gentleman named William A. Butler from Maryland," says Timothy Westcott, a Park University history professor. "Butler was African American and did not receive the medal of honor."
Butler did receive the Distinguished Service Cross, a prerequisite of sorts to the Medal of Honor, and a Croix de Guerre Palm from the French government.
Westcott, who's also a Marine veteran and the director of the George S. Robb Center for the Study of the Great War at Park University, hopes to right that wrong in his work as co-chair of the Valor Medals Review Task Force.
In the 1990s and 2000s, other universities formed task forces and reviewed soldiers' files from 1918 to identify soldiers who had qualified for, but been denied, the Medal of Honor.
Westcott says the soldier or sailor has to have received the Distinguished Service Cross, and/or the French equivalent, and/or a nomination for the Medal of Honor. Butler qualifies for the medal in all three ways.
But no review until now has aimed to be as comprehensive as the one underway at Park.
Westcott says five groups of servicemembers will be evaluated: African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Jewish Americans and Native Americans.
The task force was founded under the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission, established in 2013 by President Barack Obama to commemorate and coordinate activities as the anniversary of Armistice Day neared. The task force is privately, not federally, funded.
Ashlyn Weber, a history major at Park who's researching the soldiers with two other students, says that though they’re only reviewing 125 to 150 cases, the process will take seven to 10 years to complete.
"We're not just doing military history, we're also doing full personal reviews and genealogy; we want to create the most accurate depiction of that person," Weber says.
Westcott says the reason for the extensive analysis is that they have to meet the 2019 criteria for the Medal of Honor, even though the act of valor took place 101 years ago.
In order to correctly complete the application, Westcott says they must provide a latitude and longitude, and maps of the fields or streets where the act took place, as well as the exact weather down to the hour.
"The French are not known for good record-keeping. The Germans are, so all of our weather reports are in German, so we have to go through the German record system to find the weather on a particular day of September 1918 at 10 a.m.," Westcott says.
For Weber, hunting down these details is not tedious but part of what it means to be a historian. She says she wants to keep the stories alive, and she thinks the research will bring the men back in a way.
"Many of these men have been ignored for the past 100 years, for different reasons, but one of them is because of their race," Weber says.
"They were ignored when they came home, and they've never been given attention since. We want to make sure they get as much justice as any other person that served," she added.
It will be Westcott's job to speak with descendants of the men to whom he hopes Congress eventually awards the Medal of Honor. Two daughters he called as part of his research, now in their 70s and 90s, cried, saying that they were not only glad for someone to look at their fathers' records again, but that the project felt healing to them after decades of discrimination based on race or religion.
"History has an opportunity here to right a wrong," he notes. "As historians, this is our job, to review history, and then how do we amend, correct, commemorate, servicemembers from these five groups who served our nation?"
Timothy Westcott spoke with KCUR on a recent edition of Central Standard. Listen to the conversation here.
Correction: The headline for this story originally said historians would spend years seeking "medals of valor." While the Medal of Honor is a valor medal, and the name of the group working on the project is the Valor Medals Review Task Force, the group is seeking Medals of Honor.
Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.