Robert Child, how did you come to write the book? After all, it is an important story that needs to be told.
I had written and produced a film for National Geographic called, The Wereth Eleven, about black soldiers in World War II which subsequently became a co-written book I produced with Penguin Random House titled, The Lost Eleven. Writing about black soldiers’s WWII service introduced me to these seven black soldiers who had received the Medal of Honor. I believed that there was more to tell about who they were as human beings beyond their Medal of Honor citations.
These men are unsung heroes in every sense, and they had to wait more than 40 years to be awarded America’s highest military honour. Why was that?
Unfortunately there was institutional racism within the US military which was deeply entrenched and pervasive. The Shaw University study undertaken in 1993 to determine why no black soldiers received the Medal of Honor in WWII determined that there was an unspoken rule that “no black soldiers would be recommended for the nation’s highest military honor no matter what the circumstance.”
Did these men experience plaudits and respect before the official recognition?
Most returned home to civilian life without widespread recognition with the exception of their own immediate black communities. In Detroit Charles Thomas was the honored guest at a gala to celebrate his accomplishment of being awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. This is the military’s second highest medal for valor. In Los Angeles, Sgt. Edward Carter was honored at a “Welcome Home Joe” for GIs to celebrate his receiving the DSC.
They fought in many different theatres of war, but one could easily argue the African American experience of WW2 has been erased (e.g. movies etc.). Surely it’s time for a revision?
I couldn’t agree more. There are so many stories yet untold of black soldiers’ heroic service in the Second World War that would make for amazing stories on screen. My story of the Wereth Eleven is a perfect example and finished the screenplay of that story last year. It is actively being shopping to studios in Los Angeles.
All seven subjects of the book are heroes but does any one stand out for you, a man that perhaps struggled more after the war than the others?
Absolutely there is a man who continued to struggle after the war and he graces the cover of the book. He is Sgt. Edward Carter who after the war came home to a country that did not welcome him as it did all the men. However, Carter who remained in the military tried to reenlist in 1949 and was denied. He had served in the Spanish Civil War fighting with Americans on the side of the communists and was suspected of being a communist himself. That was proven by an investigation as completely false yet it marred his life after the war until his death in 1963. He was never allowed to reenlist. Subsequent investigations by his daughter-in-law and US News & World Report magazine cleared his name and a formal apology was given in a public ceremony at the Pentagon in 1999.
Why did African Americans receive the Medal of Honor soon after the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War, but not the two biggest conflicts of the 20th century, WW1 & WW2?
That is a question that perplexed me. The early 20th century was a time of deep prejudice in the United States with the influx of immigrants and blacks were intermixed in all of that. There was a reemergence of the Klu Klux Klan in 1915 and attitudes were very dark entering WWI and worsened by WWII.
Seven Medals of Honor were awarded to African Americans, but over a million men served. Are there other similar acts of gallantry that were ignored?
Absolutely there were other acts of heroism that were ignored but that is finally changing. There are two active online petitions to honor two more black soldiers from WWII with the Medal of Honor. Those men are Waverly Woodson and Dorie Miller. Both soldiers performed above and beyond the call of duty and it appears that they will finally receive their recognition with the nation’s highest military honor.
What has been the reaction from the families of this book?
They have been delighted as well as excited that the stories of their family members will continue to inspire younger generations. That is why we included photos of Sgt. Carter’s grandchildren in the book. All are proud of the legacy these men have left behind.
What were the main challenges in writing this book – after all the seven men have passed on, and only one was alive to receive his award in 1997.
I set the bar high in that I wanted to bring these men’s stories to life as it had never been done as the challenge was so difficult due to lack of information. However, based on my many years of producing television documentaries and the research skills I had developed I knew that I could pull together every resource possible and uncover their stories.
What’s next for you?
I have more historical projects in the pipeline including a book about one of America’s founding fathers that shed new light on this role in securing the nation’s independence.
Robert Child is a historian and author of Immortal Valor: The Black Medal of Honor Winners of World War II.
Aspects of History Issue 7 is out now.