This is the second blog post in a series relating to the Medal of Honor.
Today, in advance of Veterans Day, the Veterans History Project (VHP) debuts a new online portal built to share the stories of Medal of Honor recipients in our collection. Through this feature, entitled “Stories Above and Beyond,” we offer access to oral histories and other material from over 150 digitized collections of soldiers, sailors and airman who have received the nation’s highest military honor.
Despite one very noticeable commonality—that gold medallion hung from a baby blue ribbon dotted with white stars—all of these service stories are different. Even the process by which these veterans were awarded the Medal of Honor is unique—and can sometimes constitute a story in and of itself.
Take, for example, the case of Vernon Baker. A Wyoming native, he enlisted in the military to escape the limited employment possibilities open to him as an African American. After basic training, he was sent to Officer Candidate School, and eventually to fight in Italy as part of the 92nd Infantry Division, a segregated division known as the “Buffalo Soldiers” unit, and the only African-American infantry division to see combat in the European Theater. In April 1945, during an attack on a German stronghold, Baker took out multiple machine gun nests and their enemy occupants, and went on to voluntarily lead his men on an advance through enemy minefields. For his actions, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross—the military’s second-highest award.
In the early 1990s, the Army asked military historians at Shaw University, a historically black university in North Carolina, to investigate why no African Americans had been awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II. The outcome? In 1997, Vernon Baker became the first living African American veteran to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Six other African American World War II veterans were awarded the medals posthumously.
The military would go on to evaluate cases relating to Asian-American veterans during World War II, many of whom fought with the 100th Combat Battalion of the 442nd Infantry Regiment, made up largely of Japanese Americans. Some of these soldiers had previously been incarcerated in internment camps with their families. In 2000, 22 Asian-American veterans, including Shizuya Hayashi and George Sakato received the Medal of Honor for their heroism in combat during World War II; all but seven of these medals were given posthumously.
In his oral history, Hayashi relates, “We never [thought] about medals. We just went there to do our job.” Sakato and Baker echo versions of this statement in their own interviews, and, in fact, the humility they display seems to define many Medal of Honor recipients. But it is all the more stunning to hear it from soldiers whose military careers were shaped by racist treatment from the very institution they served. Though recognition was not something that these men sought or expected, in awarding them the Medal of Honor, the military acknowledged not only their heroism, but also the forces of prejudice that had prevented them from receiving the honor more than 50 years earlier.
As President Clinton said at the 2000 awards ceremony, “They didn’t give up on our country, even when too many of their countrymen and women had given up on them. They deserve, at the least, the most we can give— the Medal of Honor.”