Black History Month: Decorated SoldiersUpdated: February 1, 2024
During Black History Month we commemorate the contributions and achievements of African American figures in U.S. History. We remember those men and women of color who served and made sacrifices in support of the United States military – despite the challenges and adversity – and we are grateful for their service every day. The list is long and we can not fit them all here, but the following are just a few of the notable heroes from our military history.
Sergeant William Carney
Sergeant William Carney served as a member of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry. Carney became the first African American to receive the Medal of Honor for his courage and honor of the colors. The colors were reported to have been shot down during the Battle of Fort Wagner. Accounts tell of a wounded Carney retrieving the flag and returning it back to his regiment, declaring, “The Old Flag never touched the ground!”
Maj. Martin Robison Delany
Major Martin Robison Delany became the first African-American field officer in the U.S. Army. He led the U.S. Colored Troops Regiment during the Civil War and became the highest ranking officer at the time. Delany was an active abolitionist, accomplished physician, and editor.
Born into slavery in 1844, Cathay Williams helped Union forces during the Civil War after they occupied regions in Mid-Missouri where Williams was a slave. in 1866, she posed as a man named “William Cathay” and enlisted in the U.S. Army. A military surgeon eventually discovered she was a woman in 1868, and she was discharged. She became the first woman to enlist, and is the only documented woman to have served for military service while posing as a man.
World War I
Benjamin O. Davis
In 1940, Benjamin O. Davis became the first African American Brigadier General in the U.S. Armed Forces. Davis enlisted during the Spanish-American War and later as a private with the 9th Cavalry, one of the original Buffalo Soldier regiments. His career spanned over 50 years, with his later years dedicated to changing policies for integration of Black service members.
Henry Johnson was part of the 369th Infantry Regiment in World War I, otherwise known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.”
According to President Theodore Roosevelt, Private Johnson was one of the “five bravest Americans”, and earned the nickname “Black Death” by the Germans after fighting off more than 20 Germans and saving captured members. He received France’s distinguished military honor, the French Croix du Guerre, and was awarded the Medal of Honor by Barack Obama in 2015 for his heroic efforts.
Cpl. Freddie Stowers
Corporal Freddie Stowers is remembered for his valiant efforts during the attack on Hill 188, Champagne Marne Sector, France. Stowers served as squad leader of Company C, 371st Infantry Regiment, 93rd Division, and led the successful attack on the German line before he was killed in action. On April 24, 1991, Stowers was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously, 73 years later.
World War II
Oleta Crain was one of three black women, out of a total of 300 trainees, in the women’s officer training program during World War II. She served in the Women’s Army Corps and the Air Force, touring Alaska, England, and Germany. Crain is best known for her campaign for civil rights and advocating for black women in the military. She retired as a Major.
First Lt. Vernon J. Baker
First Lt. Vernon J. Baker was an infantryman during World War II and the only surviving African American to receive the Medal of Honor, as well as earning the Service Cross. Baker and his platoon led an extraordinary attack in enemy entrenched mountains near Viareggio, Italy. The Platoon killed 26 enemies and took down 6 machine guns during the attack.
Benjamin O. Davis Jr.
General Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was the son of decorated Brigadier General Davis Sr., and served during World War II. Davis Jr. commanded the 99th Pursuit Squadron and the 332nd Tuskegee Airmen. He was the first black general of the U.S. Air Force.
Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Jr.
General Daniel James Jr. was the first African American to become full general and achieve four stars. James Jr. was a part of the Tuskegee Airman and fought in both the Korean and Vietnam War. In 1975, James. Jr. promoted to commander of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), the operational command of United States and Canadian air defense.
Montford Point Marines
The Montford Point Marines were the first African Americans to train under the Marine Corps. About 20,000 recruits trained at a segregated facility called Montford Point at Camp Lejeune from 1942 until its abolishment in 1949 by President Truman’s Executive Order 9981. Since then, Congress honored the 20,000 Marines with the Congressional Gold Medal for their service.
Col. Guion S. Bluford Jr.
Colonel Guion S. Bluford Jr. is a retired U.S. Air Force office and fighter pilot. In 1983, Bluford Jr. became the first Black astronaut in America as a mission specialist for the Challenger. During his time in service, Bluford Jr. flew 144 combat missions as a member of the 557th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam.
Sgt. 1st Class Lawrence Joel was a member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade and served as a medic during the Vietnam War. An ambush by the Viet Cong left Joel wounded and short of supplies, yet his continued efforts during the battle helped save and inspire many lives. Joel was awarded the Silver Star and the Medal of Honor, becoming the first medic to receive the award for the Vietnam War.
Gen. Roscoe Robinson Jr.
General Roscoe Robinson Jr. made history as the first African American four-star general in the United States Army. His illustrious career included serving as the United States representative to the NATO Military Committee, and commanding the 82nd Airborne Division. His exceptional service was recognized with numerous prestigious awards, including the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, two Army Distinguished Service Medals, two Silver Star Medals, three Legion of Merit awards, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star Medal, and eleven Air Medals.
Other Notable Figures
Gen. Colin L. Powell
Prior to his political career, General Colin L. Powell served the Army for 35 years and eventually rose to the rank of four-star general. From 1989 to 1993, Powell served as the 12th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military position in the Department of Defense. He is popularly known for his political accomplishments as Secretary of State within George W. Bush’s administration.
Powell earned several awards including Presidential Medals of Freedom, the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, and the Purple Heart.
Lillian E. Fishburne
Lillian E. Fishburne became the first African-American woman to hold the rank of Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy. Fishburne retired after 28 years of service, and is the highest-ranking African-American woman in the U.S. Navy to date.
LTG. Nadja West
Nadja Yudith West, a retired United States Army lieutenant general, served as the 44th Surgeon General of the United States Army and the Commanding General of the United States Army Medical Command. As a physician, she became the first black Army Surgeon General, the first black female active-duty major general, and the first black female major general in Army Medicine. Additionally, West holds the distinction of being the first black female lieutenant general in the Army.
Sec. Lloyd James Austin III
Gen. Lloyd James Austin III made history when he became the first African American Secretary of Defense of the United States. He notably led as the 12th commander of United States Central Command (CENTCOM), the 33rd vice chief of staff of the Army, and the commander of United States Forces – Iraq. As the first African American in each of these roles, Austin’s military excellence also included pivotal commands in combat during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, marking him as the first African American to command a division, corps, and field army in combat. His distinguished service earned him a Silver Star and five Defense Distinguished Service Medals.
Cristina Van Orden is a literary writer and active military spouse. She holds an MFA from Antioch University and taught K-12 English before working in editorial. Cristina currently resides on base with her husband and children.