By Danielle DeSimone
Did you know that African Americans have served in the U.S. Armed Forces during every major conflict since the American Revolution, even in times of slavery, segregation and racial discrimination?
In celebration of Black History Month and in honor of all the brave Black men and women who have served our country with valor and distinction, the USO is taking a moment to shine a light on the astonishing bravery of six African American service members who went above and beyond the call of duty:
1. Henry Johnson
The 369th Infantry Regiment, which became known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” was an all-African American unit in World War I. Aside from seeing more combat than all other U.S. outfits and having a world-famous ragtime band, the Hellfighters were also home to Pvt. Henry Johnson.
Johnson, who President Theodore Roosevelt described as one of the “five bravest Americans” who served in the war, single-handedly fought off more than 20 Germans and saved a fellow soldier from capture – all while injured and armed only with a bolo knife. These courageous actions earned Johnson the nickname “Black Death” from the German army, as well as the French Croix du Guerre, France’s highest military honor. After the war, Johnson returned home to a welcoming parade in his native New York City and was posthumously awarded the U.S. Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama in 2015.
2. Ruben Rivers
During World War II, many U.S. Army leaders had doubts about deploying African American soldiers overseas. Those unfounded fears were quickly squashed by the rapid achievements of the primarily Black 761st Tank Battalion, also known as “Patton’s Panthers.” In addition to playing a crucial role along the western front, the unit quickly garnered a reputation for having fierce fighters like Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers.
After suffering a severe leg injury from hitting a mine with his tank, Rivers, a native Oklahoman, disobeyed a direct order to evacuate and put himself in harm’s way to cover the U.S. retreat from advancing German lines. Rivers was killed in the battle and later posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Bill Clinton.
3. Oleta Crain
As an African American woman serving in the Women’s Army Corps and the Air Force, Oleta Crain showed bravery not only in service, but also in challenging racism and segregation.
Of the 300 women who entered officer training during World War II, Crain was one of only three Black women in the program. After the war, Crain was the only female Black officer to be retained by the military.
Throughout her career, Crain would go on to complete tours in Alaska, England and Germany, but her real fight was for civil rights in military training. During her service, Crain bravely raised concerns about racial segregation and discrimination in the military, and successfully gained the respect of her superiors because of her efforts. She eventually retired from the Army as a major and continued to fight for civil rights, specifically for Black women, after careers in military intelligence and at the Department of Labor.
4. Lawrence Joel
Spc. Five (now known as a Sgt. 1st Class) Lawrence Joel, a member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, showed immense courage in the face of outnumbered odds while serving in the Vietnam War.
When his battalion was suddenly ambushed by the Viet Cong, Joel was determined to fulfill his duties as a medic, despite getting shot in the thigh and calf. Joel disobeyed direct orders to stay down and, under heavy gunfire, moved through the battlefield, attending to the wounded and constantly shouting words of encouragement to those fighting around him. Even after he ran out of medical supplies, Joel continued to save the lives of his unit with improvised materials throughout the 24-hour battle.
Joel was presented with the Silver Star, the military’s third-highest award for valor, and the Medal of Honor for his heroism. He was the first medic to receive the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War and the first living African American to receive it since the Spanish-American War in 1898.
During the Vietnam War, Staff Sgt. Melvin Morris went above and beyond the call of duty by leading an advance across enemy lines to recover the body of a fallen sergeant. Morris would go on to become one of the first Green Berets in 1961 and in 2014, at the age of 72, was presented with the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama for his actions in Vietnam.
Photo credit Sgt. Justin Wagoner
5. Melvin Morris
During the Vietnam War, Staff Sgt. Melvin Morris went above and beyond the call of duty by leading an advance across enemy lines to recover the body of a fallen sergeant. While doing so, Morris was shot three times and still managed to single-handedly destroy four enemy bunkers with a bag of grenades.
Morris would go on to become one of the first Green Berets in 1961 and in 2014, at the age of 72, was presented with the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama for his actions in Vietnam.
6. Alwyn C. Cashe
In Iraq in 2005, Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn C. Cashe dove back into a burning vehicle three times while under enemy fire to rescue trapped soldiers. During the rescue, Cashe’s uniform, which was soaked in fuel, caught on fire, giving him second and third-degree burns. Despite the burns, Cashe continued to pull soldiers from the vehicle and refused to be placed on the medical evacuation helicopter until all other wounded men had been flown to safety.
Later in the hospital, when Cashe regained consciousness, his first words were, “How are my boys?” He passed away three weeks later and was posthumously awarded the Silver Star.
After years of effort to have his actions recognized, on Dec. 16, 2021, Cashe was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, and his family was presented with the award by President Joe Biden; he is the first Black recipient of the medal since 9/11.
-This story was first published on USO.org in 2019. It has been updated in 2022.
More Stories Like This
5 Black Service Members Shaping Contemporary Military History
Following in the courageous footsteps of those who came before them, here are five contemporary Black service members shaping today’s military landscape.
10 Black History Stories of U.S. Military Service Members and Supporters to Commemorate Juneteenth
To celebrate and commemorate Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery in the United States on June 19, 1865, we’ve rounded up the following stories published by the USO over the past decade that celebrate African Americans serving in the U.S. military throughout history.
Five Firsts in African American Military History
In honor of Black History Month, we're highlighting just a few of the countless barrier breakers who have served throughout the history of our nation.
More from the USO
Jan 9, 2023
How USO Dog Volunteers are Spreading Smiles and Supporting Troops at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda
As official USO volunteers, therapy dogs, service dogs and facility dogs are boosting morale and supporting service members and military families at the USO Warrior and Family Center at Bethesda, as they recover from injuries and illnesses.
Dec 30, 2022
5 New Year’s Resolutions for Military Supporters in 2023
Ring in 2023 by tackling one of these New Year's resolutions for military supporters! From improving your health to learning a new skill, here are 5 ways you can simultaneously improve your life and the lives of the American service members and military families.