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?
The USO has been dedicated to supporting all those who serve in the U.S. military – regardless of race – for its entire 80-plus-year history. And so, 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 bravery of seven 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 entire 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 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 in 1997.
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 entire U.S. 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 successful 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 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 his injuries, 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, in December 2021 Cashe was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, and his family accepted the award on his behalf. He is the first Black recipient of the medal since 9/11.
7. Mary Ehiarinmwian
U.S. Army Sgt. Mary Ehiarinmwian’s actions in 2019 are the perfect example of how our nation’s service members are ready to put themselves at risk to save others at a moment’s notice, even in everyday circumstances.
Ehiarinmwian, originally from Nigeria, grew up in Germany and later immigrated to the United States. She then decided to enlist in the U.S. Army to “do something meaningful” for the country that was now her home. Then, in 2019, the Army supply sergeant was on her way to PT at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. Suddenly, the car ahead of her collided with a road sign, flipped through the air and pierced the top of the base’s security gate, almost impaling the driver.
Ehiarinmwian immediately jumped out of her car and rushed toward the crashed vehicle. As she was assessing the driver’s injuries and mental state, black smoke began to billow out from under the car’s hood and Ehiarinmwian realized she was in a race against the clock until the car caught on fire or exploded.
Ehiarinmwian pulled the injured driver out of the smoking vehicle to a place of safety. When first responders arrived at the scene, Ehiarinmwian went to train at PT, carrying on with her day, as per usual. As she later explained, there is no “off-duty” for service members – they are trained to always run toward danger, whether that be on the battlefield or on your way to the gym. Ehiarinmwian selflessly placed herself in harm’s way to save the life of another. In recognition of her bravery, Ehiarinmwian was recognized as the USO Soldier of the Year in 2020, an annual award given to a member of each branch for distinguished actions either in combat or a peacetime setting.
-This story was first published on USO.org in 2019. It has been updated in 2023.
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