By Danielle DeSimone
Black service members have played invaluable roles in the U.S. military since the American Revolutionary War and today, continue to serve honorably and bravely in all branches of the Armed Forces.
However, Black service members have had to overcome immeasurable odds throughout their hundreds of years of service. Even as they served their country, many faced discrimination and segregation; but through it all, the USO has remained steadfast in its commitment to supporting all those who serve in the U.S. military – regardless of race – since 1941.
Here are 19 stories of Black military history and these courageous service members to celebrate Juneteenth.
1. Peter Salem, a Soldier of the American Revolutionary War
Born into slavery in Massachusetts in the 18th century, Peter Salem joined the Patriot cause of the American Revolutionary War and served with the minutemen – a small, hand-picked elite force which were required to be highly mobile and able to assemble quickly. Salem served proudly at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, however, soon after the battle, Gen. George Washington announced that enslaved people could no longer be recruited for the militia. Knowing how much Salem wanted to serve in the Army, his slaveholders freed him from slavery so that he could remain enlisted – and now as a free man.
Salem would go on to fight at yet another famous Revolutionary War battle, the Battle of Bunker Hill. Although the British won this battle against the Continental Army, they suffered great losses and these losses steadied the Patriots’ determination to continue fighting. Salem is credited with having killed a crucial British officer, Maj. John Pitcairn, during the battle just as Pitcairn was gathering his troops and calling for the Patriots’ surrender.
His role in the battle was so prominent, in fact, that it is believed that Salem is included in John Trumbull’s famous 1786 painting, “The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill.”
2. William H. Carney’s Journey from Slave to Sergeant
William H. Carney was born into slavery in southern Virginia in 1840. When Carney was young, his father escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad. His father then proceeded to earn enough money to buy the freedom of his entire family, all of whom were later reunited, free, in Massachusetts.
At age 23, Carney joined a local Massachusetts militia, which would later become Company C of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. This regiment was unique in that, with the exception of a few higher-ranking officers, it was an all-Black unit, intentionally created by the U.S. Army with the goal of proving that Black men had the ability to be equally formidable in combat.
When the color guard of his regiment was killed in the Battle of Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina, during the American Civil War, Carney retrieved the U.S. flag and marched forward with it, sometimes wading through high water, despite being shot several times.
He continued to push through the battlefield, eventually returning to his regiment’s lines, where he announced, “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!”
Carney was promoted to sergeant and awarded the Medal of Honor for his gallantry in battle. He was the first black service member to be awarded the medal.
3. Henry Johnson and the Harlem Hellfighters
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 WWI, 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. Even though he was severely injured from this hand-to-hand combat, Johnson effectively prevented the Germans from breaking through the French line.
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 Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama in 2015.
4. The Black Panthers Broke Barriers and Nazi Lines During World War II
The 761st Tank Battalion – also known as the “Black Panthers” – was the first African American tank battalion to see combat in World War II. The unit’s motto was “Come Out Fighting” and that’s just what they did.
While fighting in the war, the Black Panthers distinguished themselves in the Battle of the Bulge and in breaking through the Nazi’s Siegfried line, allowing American troops to push further into Germany. The unit’s members earned a reputation for being fierce fighters, such as Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers, and many of the members earned Silver Star Medals, the Medal of Honor and other honors. Gen. Patton himself addressed the Black Panthers and acknowledged the importance of their work; despite the challenges of segregation, Black service members were greatly successful in battle and were valued members of the U.S. Armed Forces.
5. Black Women Led the Charge as WAVES Naval Officers in World War II
Women had to overcome many obstacles to be able to serve the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II, and Black women had to overcome even more. Even when Public Law 689 went into effect in 1942 – which allowed women to serve in a Naval Reserve force, known as Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) – African American women were still barred from joining.
Determined to serve their country, the NAACP continued to fight for Black women to be allowed to serve in the Navy. Finally, in 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the inclusion of Black women into WAVES. Notably, these women would not only be allowed in the branch, but were also fully integrated into WAVES – a major difference from their male counterparts in the Navy.
Harriet Pickens and Frances Wills were both highly educated and hard-working young women who quicky dove into WAVES training at the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. On December 26, 1944, Pickens and Wills graduated, becoming the first female African American officers in the U.S. Navy. They overcame a great deal of racism and prejudice during their naval careers but would go on to serve throughout the rest of the war.
6. Oleta Crain Fought for Equality in the Armed Forces
As an African American woman serving in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) 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 Army and Army Air Corps officer training during World War II, Crain was one of only three Black women in the program. After WWII, 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 at great personal risk to her own career, 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.
7. Tuskegee Airman Recalls Actions of USO Tour Director in Face of Racism
The USO has a special place in Enoch Woodhouse’s heart. It’s not because of anything material the organization gave him, but for the immaterial reception, compassion and understanding its volunteers and staff provided him with during a challenging time.
The then-17-year-old Tuskegee Airman experienced the USO for the first time in 1944, and he would come to appreciate USO centers for the welcoming environment they provided Black service members during WWII.
8. Vernon Baker is Presented with the Medal of Honor Over 50 Years After His WWII Service
Army 2nd Lt. Vernon Baker was behind enemy lines in Italy in April 1944 when he led his team of Black soldiers from the segregated 370th Infantry Regiment through a hornet’s nest of German bunkers and machine-gun positions. Their mission? To capture Castle Aghinolfi, an enemy stronghold perched on a steep hillside.
Baker killed nine enemy troops, eliminating three machine-gun positions, an observation post and a dugout in the process. As enemy mortars, mines and incessant gunfire inflicted heavy casualties – 19 members of his 25-man platoon were killed – Baker provided cover as the remaining men withdrew. The next day, Baker led a battalion advance on the heavily fortified position and successfully secured Castle Aghinolfi for the Allies.
Although Baker received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions, he was excluded from being presented with the Medal of Honor. Of the more than 1 million Black service members who served during WWII, none were presented with awards for their service until over 50 years later.
Finally, after years of going unrecognized for his valor, Baker was presented with the Medal of Honor in the East Wing of the White House by President Bill Clinton in 1997. Baker was visibly emotional as he received the medal and was acknowledged for his service all these years later. He passed away at the age of 90 in 2010.
9. Lawrence Joel Tended to the Wounded in the Midst of a Battle
Spc. Five (a rank that is 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.
10. Melvin Morris’ Unwavering Dedication to a Fallen Soldier
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. In 2014, at the age of 72, he was presented with the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama for his actions in Vietnam.
11. A Tuskegee Graduate Becomes the First African American Four-Star General
Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. grew up in segregated Florida, where he watched planes fly out of Pensacola Naval Air Station. At the age of 17 he began attending the Tuskegee Institute and soon after, World War II broke out. He immediately enrolled in the flying program, graduating in 1943 and becoming one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black pilots of the U.S. Air Corps. He also served as an instructor for other Tuskegee Airmen.
As a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, James would go on to fly in combat missions in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Throughout his service, he received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, two Air Force Distinguished Service Medals, two Legions of Merit, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Meritorious Service Medal and 14 Air Medals. He held the prestigious position of Commander in Chief North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) and in 1975, was promoted to the rank of four-star general, making him the first African American to reach that rank in all of the Armed Forces.
12. Brig. Gen. Hazel Johnson-Brown Led in Both Trailblazing and Accomplishments
Brig. Gen. Hazel Johnson-Brown did not just lead in being the first Black female general in the Army and the first Black chief of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps – she also led in her incredible accomplishments and skills in her roles in the Army.
Johnson-Brown graduated from the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing in 1950 and enlisted in the Army five years later. She was stationed all across the country and throughout Asia, earning recognition for her superior skills in the operating room as she advanced in her career.
Then, in 1979, Johnson-Brown made history when she was promoted to brigadier general and simultaneously was given command of the 7,000 nurses in the Army Nurse Corps. Throughout her career, she also received the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Meritorious Service Medal and Army Commendation Medal; she was also named Army Nurse of the Year twice.
13. Lt. Col. Shawna Rochelle Kimbrell Aims High
Several years ago, retired Lt. Col. Shawna Rochelle Kimbrell made headlines when she made her childhood dream a reality and became the first-ever Black female fighter pilot of the U.S. Air Force.
Kimbrell did so by joining the Civil Air Patrol, working at air shows, earning a private pilot’s license and finally earning a spot in the Air Force Academy despite naysayers discouraging her from her “unrealistic” dreams.
Then, in 1988, Kimbrell graduated from the Air Force Academy and earned her pilot wings the following year. She is now a decorated Air Force veteran, having earned an Air Medal, an Aerial Achievement Medal and an Army Commendation Medal, just to name a few.
Today, she dedicates her days to helping future officers at the Air Force Academy. She teaches physical education and is the academy’s Director of Culture, Climate and Diversity.
14. Alwyn C. Cashe Risked Everything for the Lives of His Soldiers
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 – making him the first Black service member to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
15. Sydney Barber: The Trailblazing Naval Academy Brigade Commander
Senior-class Naval Academy Midshipman 1st Class Sydney Barber made history at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, not only for her “firsts” but also for the sheer number of her accomplishments.
The Midshipman, who was a mechanical engineering major, graduated from the Naval Academy in 2021 and is now a second lieutenant Marine Corps ground officer. However, while at the Naval Academy, Barber led her fellow midshipmen in quite a few areas: she was on the women’s varsity track and field team, co-president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes club and secretary of the National Society of Black Engineers. She also sang with the academy’s gospel choir and was a member of the Midshipman Black Studies Club. In addition, she initiated a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) outreach program for mentoring middle school girls of color in STEM.
Notably, Barber also made Navy history as the academy’s first Black female brigade commander. Barber is only the 16th woman selected for brigade commander since women were first allowed into the academy in 1980. While holding this highest leadership position within the brigade of more than 4,000 midshipmen, she also had a staff of 30 people – all at the age of 22.
“There’s no greater sacrifice or expression of love than someone who’s willing to lay down their life for their country,” Barber said.
16. Lloyd Austin Becomes First African American Secretary of Defense
On January 21, 2021, retired Gen. Lloyd Austin was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to become the first African American secretary of defense of the United States. A retired Army four-star general, he graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point and was soon commissioned as a second lieutenant.
Austin served more than 40 years in the Army. He served as the Army’s 33rd vice chief of staff of the branch and was the last commanding general of the U.S. Forces – Iraq Operation New Dawn. In 2013, President Barack Obama appointed him the commander of United States Central Command (CENTCOM), making Austin the first African American to ever hold the position.
In 2016, he retired from the military as a decorated and distinguished Army veteran with many honors, including the Silver Star and a Humanitarian Service Medal. He spent time in the private sector serving on several boards until President Joe Biden nominated him to be the next secretary of defense.
17. Col. Merryl Tengesdal Flies Under the Radar, but Beyond Limitations
Retired Col. Merryl Tengesdal is the first and currently the only Black woman to fly a U-2 spy plane, which is utilized by the Air Force for high-altitude reconnaissance missions. Before this achievement, Tengesdal first served in the Navy and started off flying helicopters after graduating from University of New Haven. She went on to become an instructor pilot, training Navy and Air Force students at Joint Student Undergraduate Pilot Training.
Tengesdal transferred to the Air Force when her Naval obligation was complete, where she became the first Black woman to fly a U-2 spy plane.
“I try not to get caught up in being the only Black female. I just want to keep being inspirational and motivational for other people,” Tengesdal said. “I really appreciate that people recognize that, but I try not to think about it too much.”
18. Madeline Swegle Finds the Need for Speed with Naval Aviation
Lt. j.g. Madeline Swegle made history in 2020 by becoming the Navy’s first known Black female tactical fighter pilot. Swegle is a graduate of the Naval Academy and pursued further training with the Redhawks of Training Squadron (VT) 21 at Naval Air Station Kingsville, Texas, earning her wings in July 2020.
According to an investigation by Military.com in 2018, less than 2% of all pilots assigned to Navy jet platforms were Black, making Swegle’s accomplishment all the more noteworthy.
19. Nadja West’s Trailblazing Career
Retired Lt. General Nadja West is no stranger to being “first.” In 2013, West became the first Black female major general of the Army’s active component, as well as the Army Medicine’s first Black female two-star general. In 2015, she became the first Black surgeon general of the Army. Finally, in 2016, she became the first Black female lieutenant general and highest-ranking woman to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy West Point.
With more than 20 years of experience, she has proved herself as a decisive leader. She helped lead the Department of Defense (DOD) through crafting the response to the 2014 Ebola crisis. She also managed an $11 billion budget and 130,000 healthcare workers when she was the commanding general of Medical Command (MEDCOM).
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