In the mountains around Viareggio, Italy, an Army second lieutenant named Vernon Baker came under heavy fire from German machine gun emplacements.
The Idahoan crawled to one position and destroyed the enemy soldiers and the guns inside. He continued and did the same at a German observation post, and then once more at another machine gun position. He then gave covering fire for the evacuation of wounded fellow soldiers.
The next night, April 6, 1945, Baker volunteered to lead an advance through mine fields and under heavy fire toward another objective.
For this bravery, for his willingness to “exemplify the highest traditions of the Armed Forces,” Baker got the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor ... 52 years later.
Baker was a black American. His race prevented him from the timely receipt of this honor.
By the time President Clinton draped the medal around his neck, Baker was nearly 80.
This happened repeatedly in the time since President Lincoln signed into law a measure creating the Medal of Honor. Deserving service members of color, or others who suffered broader prejudice throughout American society, got their heroism set to the side.
Keep in mind that these men who served their country, spilled their blood for the American flag, died for the causes of freedom, did so frequently without the full rights of citizenship or, at the very least, without the general acceptance of this nation.
It seemed particularly cruel that their wartime service went unrecognized to its fullest extent.
Efforts were made in the 1990s, and again just a few years ago, to correct these injustices. This continues today.
Congress has in a current bit of legislation, the National Defense Authorization Act for the 2020 fiscal year, a provision for reviewing the records of minority veterans from World War I to see if racist attitudes of the time had caused those soldiers to get less than their due.
Both chambers passed the defense bill in June, with the House including in its version the World War I Valor Medals Review Act. A number of senators last week, including Missouri’s Roy Blunt, signed a letter to the leaders of the conference committee urging that the provision remain in the final bill.
The letter points out that “African American, Asian American, Hispanic American, Jewish American and Native American war veterans” should have their service records examined if they won a Distinguished Service Cross or Navy Cross and had been recommended for a Medal of Honor.
The service time in question extended from April 6, 1917, to Nov. 11, 1918.
“It would also require a review of the service record of veterans awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm by the Government of France. Many African American World War I veterans served under French command because the U.S. military would not take them,” the letter said.
In other words, at least one foreign government noted the service of these brave Americans, even if their home government did not.
This review, suggested in current legislation, seeks to set the record straight.
An impression exists, not a completely unfair one, that Congress does nothing. On big items, such things as gun violence and climate change and even agreeing that climate change exists, partisanship largely puts this branch of government in gridlock.
But Congress gets some things done. Sometimes it corrects a wrong.
The soldiers who fought for the United States in past wars have in many cases gone to their greater reward, but the nation can show an overdue appreciation in which their descendants can rejoice.
Let’s hope the defense bill retains this provision so all who fought can be honored.