“A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.”
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821)
J.P. Kilroy threaded his way through and around the swarm of people crowding the East Room of the White House. He was working his way toward the southeast corner to a group of older men he presumed to be wartime friends of his late father. As he stood on his toes and inched his way toward the group he saw a black man dressed neatly in a dark blue suit talking with three elderly white men. The black man, he assumed, was Lincoln Abraham. He didn’t know the other three but he certainly intended to meet them. He anxiously inched closer through the crowd.
“Excuse me, Mister Kilroy.” The woman’s voice took him by surprise as a beautiful brunette sidled up to him through the crowd and hooked her right arm tightly around his left arm. “My name is Cynthia Powers. I’m with the Army Public Affairs Office. Colonel Chase asked me to find you and take care of you.” She smiled broadly as she spoke.
J.P. was momentarily taken off guard. She was in her early forties, he guessed, extremely attractive and well endowed. She was wearing a smart black business suit with a white silk blouse. She was nearly his height. He mustered a few words. “Well hello, Cynthia. How did you know it was me?”
“Ve have our methods,” she replied in a thick mock Russian accent as she continued to smile at him. “Besides, your picture next to your newspaper column is a dead giveaway.” She was referring to the political column he wrote twice weekly for the Washington Times.
“Where is the colonel?” he asked looking around. “We haven’t actually met face-to-face and I’d really like to …”
“Oh, he’s getting ready for the ceremony,” she interrupted. “That man is intense when it comes to preparation. He’ll be reading the citations from that other podium,” she nodded toward the second podium under the portrait of George Washington as they moved through the crowd. “I have reserved seats for us over there,” she pointed toward the end seats of the first row on the far right directly opposite the portrait of Theodore Roosevelt.
“Good. There are some people right near there I’d like to talk to first,” he gestured toward the group of men and noticed they were moving away toward the back of the room.
“No time right now. The ceremony starts in a minute.” She pulled his arm tightly against the side of her breast and turned him toward their seats. “We’ll find them after,” she smiled again. He submissively let her guide him to their seats.
The muted strains of music slowly grew louder. It was classical music that he heard before but could not place. The people in the room took the cue to find their seats. The music became louder after all the guests had been seated and then changed to “God Bless America”. All of the participants stood up and applauded as Lincoln was escorted onto the podium. The military escort was a sharp looking young soldier in dress blues, complete with full ribbons and a golden colored shoulder braid known as a fourragere. There were seven padded ornate chairs on the stage in front of the gold silk draperies. Lincoln remained standing with his hands crossed in front of him as the escort did an about face and retreated down the stairs.
The music continued and the clapping became progressively louder as two female escorts quickly brought two well-dressed older women up onto the platform and positioned them in front of their seats. The procession continued until the Sergeant-Major-of-the-Army was finally escorted to the last seat. All of them, with the exception of Lincoln and the sergeant major, were surviving relatives of the Medal honorees. They all stood respectfully with quiet pride, their faces etched with deep emotion. They were all African-American.
As soon as the clapping ceased, the sound of “Ruffles and Flourishes” filled the room. The voice over the loudspeaker said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States.” The room was then filled with the familiar chords of “Hail to the Chief”. The clapping began once again as the President entered. He strode down the aisle, took his position at the podium and raised his hands in a polite signal to stop the applause and then gestured for everyone to be seated.
The benediction followed. J.P. was impressed by the solemnity of the proceeding and the dignified grace of the people on the platform. He let his mind wander a bit and imagined himself sitting up there. There certainly was room for one more chair. Not that he felt any pressing obligation to accept the Medal of Honor for his late father, but he could have. Of course, his would have been the only white face up there beside the President’s. He found that notion somehow trivially amusing. After the benediction the President rose to the podium.
“Secretary of the Army, Secretary of Defense, General Clayton and the members of the Joint Chiefs, Congressman Williams, families and friends of the Medal recipients and Mister Lincoln Abraham, I’d like to begin by thanking Colonel Carlton Chase of the Army Awards Branch and the members of his Process Team for the nomination of outstanding African-American soldiers for the Medal of Honor during World War II.”
The President turned a page on his notes. “Today we recognize seven men as being among the bravest of the brave. Their names join other American heroes like Sergeant York, Jimmie Doolittle, Audie Murphy and only thirty-four hundred other Americans in the history of the United States.” The President bit his lip and paused.
“For these men, heroism was a habit,” he continued. J.P. turned slightly to see if he could locate the friends of his late father. Sitting at the end of the row, he had a good angle to scan the room without appearing to do so. He certainly did not want to disrespect the proceedings or the President by being inattentive or appearing uninterested. The President’s words faded in and out as he turned his head slightly and sought out the three men.
“Reuben Rivers of Oklahoma was awarded a Silver Star while fighting in France with the Seven hundred sixty first Tank Battalion, was terribly wounded and refused an order to withdraw. He was killed on the battlefield,” the President went on. As J.P. looked slightly over his shoulder, he became aware that Cynthia still had a firm grasp of his left his arm. He glanced at her and she simply smiled back at him squeezing his arm against her body a little tighter.
“Edward Carter,” the President continued, “was wounded five times but still managed to kill six of the enemy and capture two prisoners.”
J.P. noticed Congressman Williams among the other dignitaries. He was seated next to General Clayton. The general nodded knowingly to J.P. who nodded in return and turned his head back to the front.
“Lieutenant Charles Thomas was wounded numerous times while he helped others find cover but refused to be evacuated until he was sure his men were safe. Private First Class Wily James was pinned down for an hour while scouting a forward position. But he made his way back to his platoon, planned a counterattack, volunteered to lead the assault and then was killed going to the aid of his wounded platoon leader.”
Despite being in the tender clutches of the charming Cynthia Powers, J.P. was determined to locate the three men. He peeked back over his shoulder again and spotted them seated together in the last row up against the wall near the entrance. The first man had a full head of bushy blonde-gray hair. His tweed sport jacket was ill fitted and his brown tie was askew on a blue shirt. It was as if he rarely wore those clothes and it was an effort to put them on for this occasion. His face was aged with lines and wrinkles, as all three of them were, but there was a youthful twinkle in his blue eyes. He reminded J.P. of an aging Beach Boy.
The President went on. “Private George Watson’s ship was repeatedly attacked by enemy bombers. He helped others to the life rafts so that they might live, until he himself was so exhausted, he was pulled down by the tow of the sinking ship.”
The second man, J.P. noticed, was not wearing a suit or sport coat. He had on an olive drab windbreaker zipped to the top, leaving just enough room to reveal the clasp of his string tie. J.P. had not seen a string tie in years and was curious about the emblem on the clasp. It was the same emblem that was on the front of the baseball cap the man was holding. It was a military insignia that he did not immediately recognize; a circle dissected by an S-shaped line on which the left side was blue and the right side gray. He was a big man, balding and had tears in his eyes. J.P. looked back to the podium as the President continued.
“When the enemy attacked a town in Italy and drove out our forces, Lieutenant John Fox volunteered to remain behind in an observation post. He directed artillery fire and insisted that the fire be aimed at his own position. The barrage he so bravely ordered killed him. When our forces recovered the position they found his body among one hundred dead German soldiers.”
The third man, J.P. noticed, was dressed comfortably in a suit. Despite his age, he retained a full head of dark black hair. His suit was dark blue with a white shirt and yellow tie. His black horn rimmed glasses and slightly graying temples gave him a distinguished look.
“One of these heroes is here with us today,” the President paused and looked at Lincoln. Cynthia leaned over and whispered, “This is the same action your father won his Medal for.”
J.P. tried to focus on the President’s words.
“On 20 December 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, Private Lincoln Abraham along with another soldier, at great risk to their own personal safety and without orders, acting above and beyond the call of duty, provided needed cover and escort to a vulnerable column of wounded American soldiers. Although wounded twice, Private Abraham took out numerous enemy vehicles, infantry and a heavy tank. His aggressive actions saved the lives of over fifty wounded Americans and hundreds of other withdrawing soldiers. If he had not undertaken that brave and selfless action, the entire column would have been wiped out.” The President paused and looked at Lincoln who was humbly staring at his folded hands in his lap.
“When that action was over,” the President continued, “no officer who witnessed the deed considered recommending Mister Abraham for any commendation at the time, despite the protestations of the men he saved.” The President paused and looked out at the audience to let the message sink in. “Why not?” he asked rhetorically. “Simply because he was a black man!”
J.P. shifted in his seat. Cynthia retained her death grip on his arm. He began to comprehend the significance of this ceremony. Black Americans who shed their blood and gave their lives had been denied recognition, not for lack of merit, but simply for the color of their skin. If ever there was a cry for basic fairness, it was for these men who fulfilled their oaths, performed their duties and made remarkable sacrifices only to have their deeds disregarded.
The President looked up from his notes. “Mister Abraham was asked how he handled the lack of respect and honor all these years? He replied with his creed in life ‘Give respect before you expect it, treat all people the way you wish to be treated, lead by example, remember the mission and keep going.’ These are words for all of us to live by.”
The President looked down at his prepared notes. The men we honor today were denied their nation’s highest honor, but their deeds could not long be denied. They helped America to become more worthy of them and more true to itself. To the families of the recipients who are gone,” the President glanced over to the relatives seated in the rows of chairs on the platform, “may you take great comfort in the honor that has finally been accorded to them, and may God embrace their souls and God bless America.”
The President glanced to his left and met the eyes of Colonel Carlton Chase who stood erect behind the other podium. “Colonel, post the orders!”
Chase began reading the orders in a firm, deep voice. “The President of the United States of America, authorized by act of Congress has awarded, in the name of Congress, the Medal of Honor to First Lieutenant Lincoln Abraham, United States Army for conspicuous gallantry…”
The words washed past J.P. Kilroy. He found himself unable to focus on them. There was something else nagging at him. As he watched the solemn dignity of the people on the platform about to receive recognition that was more than fifty years overdue, he realized how significant this event was to the people personally involved. And if doing the right thing and correcting past injustices were important to these people, it was also important to the conscience of the nation.
Before him were Lincoln Abraham and the relatives of the fighting men who had been systematically overlooked by this country, sitting humbly, proudly and patiently awaiting the reward that their loved ones had purchased with their lives so long ago. While the people on the podium embraced their past, he ignored his. Where they found the grace to forgive an ungrateful America, he could not forgive his father. In this realization of the important historical disclosures revealed before his eyes, he suddenly felt ashamed for both ignoring his mother’s wishes and his father’s past. It was pure curiosity that brought him to the ceremony and provoked him to seek out the few people who might shed some light on his father. But suddenly, witnessing history correct itself, it became more than just simple inquisitiveness. Watching these tearful and humble people, his curiosity morphed into a compelling desire to find out the truth about his own father. Here was a great place to start. He would track down the four old men as soon as the ceremony concluded.
Chase finished reading the order and J.P.’s attention snapped back to the platform. As the President placed the Medal of Honor around Lincoln’s neck, an aide stepped behind him and quickly fastened the clasp. The President straightened the blue ribbon that held the Medal high on Lincoln’s chest, almost as high and nearly as tight as a bow tie. The President took his hand and shook it. They exchanged quiet words that were inaudible beneath the clicks of the cameras. When the President stepped back, everyone in the room rose and gave a tearful Lincoln a two-minute standing ovation. Even Cynthia let go of his arm to applaud.
Chase asked the audience to remain seated for the remaining presentations. The colonel continued to read the orders and the President handed the remaining framed Medals to the nieces, sons, sisters and widows of the deceased recipients. J.P. feigned polite attention and applauded as each of the Medals was presented. He began to feel a newfound obligation and deeply felt compulsion to honor his own father’s bravery just as the people here today were doing for their loved ones. And in his quest he may just find out the truth behind the secret.
After the final Medal was presented, the President concluded the ceremony by thanking everyone who worked so hard to make this day possible. The audience stood as the President exited the room, followed by the military aides and the recipients. People began to wander leisurely to the exits. Small groups gathered around the recipients as they left the stage to convey best wishes and admire the beautifully adorned Medals. J.P. could feel the room itself decompressing after such an intense atmosphere. From his vantage point he could see the crowd dwindle and watched Lincoln receive the handshakes and congratulations of the other three veterans. He noticed a young woman with Lincoln. If he didn’t hurry, he would miss them all.
J.P. started to get up. Cynthia still had his arm and tugged on it. “Can you wait just a minute, Mister Kilroy? Colonel Chase wants to meet you.”
“Well, I really…” He was thinking about the four men but when Colonel Chase began walking toward him, J.P. shifted gears. His attention was drawn to the colonel.
Cynthia stood up first. “Mister Kilroy, please meet Colonel Carlton Chase.” She extended her arm toward the colonel.
“Mister Kilroy, my pleasure.” The colonel extended his hand and J.P. stood up and shook it. “If you wouldn’t mind just waiting here one moment, there is someone else who wants to meet you.” The colonel headed into the crowd of spectators.
J.P. thought, who would want to meet me?
Chase returned with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Before J.P. could say anything General Clayton extended his hand. “Mister Kilroy, it’s very nice to meet you.”
J.P. took the hand and shook it. “It’s certainly my pleasure, General.”
“I’m here to present you with your father’s Medal and explain why you were not up on that platform today.” General Clayton glanced over his shoulder to look at the room. It was about half empty as people were still filing out.
“I don’t think you owe me an explanation, General,” J.P. answered.
“But I do, Mister Kilroy, as a matter of courtesy and principle.” Clayton cleared his throat. “Today was extremely important, not only to the recipients of the Medals but for African-Americans. It was a day for redemption, a day to set things right, for healing past wounds. The importance of this event extended far beyond this room.”
“General, I’m not here as a reporter. I’m a columnist but you won’t see this event in my column, ever. I’m here as the son of a soldier. Based on what I heard and saw today, nothing could diminish the honor of these men.”
Clayton seemed to relax a bit. “That’s very gracious of you, Mister Kilroy.”
“General,” J.P. replied. “It’s all good. I originally declined the invitation anyway,” he glanced over at Colonel Chase who nodded.
Clayton seemed to ignore the comment. “Without any disrespect to your father for the well deserved honor he earned,” the general exhaled, “any white face on that platform, other than the President’s, might have been interpreted by some as diminishing the honor.” General Clayton paused. “We certainly didn’t want to offend you or the memory of your father but today was envisioned by the President long ago as the day that America paid its long standing debt to deserved African-Americans who served with distinction and who were denied recognition. We didn’t want to mar the event by anything that could be perceived by anyone as diminishing those achievements. That would include the ridiculous speculation that the only reason African-Americans were being recognized was because we missed the achievement of one white soldier. And in order to remedy that, we had to drag along his cohort and subsequently other African-Americans. In this instance, your father was the tail, not the dog, and we didn’t want any speculation or misunderstanding that it was his missed award that dragged in the others.”
J.P. smiled at that, considered it humorous. “That’s absurd! Anyone can see these men deserved this honor.”
The absurd runs deep in this town and the President decided we would not fuel that speculative line of gossip. And so, we agreed that I would present your father’s award to you in a separate meeting. Then you changed your mind and decided to come here today so we arranged to present it right here and now.”
“I understand. Thank you, General.”
General Clayton again glanced over his shoulder. The CSPAN lights and cameras were turned off and the equipment was being disassembled. The room was nearly empty. J.P. was happy to notice the four veterans still standing and chatting near the exit.
A thought occurred to J.P. and he looked at Cynthia. “And your role was?” he smiled.
“Colonel Chase asked me to keep an eye on you, make sure you were attended to, make sure you were comfortable until the ceremony was over,” she smiled back. “I hope it wasn’t too terrible for you?” She was smiling at him.
“It was delightful.” He made a short bow to her and turned to the general. “What now?”
General Clayton looked behind him again. There were still a few people left in the room. He looked at Colonel Chase and said, “Colonel, post the orders.”
J.P. raised his hand in mild protest. “No need to read them now. I’ll read them later.”
Colonel Chase looked at General Clayton who nodded. The colonel stepped up on the platform and pulled out a black cloth bag from beneath the empty table. The Medal of Honor was encased in a thick polished wooden frame covered in glass. It was suspended on a black velvet background by its blue ribbon in the form of a slightly angled V. Above the Medal was the accompanying blue ribbon adorned with white stars. The gold colored plaque read:
Corporal John Kilroy
United States Army
Chase handed it to J.P. who held the frame and began to choke up. After a solemn moment, Colonel Chase extended his hand.
“Congratulations and thank you,” said the colonel. They all shook hands and he and Clayton hastily exited the East Room.
J.P. stared at the Medal of Honor; momentarily absorbed by the grave reality of what he had just experienced and was startled when Cynthia quickly hugged him. “I don’t know about you, Mister Kilroy, but I enjoyed myself today.”
He smiled back. He had to admit she played her part in an exceptional fashion. She was warm, gracious and sociable, almost too much so. “Me too,” he replied. J.P. then looked to the back of the room and stopped smiling. The four men that he waited so patiently to speak to were gone.