The Pentagon – September 23, 1996
“It is not the titles that honor men, but men that honor titles.”
Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 – 1527), Discourses, 1517
Colonel Carlton Chase arrived in the 1E801 Conference Complex, Room 3, in the Pentagon’s outermost E-Ring a good fifteen minutes before the scheduled start of the meeting. Arriving early gave him the opportunity to make and place the seating name cards in the configuration of his choice. It always amazed him how people, regardless of their position or rank, went immediately to the seat with their name card, usually without protest.
After placing his presentation foils and a stack of handouts at the front end of the rectangular polished oak wood conference table, he switched on the overhead projector. Nothing! He fished a spare bulb out of his uniform pocket, flipped over the projector and replaced the bulb.
As he worked on the projector, Cynthia Powers walked into the conference room. She was a civilian who worked in the Public Affairs Office of the U.S. Army Military District of Washington.
She was currently assigned to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Colonel Chase looked up at her and smiled, then lowered his head to continue what he was doing. Cynthia was an extremely competent, attractive brunette with a killer body.
“Hi, Colonel,” she began. “Looks like we’re a bit early.”
“Hello Cynthia,” he answered without lifting his head. “Good thing, too. Darn bulb burned out.” He turned the projector to its upright position and flipped on the switch. It worked.
He reached for the name cards and marker. “Where would you like to sit?”
“Next to General Clayton,” she smiled. “Where is he sitting?”
“I’ll sit him next to you. He’ll probably have a lot of takeaways for you, anyway.” He handed her a neatly printed tent card with her name on it.
“Who’s coming to this meeting?” she asked.
“General Clayton, Secretary Radcliffe and his aide Francis Blossom.” He was writing out the other name cards as he spoke. He handed her the name cards and indicated where he wanted them placed. Chase just finished placing a thick handout in front of each seat as General Aaron Clayton walked into the room
“Good morning, everyone,” he greeted pleasantly, glanced at the name cards and slid into his seat at the head of the conference table. “Are we ready, Colonel?”
“Yes, sir. We’ll start as soon as the Secretary arrives.”
“He was right behind me in the hallway.” Just then Secretary Radcliffe walked into the room with Francis Blossom in tow. Chase smiled to himself as they both went immediately to their assigned seats.
After greetings were exchanged, Chase stood up on one side of the screen. He reached for the wall switch and lowered the room lights. With his wire-rimmed glasses and intelligent deep-set gray eyes, he easily assumed a professorial persona. The room suddenly seemed smaller and more confining with two of the most powerful men in the Department of Defense sitting at the table. He took a deep breath to help shake off the butterflies. He moved to the side of the table that would allow an unobstructed view for Secretary Radcliffe, thereby partially blocking the view of Francis Blossom. Chase switched on the overhead projector, which already held the title page of the presentation in focus.
World War II Medal of Honor Reevaluation
Analysis and Recommendations
“The objective of this meeting,” began Chase looking directly at Radcliffe, “is to secure your approval for our recommendations. Let’s get right to the bottom line. After six months of intensive review and analysis by my team, we recommend awarding Medals of Honor to seven African-Americans who served in our Armed Forces in World War II.”
“Is that all?” interrupted Blossom. “Why so few? How many were considered? How did you come to these conclusions?” The meeting was only a few seconds old and Blossom was already disrupting it, as was his reputation. Chase remained calm.
“Those questions will be answered during the course of the presentation and all the background material to support the conclusions are in your handout packets,” answered Chase. He paused for a moment while Blossom began flipping through his handout.
Radcliffe reached across the table. “Not now, Francis.” Radcliffe turned to Chase. “I have only one question at this time, Colonel, if I may. Are any of these gentlemen still alive?”
“Yes, sir. One of the men is presently still living.” Chase had the feeling he had just answered the only question of importance to Radcliffe. “However, I do believe it’s important that you understand and agree with how this process unfolded and how we reached the conclusions we came to, before you endorse our findings.”
“I agree. Please proceed.” Radcliffe was not a novice to politics and realized he may someday have to explain his decision at a press conference or a Sunday morning news program.
“Let me begin with a brief history of the Medal for background, then I’ll discuss the process and finally the results and recommendations.” Chase flipped to the next foil. “I’ll move quickly so please stop me if you have any questions.” Chase paused for a moment and then continued. “The Medal of Honor has a somewhat checkered history and endured many growing pains before it became the revered sacred icon it is today. Only a little more than thirty-four hundred were ever awarded and only about one hundred and fifty recipients are still alive. The Medal of Honor was first authorized by Congress and approved by President Lincoln in 1862 during the Civil War. Up until that time, there were no medals or awards in existence to recognize individual military gallantry, to speak of.”
“None at all?” asked Powers.
“You’re a good straight man, Cynthia,” Chase said as he slipped another foil onto the projector. “During the Revolutionary War, General Washington authorized the Badge of Military Merit in 1782. It was intended to recognize the lower ranks for acts of unusual gallantry. All recipients were permitted to wear the badge over their left breast. The actual badge device was a cloth or silk figure of a purple heart. Only three were awarded near the waning days of the Revolution and the Badge of Merit fell into disuse and was never awarded again until 1932. At that time the award was revived and redefined by then Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur into what we know today as the Purple Heart.” Chase changed the foil.
“The Certificate of Merit was introduced by Congress for enlisted men during the Mexican-American War of 1847,” Chase continued. “There was no badge or other medal device to be worn, just a certificate and an extra two dollars a month in pay. This award was unpopular because it was abused, misused and eventually discredited and also fell into disuse.”
“Question,” Cynthia called out. “Why no medals?”
“It appears the military at that time considered medals to be associated with European nobility and those symbols of aristocracy had no place in a new democracy,” answered Chase. “As we will see, all that changed in the Civil War.” He flipped another foil.
“First the navy, then the army had bills introduced in Congress for the creation of a Medal of Honor. The intent was to inspire men to their duty. The Medal was for both enlisted ranks and officers who distinguished themselves by ‘gallantry in action’ and other soldier-like qualities. Congress approved the bills and President Lincoln signed them on 12 July 1862.
The Medal of Honor quickly became very popular and a victim of its own success, as we shall see in a moment.” Chase paused. “Questions?”
Francis Blossom was the first to speak. “This is all very interesting, Colonel, but I don’t see how this is pertinent to the issue at hand. We didn’t attend this meeting for a history lesson.” Blossom glanced furtively at his boss for some sign of approval.
What a worm, thought Chase but before he could respond General Clayton replied to the comment speaking directly to Secretary Radcliffe. “Sir, it will become clear in a moment how this background supports the efforts of this Review Board and more importantly, the credibility of their recommendations.”
Radcliffe nodded and gestured for Chase to continue and he positioned the next foil.
“Today,” he began, “the criteria for winning the Medal of Honor are extraordinarily high. One must demonstrate conspicuous gallantry that places his or her life at great risk. Most present-day recipients do not survive the action for which they were recognized. You may not know this but a person cannot receive this award for acting under orders. In the beginning it was not exactly this way.
“There were no specific criteria for the early awards. Since it was the only medal available, it was conferred for good as well as great accomplishments. Medals were awarded en masse to whole units for simply extending their enlistments as well as for acts of great courage.
Initially about twenty-five hundred Medals were awarded in the Civil War alone. There was such a wide disparity in the justification for the Medal in the first forty years that the recipients formed the Medal of Honor Legion in 1890 to protect the integrity of the Medal. They campaigned Congress for more stringent guidelines, received them and then an extraordinary thing happened.”
“And that was?” Blossom interjected as Chase changed foils. “That was, Mister Blossom,” Chase responded, “the Purge of 1916. With the passage of Section 122 of the National Defense Act of 1916, a board of five retired generals was convened to review every Medal of Honor previously awarded under the new, stricter requirements. They reviewed the citations without knowing the individual names and what do you think they did?”
“No clue,” answered Blossom. Chase smiled to himself. You never have a damn clue, Francis. “They revoked nine hundred and ten Medals previously awarded. That caused quite a stir at the time but it was done nevertheless. On 9 July 1918, Congress passed an act that stated…” Chase pointed to the screen.
…the President is authorized to present, in the name
of Congress, a Medal of Honor only to each person
who, while an officer or enlisted man, in action
involving actual conflict with the enemy,
distinguish himself conspicuously by gallantry
and intrepidity at the risk of his life
above and beyond the call of duty.
“This is the criteria for the Medal of Honor that exists today,” continued Chase. “I might point out this act also established a precedent. That precedent was that a duly authorized panel could change the criteria. Now, fast forward to the present time.”
Radcliffe shifted slightly in his chair. His body language indicated he was suddenly much more interested in this part of the presentation.
Chase placed the next foil on the projector. “It’s the late 1980s and two Congressmen, one a black Democrat from Texas and the other a white Republican from New York, petition the Secretary of the Army to investigate the lack of Medals of Honor for African-American soldiers in World War I and World War II. This was a sensitive issue. No one wanted to appear arbitrary or unfair to either African-Americans or to the high standards of the Medal. Upon investigation, it was discovered that four African-American soldiers had been recommended for the Medal of Honor in World War I. Three of the awards were processed, reviewed and downgraded to a Distinguish Service Cross, the second highest military honor. This in itself is not unusual; many DSCs start out as Medal of Honor requests. But given the time period and a segregated military, these decisions remain controversial.”
“You said three of the recommendations were downgraded to Distinguish Service Crosses. What about the fourth?” asked Blossom, now more interested.
“The Department of the Army dispatched a team to France to review the circumstances of that recommendation for Corporal Freddie Stowers. He served with the Three hundred seventy-first Infantry Regiment which was attached to the French Hundred and fifty-seventh Infantry Division.”
“And the result?” asked Blossom again.
General Clayton interjected. “The Army Decorations Board approved the award and Corporal Freddie Stowers was awarded the Medal of Honor in the East Room of the White House by President Bush on 24 April 1991. The Medal was presented to his two surviving sisters. He was killed in the action for which he was recognized. The citation is truly extraordinary. You should read it. It’s in your package.” Clayton pointed to the handout. “Also, there’s a street and an elementary school in Fort Benning named after Corporal Stowers,” he added with just a tinge of pride in his voice. “Sorry for the interruption, Colonel. Please continue.”
“Which gets us to the current issue,” Chase continued, “the absence of Medals of Honor for World War II African-American soldiers. The previous Secretary started down this road in 1993. He wanted an independent investigation and a fair review process so he recruited some academics and historians from Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina and teamed them up with some combat veterans. We’ll call them the Process Team. The first rule they established was any solution had to follow established precedent. That way there could be no accusations the military made up new rules that were custom-designed for just this situation.
The second rule was to find that precedent. They found two.” Chase paused a moment to heighten the curiosity, changed the foil and continued.
“The first precedent was not at all well known. After the First World War, General Pershing was deeply disturbed only four Medals of Honor were awarded primarily because of the slow moving military bureaucracy. So he ordered an immediate review of all Distinguish Service Awards and seventy-eight were subsequently upgraded to Medal of Honor awards.”
“So, most of the Congressional Medals of Honor awarded in the First World War were based on an after the fact review of DSCs?” asked Blossom.
Chase stared directly at Blossom. Now he would have some fun. “For the sake of accuracy,
Mister Blossom, the correct and appropriate title is simply ‘Medal of Honor’. There is no Congressional before it even though it is awarded by the President in the name of Congress.” Chase smiled to himself. He loved to tweak Blossom.
“Of course. I knew that. Slip of the tongue,“ responded Blossom as he glanced over to his boss with a sheepish grin.
Chase continued. “The second precedent turned out to be the most relevant and more important one. In 1943, after the Mediterranean campaign, General Eisenhower noticed there were relatively few Medals of Honor awarded to his soldiers, so he ordered a review.
Subsequently four DSCs were upgraded to Medals of Honor. The Process Team concluded if the army could review awards for possible upgrades based on geographical imbalance they certainly could review awards for administrative or racial imbalance. These are our two precedents. Now we had to develop fair review procedures and the Process Team recommended the ‘double blind’ approach.”
“Would you explain that approach, Colonel?” asked General Clayton.
“Certainly sir, I have a foil here somewhere.” Chase fished through his pile until he came up with the correct foil.
“Our Review Board consisted of four senior army officers and one enlisted man. Three white, two black. All combat veterans. One was a Medal of Honor recipient.” Chase used the pointer for the first time as he discussed each bullet on the foil. “They were given twenty-one citations to review. The names, locations and unit designations were carefully disguised and not disclosed. Ten of the citations were from previous Medal of Honor winners and ten were from lesser awards presented to African-American servicemen. The last one was entirely new. We told the Review Board to evaluate the citations and unanimously agree on which ones deserved the Medal of Honor. They had no idea which ones were already awarded and which ones were for lesser awards…which, by the way, included nine Distinguished Service Crosses and one Silver Star.”
Chase changed a foil. “Here are the results. First, the Review Board recommended all ten who had previously been awarded the Medal. We were very pleased with that outcome. In addition, they recommended the Medal for six of the ten black soldiers who had been originally put in for lesser awards. Of these six men, three died in the action for which they received the award and the remaining three have subsequently passed away. He looked directly at Radcliffe. “Obviously, sir, we concur with these findings of the Review Board and are soliciting your approval.”
“Certainly, of course I approve,” answered Radcliffe, “But if I’m not mistaken, at the start of the meeting you mentioned seven awards including one living recipient. Your math doesn’t add up. What am I missing?”
“Of course, I apologize sir. Let me explain,” replied Chase. “Six of the ten are upgrades from lesser awards. The seventh, and only living recipient comes from a separate review of an after-action investigation and report for which no commendation was ever originally sought. This seventh award was a result of the letter the President gave to you back in February.”
Radcliffe quickly swiveled his chair and faced General Clayton. “Aaron, I thought you said the claim in that letter was not supported by the historical facts.”
“The letter contained many of the right facts, sir, but in the wrong sequence,” Clayton responded. “The soldier involved did not become part of the Eighty-second Airborne until some time after the action at Bastogne for which he won the Medal. At the time of the action, he was a Red Ball driver, a support services soldier. His name is Lincoln Abraham and his citation is also in your package.”
“Was he put in for any medal?” asked Radcliffe.
“No,” answered the general.
“Since there was no original citation or any award, it was extremely difficult to track down the facts,” offered Chase, “but we found a sufficient number of eye-witnesses to verify this action. It turned out to be one of the most extraordinary acts of courage to save others in the entire War. It also has a bit of an unexpected twist to it.”
“And that is?” asked Radcliffe.
“Well, there was a white soldier with him,” answered Chase.
Radcliffe contemplated this bit of unexpected news for a moment and asked, “So, they will both be receiving Medals of Honor?”
“That is our recommendation, sir. The Review Board approved the Medal based on the description of the action, not on who or how many were involved in it,” answered Chase.
“That makes a total of eight Medals of Honor to be awarded, seven to black soldiers, of which only one is alive.”
“Is there a precedent for awarding two Medals of Honor for the same action?” asked Blossom.
“I’m afraid so, Francis,” answered Chase. “Somalia, 1993. Sergeants Gordon and Shugart.” He was referring to the two Delta Force soldiers who volunteered to protect the crew of a downed Blackhawk helicopter and were killed in the effort. Many Americans still shuddered at the images of the two Special Forces soldiers’ bodies being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.
“Right. Of course,” said Blossom.
“Aaron, I’m not sure this is what the President had in mind when he handed us that letter,” said Radcliffe to General Clayton. Radcliffe was thinking of the photo op and wondered if the presence of a white soldier among the black recipients would somehow dilute the intent of the ceremony.
“I’m sure it wasn’t,” answered the general. “It surprised us too. But, if it’s any consolation, the white soldier, John Kilroy is his name, recently passed away.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” feigned Radcliffe. “So we’ll have only one living recipient, this Lincoln Abraham fellow, at the awards ceremony and seven other posthumous awards.”
Radcliffe contemplated that prospect for a moment. “I think the President will be pleased, especially since you acted positively on the letter from Congressman Williams.” Radcliffe looked over to Francis Blossom. “Comments, questions, Francis?”
“Do we have a date for a formal presentation ceremony?” asked Blossom.
“We have a hold for 13 January pending approval,” Chase nodded toward Radcliffe. “We have a lot to do between now and then. Notification of the recipients and the invitations to the surviving relatives.”
“Sounds like you have all the bases covered Colonel,” said Radcliffe. He turned to General Clayton. “This is a fine piece of work. Please pass along my appreciation to your team. I’ll notify the SecDef and I believe the President will also be extremely pleased.”
“Thank you, sir,” replied Clayton. “We feel good about the credibility of these results.”
Radcliffe turned to Colonel Chase and asked, “What do we have to do to formally authorize and approve these awards, Colonel?”
“Mister Secretary, yours is the final approval.” Chase placed a stack of approval forms in front of the Secretary of the Army and pointed to the signature line. “Right here, sir.”
Radcliffe began signing the first of eight forms. He muttered, “What’s today’s date?”
Blossom answered. “September twenty-third.”