Heroes to all Americans

Graphic that reads African American History Month with red, green and yellow shapes.

Graphic about African-American History Month. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Senior Airman Kiana Pearson)


February, as Black History Month, is a time to reflect on the contributions of African-Americans to our country. Though no single article can adequately cover African-American history justly, there are few areas that can rival the vast participation of African-Americans in war.

African-Americans came to the aid of their country every time it called. From the foundations of independence to the sands of Iraq, African-American Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Guardians have demonstrated they too have a fierce love of country and a stubborn fortitude to succeed in battle.

African-Americans stand proud in our fighting history and deserve their rightful place in the study of that history.

From Crispus Attucks, who was killed by British soldiers during the Boston Massacre in 1770, to the freed and escaped slaves of the Civil War, through the Buffalo soldiers of Wild West to the Tuskegee Airman and right up to today, there has been no shortage of African-American patriots. Here are remembrances of just a few.

The 10th U.S. Cavalry, a Buffalo Soldier unit was deployed to Cuba during the Spanish-American War. The 10th Cavalry became famous for having five African-American soldiers receive Medals of Honor. In doing so, the 10th Cavalry wrote its heroics in blood. One soldier, Edward L. Barker, Jr., even rose to the rank of captain, an extremely rare event for the day.

The 369th Infantry Regiment, an African-American New York National Guard unit known as the "Black Rattlers" fought in World War I under the French 4th Army and achieved amazing battlefield successes. Despite the obvious racial prejudices of the time, they earned an impressive number of awards for valor receiving more than 171 decorations. The entire regiment received France's prestigious Croix de Guerre. While they still had to ride on the back of the bus, their heroics were so well-known that they received the unprecedented honor of leading the New York City World War I victory parade.  And the German’s, recognizing the amazing tenacity of their enemy, gave them the nickname, “Harlem Hell-fighters”.

World War II brought forth another wave of distinguished African-American patriots. On the USS West Virginia, Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Doris Miller, a cook, was up early Dec. 7, 1941. As he served breakfast, explosions rocked the mighty ship and he went to the upper deck. Seeing flames, chaos and death, Miller first aided his wounded commanding officer, taking him to safety. Then he took up a station at one of the many unmanned machine guns and began firing.

Although he was trained only as a cook with no instruction in the use of the automatic weapon, Miller reportedly downed two Japanese aircraft before the attacks stopped. He never left his post during the hours of the attack, a post he assumed out of necessity. The commander of the Pacific Fleet, Navy Adm. Chester Nimitz, personally presented Miller with the Navy Cross, an award for valor second only to the Medal of Honor.

Brigadier General Charles McGhee, recently promoted and honored by the President in a State of the Union speech, also gives us an enduring lesson in fortitude to the mission.  After endless attempts to downplay their abilities, the Tuskegee Airmen were finally placed in combat with a single mission—escort and protect bombers of the German strategic bombing offensive.  When asked why he had never become an ace—shooting down 5 or more enemy aircraft, he said, “becoming an Ace was never more important than protecting the bombers”.  In other words, the mission is more important than individual fame.  And they have become legendary for their commitment to the mission, and as a result to our country.

Vietnam saw 18 year-old Army Pfc. Milton Olive III receive the Medal of Honor for an act of bravery few people in any war have equaled. Olive's unit was under heavy enemy attacks from the Viet Cong. As the enemy fled the counterattacks of Private Olive's 3rd Platoon, a few VC turned back and threw grenades, one of which landed near Olive, three of his buddies and the platoon leader. Olive grabbed the grenade and covered it with his body, absorbing the blast and saving his fellow soldiers while ensuring success of the counterassault.

At the White House ceremony to present the Medal of Honor posthumously to Olive's parents, President Johnson summed up the reason we should remember the example of Olive and others like him: "In dying, he taught those of us who remain how we ought to live."

Another Vietnam War hero, Col. Fred Cherry, endured torture, solitary confinement and repeated beatings as a prisoner of war for more than seven years. He was brutally tortured when he refused to sign statements that the United States was a racist country or make broadcasts encouraging African-American soldiers not to fight. Even after suffering the most brutal torture -- including an operation to repair a broken rib with no anesthesia -- he never gave in to his captors, telling them, "You'll have to kill me before I denounce my country."

All of these men practiced and validated ideals which are uniquely American. Often in our history, those most persecuted are they who realize most clearly what it is to be American.  As Americans, we should look at these examples and so many more -- not just in February, but all year -- to remind us that all Americans contribute to the preservation of what makes America the greatest country in history.

Hopefully, through role models such as these African-Americans, we can all live Cherry's words, "Race has nothing to do with it -- I'll succeed because I'm good," both in our own goals and how we look at others. Their ability to do just that is what makes them not just heroes to African-Americans, but heroes to all Americans.

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