Memorial Day 2021
Memorial Day is observed on the last Monday of May as a time to remember the men and women who have served in the military – and their families. This includes individuals from all racial and ethnic groups and we want to remember, in particular, the African Americans, Hispanics and Latino/as, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who have served with honor and distinction throughout US history. While we can’t include all of their stories here, we have included several stories from the 20th and 21st centuries that we hope will, in some small way, represent the military service of these Americans.
369th Infantry Regiment (Harlem Hellfighters)
During World War I, the Harlem Hellfighters (a segregated African American unit) spent more time in front-line trenches than any other unit of its size and suffered more casualties than any other American regiment. Click on these 369 IR#1 and 369 IR#2 links for more information.
Two of the most celebrated members of the 369th were Privates Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts. However, it’s telling that Privates Johnson and Roberts weren’t officially honored until years later. Both were awarded the Purple Heart posthumously in 1996. Private Johnson was also posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002 and the Medal of Honor in 2015.
99th Pursuit Squadron (Tuskegee Airmen)
Beginning as an experiment in 1941, the 99th Pursuit Squadron (a segregated African American unit) flew combat missions in North Africa, Sicily and Africa during World War II. After switching from second-hand and outdated P-40 planes to more modern P-51s with distinctive red-painted tails, the unit earned the nickname “Red Tails.” Click on this TUSKEGEE AIRMEN link for more information.
442nd Regimental Combat Team
Activated about a year after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 incarcerating more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans living on the US West Coast, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (a segregated Japanese-American unit) was made up of second-generation Japanese Americans. During World War II, the unit served in Italy and Southern France, receiving 7 Presidential Unit Citations and numerous individual awards, including 21 Medals of Honor. Click on this 442 RCT link for more information.
Those Medal of Honor recipients include Second Lieutenant Daniel Inouye, who later served as US Senator from Hawaii, and Private George Sakato. Like Henry Johnson from World War I, these two Medals of Honor weren’t awarded until long after the war. Click on these DANIEL INOUYE and GEORGE SAKATO links for more information.
Native American Code Talkers
Native Americans served during World War I even when the US government did not grant citizenship to all Native tribes. Choctaw speakers were used to send messages during the Meuse-Argonne campaign. The Choctaw language was unknown to the Germans and therefore could not be decoded. During World War II. Navajo tribal members developed the most extensive code used in the Pacific theater. Again, it was years before the contributions made by Native American Code Talkers was officially recognized. Click on this CODE TALKERS link for more information.
Five firsts in African American Military History
Click on this MILITARY FIRSTS link for information about:
- Phyllis Mae Daily – The first African American woman sworn into the Navy Nurse Corps.
- James Anerson, Jr. – The First African American Marine awarded the Medal of Honor.
- Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. – The first African American 4-star general.
- Freddie Stowers – A Black World War I soldier awarded the Medal of Honor after 73 years.
- Jeanine MacIntosh – The first African American aviator in the US Coast Guard.
Five Black Service Members Shaping Contemporary Military History
Click on this MILITARY LEADERS link for information about:
- Lt. General Nadja West – With numerous “firsts” to her credit.
- Lt. Colonel Shawna Rochelle Kimbrell – The first Black female Air Force fighter pilot and, more recently, the Director of Culture, Climate and Diversity at the US Air Force Academy.
- Janie L. Mines – The first Black female to graduate from the US Naval Academy and a member of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Service.
- General Lloyd Austin – The first Black Commander of the US Central Command and now, after retiring from the Army, the first Black Secretary of Defense.
- Colonel Merryl Tengesdal – After flying helicopters for the US Navy, she transferred to the Air Force and became the only African American to date to pilot the U-2 high altitude spy plane.