Congress is preparing to order the Pentagon to review the records of scores of decorated soldiers who served in World War I to determine if they were denied the nation’s highest battlefield honor because of their race or religion.
The bipartisan World War I Medals Review Act, expected to be unveiled Thursday, marks the latest effort to rectify the military’s history of discrimination against black soldiers and other minorities who fought and died alongside their white comrades but were shunned and often the victims of racial violence.
"We are in a historical conversation about race," said Timothy Wescott, director of the George S. Robb Centre for the Study of the Great War at Park University in Missouri, which is already reviewing some of the cases for the nonprofit United States Foundation for the Commemoration of the World Wars. "If there are corrections to make it is time to make those corrections in the bigger picture of reconciliation as a nation."
The reviews would be the first of their kind for the century-old conflict that pitted Great Britain, France, Russia and eventually the United States against foes including Germany and the Ottoman Empire. The research will initially focus on about 70 African American troops and then turn to other minority groups, according to officials involved in the effort.
The new legislation, shared in advance with POLITICO, calls for the review of cases involving African, Asian, Hispanic, Native and Jewish Americans. The measure is expected to be included later this year in the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual defense policy bill.
Black troops served in segregated units during World War I, which means that "the information for forensic, historical and genealogical research is comparatively easy to locate" compared with the other four minority groups, said Wescott, a retired Marine. "We have been receiving information from other genealogists and family members, particularly in the Hispanic American and Jewish American grouping."
To warrant a review, the service members must have been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross or the Navy Cross, both considered the nation’s second-highest awards for valor, or the French Croix de Guerre with Palm, France’s highest honor, according to the proposed legislation.
Soldiers and sailors will also qualify for a review if they were recommended for the Medal of Honor but didn’t receive it.
In all these categories, commanders at the time signed notarized statements on their forces’ exploits, ensuring that the reviews rely solely on first-person accounts of the battles. The review process, which researchers estimate could take between five and seven years, will also compare the records with other cases in which troops were awarded the Medal of Honor.
The House version of the bill is being sponsored by Rep. French Hill, an Arkansas Republican who is enlisting co-sponsors in both parties. Identical Senate legislation is being sponsored by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, and Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri.
"Servicemembers of all races, religions and backgrounds fought in WWI, but the Medal of Honor was patently denied to minority veterans until the 1990s," said Van Hollen’s office, which is planning a public roll-out Thursday in Cambridge, Md. The event will include representatives from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.
“We cannot erase the discrimination minority service members faced, but we can make sure their heroic deeds are acknowledged and honored,” added Blunt in a statement.
The legislation urges the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force to work with the Medals Review Task Force, which was established by the World Wars foundation and the George S. Robb Centre.
The Pentagon has conducted similar reviews for minority groups who served in other conflicts stretching from World War II to the war in Afghanistan.
The systematic reviews began in the 1990s for World War II, a conflict in which black units remained segregated. That effort resulted in more than 100 soldiers receiving the Medal of Honor, all but one of them posthumously.
World War I, in which more than 116,000 Americans died, "was never included in any of these systematic projects," said Zachary Austin, who has also been researching some of the minority medal cases.
He said the conflict stands out for another reason: All the Medals of Honor went to white soldiers. In contrast, Medal of Honor recipients were much more ethnically diverse in preceding conflicts, such as the 1898 Spanish-American War and the Philippine insurrection between 1899 and 1902.
Evidence is strongest that the military leadership during the First World War downplayed the African American soldiers’ battlefield heroics, historians say.
More than 367,000 African American troops served in World War I in 1917 and 1918. Those included soldiers in the 369th “Harlem Hellfighters,“ which completed more combat days and suffered more casualties than any other American regiment, according to the World War One Centennial Commission, which Congress established in 2013 to help commemorate the 100th anniversary of the conflict.
But none received the Medal of Honor. And as a sign of the enduring discrimination against black Americans after the war, an official report by the commandant of the Army War College in 1925 referred to African Americans as a “sub-species of the human family.”
The legislation is needed, advocates say, in part because the rules governing the Medal of Honor say it has to be recommended within three years of a battle and awarded to the recipient within five years. And only Congress can waive that restriction.
The push to reopen the World War I files was originally sparked by the case of Army Sgt. William Butler of Salisbury, Md., a veteran of the 369th.
Butler received the Distinguished Service Cross, according to military records, "for extraordinary heroism in action near Maisons-en-Champagne, France, on Aug. 18, 1918. "Sergeant Butler broke up a German raiding party which had succeeded in entering our trenches and capturing some of our men. With an automatic rifle he killed four of the raiding party and captured or put to flight the remainder of the invaders."
Some historians believe he should have received the Medal of Honor but didn’t because he was black. "It is the one we know the most about," Austin said of the Butler case, which is among those that will be reviewed. "It spawned the whole effort."
Others believe the effort is long overdue.
"It’s honoring them — maybe a little late," said retired Army Col. Gerald York, who has been advising the World War One Centennial Commission.
York is the grandson of Sgt. Alvin York, one of the highest decorated veterans of World War I, who was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor for his exploits in the so-called Meuse-Argonne Offensive in October 1918. Gerald York said his grandfather faced discrimination due to his initial claim of being a conscientious objector on religious grounds. Alvin York had originally only been recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross.
York said securing the deserved honors for past victims of discrimination is not just about righting the wrongs of history.
"It’s also telling folks serving today on active duty that they won’t be forgotten," he said.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine