Black and Native American Veterans May be Upgraded to the Medal of Honor

US Army/PhotoQuest/Getty Images (Left) / Wikipedia / Alexeinikolayevichromanov / CC BY-SA 4.0 (Right)
US Army/PhotoQuest/Getty Images (Left) / Wikipedia / Alexeinikolayevichromanov / CC BY-SA 4.0 (Right)

The branches of the US military have been ordered to conduct a review on black and Native American recipients of the nation’s second-highest award for valor as far back as WWII. The review is to check whether recipients received the correct award at the time, as discrimination has often prevented the correct medal from being awarded.

If any irregularities are found, the military will ensure they are upgraded as necessary. The reviews must be completed by August 2, 2026.

The investigation has been ordered by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and will cover US military involvements throughout all wars dating as far back as WWII. Historically, many black and Native American troops faced discrimination by fellow soldiers and their commanders and were often denied the Medal of Honor, receiving a downgraded award instead.

This is not the first time such a review has been conducted, the US previously investigated the awards given to Jewish American and Hispanic Americans in the 2000s and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islanders’ awards in the late 1990s. However, awards that were given to black and Native Americans have not yet been reviewed.

“It has come to my attention that African American and Native American Service Cross recipients … did not receive the same opportunities to have their valorous actions reviewed for possible upgrade to the Medal of Honor,” Austin said.

To correct this oversight, I direct the Secretaries of the Military Departments to conduct … reviews to determine if such Veterans’ actions warrant an award for the Medal of Honor.”

US Medals of Honor. Air Force, Army and Navy types. Part of the AEA Collections. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia / Alexeinikolayevichromanov / CC BY-SA 4.0)
US Medals of Honor. Air Force, Army and Navy types. Part of the AEA Collections. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia / Alexeinikolayevichromanov / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The exact amount of awards that will be reviewed is unknown, but the task is enormous. For now, it will only look into those who received their respective branch’s second-highest award. For the Army, it is the Distinguished Service Cross, for the Navy and Marine Corps it is the Navy Cross, for the Air Force it is the Air Force Cross, and for the Coast Guard, it is the Coast Guard Cross.

Over 7,500 of these crosses were awarded over the course of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam.

“The military departments do not keep lists of Service Cross recipients divided by race or ethnicity,” said Pentagon Spokesman Army Major Charlie Dietz. “The military departments will review the records of service members awarded the service cross for valorous actions during the specified wars to determine which of those veterans are African American or Native American.”

While the awards given to black Servicemembers in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam are to be reviewed, only Korean War and Vietnam War veterans will be examined, as the military has already investigated WWII recipients. Native American veterans still need their awards checked from all three wars.

Black Medal of Honor Winner - Vietnam
Portrait of Private First Class Milton Lee Olive III (1946 – 1965) of the 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, Phu Cuong, South Vietnam, October 22, 1965. He became the first African-American Medal of Honor winner of the Vietnam War for ‘conspicuous gallantry’ in sacrificing his life to save others by smothering an enemy grenade with his own body. (Photo by US Army/PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

Upgrading a servicemember’s award is a significant decision, as an incorrect conclusion could undermine the honor and respect commanded by the Medal of Honor. A Congressional Research Service report released in 2015 explained the strict requirements needed for an award to be upgraded.

Solid evidence is needed for the original recommendation for the Medal of Honor, as well as evidence suggesting the medal was denied because of racism or other discriminations. Likewise, if documentation for the original recommendation was lost and only recently discovered, this can be evidence for an upgrade.

If no recommendation was made, then there is no “correct” medal. In this situation, the recipient will not receive an upgrade.

“In nearly every case, specific findings of fact are required that the individual was originally recommended [for the Medal of Honor] or that the downgrade to another type of award occurred under questionable, but verifiable circumstances,” the report said.

When reviews have been made of servicemembers who were denied the Medal of Honor, large numbers of veterans have been found to be owed the award. Over 100 soldiers were considered for upgrades to the Medal of Honor after World War II records of Americans of Asian-Pacific descent were inspected in 1996.

Interestingly, during the review of Jewish American and Hispanic American veteran war records, servicemembers of neither Jewish nor Hispanic descent were found to be owed the Medal of Honor.

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“Now and forever, the truth will be known about these African Americans who gave so much that the rest of us might be free,” President Bill Clinton said during the 1990s review. “These heroes distinguished themselves in another, almost unique way: In the tradition of African Americans who have fought for our nation as far back as Bunker Hill, they were prepared to sacrifice everything for freedom — even though freedom’s fullness was denied to them.”

Jesse Beckett

Jesse Beckett is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE