Bill to remedy denial of medals

Dorchester Banner/Dave Ryan
United States Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) announced legislation to honor WWI veterans of color. He spoke at the Empowerment Center in Cambridge.

WASHINGTON – On Thursday, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) announced new bipartisan legislation to honor WWI veterans of color at a gathering of local veterans, historians, and community members at the Cambridge Empowerment Center.

The World War I Valor Medals Review Act will ensure that veterans of color who served during WWI are honored and that their tales are told – like the story of William Butler, an African American from Salisbury whose valor was recognized with France’s Croix de Guerre with Palm and the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross.

Cpl. Butler also earned a recommendation for the Medal of Honor – which he never received.

Servicemembers of all races, religions, and backgrounds fought in WWI, but the Medal of Honor was denied to minority veterans until the 1990s. “Senator Van Hollen is committed to righting that historical injustice, and the legislation is supported by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion,” a statement from the senator’s office said.

Cpl. Butler was a member of the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.” In the action for which he was decorated, Cpl. Butler fought and killed several German soldiers, freed American prisoners and took enemy prisoners.

Sen. Van Hollen is co-sponsoring S1218, which will be a comprehensive review of the original fighting, recommendations for medals and the action finally taken. While a number of factors were taken into account at the time regarding denial of the Medal of Honor, “Prejudice certainly played a part,” Co-Chair of the Valor Medals Review Task Force’s External Affairs Subcommittee Major General Christopher Leins (US Army, Retired), said.

There were 62,000 Marylanders sent to France, with 1,757 giving their lives in the war. There were a total of 367,000 African-American soldiers in France, with 40,000 involved in heavy fighting.

Of all the Americans, of any background, in the First World War, only 100 earned the Medal of Honor. None were minorities.

The bill, if it passes, will allow a years-long review process to begin. It will also waive the standard timelines imposed on medal reviews.

The engagement for which Cpl. Butler is remembered took place Aug. 18, 1918, near Maisons de Champagne, northeast of Stemenhoulde. A German barage had isolated a front-line combat post.

Lt. G.R. Jones was jumped by an enemy raiding party, and began to be led away, with four of his men, as prisoners. The prisoners and their five captors were moving in a trench through No Man’s Land toward the German lines when they passed within 50 yards of a post occupied by Cpl. Butler and two privates.

“Don’t fire, Butler,” Lt. Jones called out. “Not yet, sir, but soon,” the Salisbury soldier replied.

At that, Lt. Jones and his four men scrambled over the top of the trench as Cpl. Butler attacked the enemy with his automatic rifle, killing at least four.

Cpl. Butler was one of many men of color who fought for their country at a time when they were enduring discrimination. “They were overlooked,” Sen. Van Hollen said. “These are really the hidden heroes…We think it is right and fitting that the nation rights this historic wrong.”

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