Soldiers of color, be it white, black, red, brown or yellow, have one human characteristic in common: we all bleed the same color. The warrior covering your back most likely wears the same color uniform, yet his or her race, creed or color has no relevance on the value of training or their desire to simply do what is right.
Old-school social orders, race baiters, manipulative politicians, mistrust and entrenched preconceptions breed social unrest. America’s military machine, however, through trial and error, has seemingly accomplished what our basic society has not: trust and justice based on ability and strength of character. For the military, it’s been a long, but often times successful journey. For society, we seem to have lost our direction on a road to nowhere.
On Jan. 22, 1947, James Anderson, Jr. was born in Los Angeles into a mostly segregated America. After high school graduation and a one and a half year stint at junior college, James enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. After recruit training at MCRD San Diego, James received advanced training at Camp Pendleton. He would not live to see the political turmoil of the late 60’s nor the encouraging gains on societal inequality.
James arrived in Vietnam in December of 1966. He was assigned as a rifleman with the 2nd platoon, Company F, 2nd Battalion, of the famed 3rd Marines, 3rd Marine Division. James would bear their standards in the best tradition of the United States Marine Corps.
A month into his 20th year on earth, PFC James Anderson, Jr. was pounding foreign soil in Quang Tri Province near the village and base of Cam Lo. The marines of Company F were moving through thick jungle to rescue trapped marines of a heavily besieged reconnaissance patrol. Having advanced about 700 feet into the jungle, Anderson’s platoon came under heavy fire from automatic weapons and small arms. The marines hit the ground and returned fire. The enemy was less than 60 feet from their position.
Tightly huddled with other marines, many of whom were wounded and dying, James fought on until an enemy grenade landed in the middle of the clustered marines. The grenade hit, then rolled alongside the head of the young 20-year-old marine from Los Angeles. James Anderson did not hesitate; he did what he had to do, he did what his marine intuition told him to do.
Without personal regard for his life, James gripped the grenade, pulled it to his chest, and curled up into a fetal position as the grenade ignited. Shrapnel still slightly wounded a few marines but James’ body absorbed the major potency of the explosion. James saved the lives of numerous marines on that fateful day, 10,000 miles from the City of Angels.
On Aug. 21, 1968, Secretary of the Navy Paul Ignatius posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor to Mr. and Mrs. James Anderson, Sr. on behalf of their son, PFC James Anderson, Jr. On this date any remaining walls of long-standing prejudices within the Corps came to an end: PFC James Anderson, Jr was the first African-American Marine to receive his nation’s highest award for bravery, the Medal of Honor.
More than 3,460 Medals of Honor have been awarded since its creation during the Civil War. A total of 88 African-American recipients received 87 Medals of Honor; Robert Augustus Sweeney having received two, one of only 19 men to do so.
During America’s Civil War, 25 African-Americans earned the Medal of Honor. William Harvey Carney was the first, but did not obtain his until 1900. Another Medal of Honor recipient, Andrew Jackson Smith, finally received his Medal of Honor in 2001, 137 years after his heroic actions. The setback was due to a missing battle report, the longest delay for any Medal of Honor recipient, regardless of race, creed, or color.
African-Americans received 18 MOHs during the Indian Wars, 6 during the Spanish-American War; Freddie Stowers was the only one in WWI, and none were awarded in WWII. On Jan. 13, 1997, seven‘soldiers of color’ were finally awarded the Medal of Honor for their bravery and self-sacrifice in WWII (Vernor Baker was the only living recipient).
Two African-Americans received the Medal of Honor in the Korean War, both posthumously. In Vietnam the total was 20, including PFC James Anderson, Jr. Future wars will bring additional Medals of Honor, to the African-Americans, as well as to dauntless men and women of all races, creeds, and colors. War is what it is; bungled politics and nothing more, so future conflicts are assured.
The military is not for everyone because it takes a mental and physical toughness not obtained on the mean streets or on the various fields of exalted sports, but on the strength of character. Our young people, all our young people, need role models. Our veterans fit that bill. A young marine from Los Angles was but a minor, yet critically important part of the continuing catalyst for respect and worthwhile change, for society as well as individuals. PFC Anderson’s story, as well as others, needs to be told.
The United States Navy obtained a Danish merchant ship in 1983 called the Emma Maersk. The vessel was placed in service and renamed the USNS PFC James Anderson, Jr. and has supported Marine expeditionary brigades and made port in American bastions such as Diego Garcia. She has an honorable namesake.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.