On historic Pine Street in Cambridge, Maryland, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) speaking recently to local and state officials, veterans and their families, announced new bipartisan legislation that will require review of World War I valor medals awarded to minority service members to determine whether their actions warrant a posthumous upgrade to the Medal of Honor.
“Hundreds of thousands of minority veterans served their country during World War I, and their sacrifice was essential to our victory, but for far too long, their heroism has not received the recognition it deserves,” Van Hollen said last week. “Take William Butler, an African-American veteran from Salisbury, for example. His valor was recognized with the Croix de Guerre with Palm, the Distinguished Service Cross, and a recommendation for the Medal of Honor — but he never received that medal before his death.
“His story is the exact kind of case the Valor Medal Task Force should review,” Van Holden said. “This legislation will ensure he and countless others have the opportunity to be honored.”
The World War I Valor Medals Review Act would require the Department of Defense to undertake a review in consultation with the WWI Centennial Commission’s Valor Medals Review Task Force. The bill was introduced to the Senate Armed Forces Committee by Van Hollen and fellow Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), with Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) as co-sponsors.
Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.) has introduced the House companion legislation, H.R 2249.
The bill would require a review of service records of African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic-American, Jewish-American and Native American war veterans awarded the Distinguished Service Cross or Navy Cross, or who received a recommendation for the Medal of Honor for an action that occurred between April 6, 1917, and Nov. 11, 1918.
Additionally, the law would require a review of the service record of veterans awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm by the Government of France.
With no attached appropriation, the costs will be supported by private funds raised by the Valor Medals Review Task Force.
The legislation has been endorsed by more than 20 organizations including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, American GI Forum and the Congressional Black Caucus Veterans Braintrust.
According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, 83 men who entered the military in the state of Maryland have been awarded the nation’s most prestigious honor since its creation in 1862. Maj. Christian A. Fleetwood, a Baltimore-born Washingtonian recognized at the African-American Civil War Museum, is one of the most well-known recipients of the Medal of Honor.
The focus of remarks by both Van Hollen and Eastern Shore historian Linda Duyer was the life and World War I heroics of Sgt. William Butler from Salisbury, who was selected to lead a parade through New York City’s Harlem neighborhood but has been largely forgotten after his death. This began to change when a team of local researchers and the George S. Robb Center for the Study of the Great War at Park University in Missouri started to advocate for Butler’s awarding of the Medal of Honor.
The original application for the Medal of Honor in the National Archives for awardee Lt. George S. Robb and Butler is contained on the same piece of paper.
According to Duyer, Butler was part of Company L in the famed 369th United States Infantry division known as the “Old Fifteenth,” the name of the first African American National Guard regiment organized in New York City which converted to the United States Infantry.
In 2015, Duyer wrote for an Eastern Shore newspaper, “Serving alongside the French, Butler encountered a German raiding party which had conducted a murderous assault on American trenches and captured several soldiers including a lieutenant. Butler held a lone position and watched as the German soldiers made their way back to their trenches with their captured Americans. As the German party got closer, Butler fired his automatic rifle, killing ten, then captured the wounded German lieutenant and released the American prisoners.”
Upon the return of Butler’s unit, he was honored at the City College stadium in New York as one of 23 on a list of medal conferees which was widely reported by papers such as the Baltimore Afro-American and New York Tribune. He was prominently featured in Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War, published by Emmett J. Scott in 1919.
Butler along with other veterans faced discrimination and violence during their transition to civilian life throughout more than a dozen cities. Known as the Red Summer, African-American veterans fought back lynch mobs in cities such as Chicago and D.C., and areas such as 7th Street NW in the District became battlegrounds.
Butler died in D.C. in 1947 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
For more information on the US World War One Commission’s efforts to honor service members, go to www.worldwar1centennial.org/our-goals.html.