The American Battle Monuments Commission is proud to commemorate Black History Month
The American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) proudly commemorates Black History Month by sharing the stories of the four African American service members buried or memorialized at our sites: Cpl. Freddie Stowers, Pvt. George Watson, Pfc. Willy F. James and Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers.
Those four brave men, who gave their lives for our freedom while enduring racism and segregation during World War I and World War II, were recipients of the Medal of Honor, the U.S. Armed Forces' highest military decoration. African Americans have served the U.S. military with courage since the American Revolution.
Cpl. Freddie Stowers (WWI)
|On Sept. 28, 1918, Stowers led his company in a bold attack on a German machine gun position. Mortally wounded during the assault, Stowers nevertheless urged his men on toward their objective. It took more than seven decades, but in 1991 he became the first African-American recipient of the Medal of Honor for World War I service. He is buried at Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery (Plot F, Row 36, Grave 40).
Stowers’ citation: “Cpl. Freddie Stowers distinguished himself by exceptional heroism on 28 September 1918 while serving as a squad leader in Company C, 371st Infantry Regiment, 93d Infantry Division. His company was the lead company during the attack on Hill 188, Champagne Marne Sector, France, during World War I. A few minutes after the attack began, the enemy ceased firing and began climbing up onto the parapets of the trenches, holding up their arms as if wishing to surrender. The enemy's actions caused the American forces to cease fire and to come out into the open. As the company started forward and when within about 100 meters of the trench line, the enemy jumped back into their trenches and greeted Cpl. Stowers' company with interlocking bands of machine-gun fire and mortar fire causing well over fifty percent casualties. Faced with incredible enemy resistance, Cpl. Stowers took charge, setting such a courageous example of personal bravery and leadership that he inspired his men to follow him in the attack. With extraordinary heroism and complete disregard of personal danger under devastating fire, he crawled forward, leading his squad toward an enemy machine-gun nest which was causing heavy casualties to his company. After fierce fighting, the machine-gun position was destroyed and the enemy soldiers were killed. Displaying great courage and intrepidity Cpl. Stowers continued to press the attack against a determined enemy. While crawling forward and urging his men to continue the attack on a second trench line, he was gravely wounded by machine-gun fire. Although Cpl. Stowers was mortally wounded, he pressed forward, urging on the members of his squad, until he died. Inspired by the heroism and display of bravery of Cpl. Stowers, his company continued the attack against incredible odds, contributing to the capture of Hill 188 and causing heavy enemy casualties. Cpl. Stowers' conspicuous gallantry, extraordinary heroism, and supreme devotion to his men were well above and beyond the call of duty, follow the finest traditions of military service, and reflect the utmost credit on him and the United States Army.”
Pvt. George Watson (WWII)
|On March 8, 1943, Watson was aboard the Dutch steamer Jacob with his unit near New Guinea when Japanese bombers attacked the vessel. While the ship sank, Watson started swimming back and forth from life rafts to the wreckage of the Jacob to rescue comrades before he himself drown from exhaustion. He was buried at sea, but is memorialized on the Wall of the Missing at Manila American Cemetery.
Watson’s citation: “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty: Private George Watson distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism on 8 March 1943, while serving in the Pacific Command with the 2d Battalion, 29th Quartermaster Regiment, near Porlock Harbor, New Guinea. Private Watson was onboard a troop ship, the Dutch Steamer (United States Army Transport) Jacob, when it was attacked and hit by enemy bombers. Before it sank, the ship was abandoned. Private Watson, instead of seeking to save himself, remained in deep waters long enough to assist several soldiers who could not swim to reach the safety of a life raft. This heroic action, which subsequently cost him his life, resulted in saving the lives of several of his comrades. Weakened by continuous physical exertion and overcome by muscular fatigue, Private Watson drowned when the suction of the sinking ship dragged him beneath the surface of the swirling waters. His demonstrated bravery and unselfish act set in motion a train of compelling events that finally led to American victory in the Pacific. Private Watson's extraordinary valorous actions, his daring and inspiring leadership, and his self-sacrificing devotion to his fellow man exemplify the finest traditions of military service.”
SSgt. Ruben Rivers (WWII)
|Rivers earned both the Silver Star and the Medal of Honor during World War II for his conspicuous gallantry and combat leadership. Despite suffering serious injuries the day prior, on Nov. 19, 1944, Rivers selflessly chose to remain on the field of battle during an advance against enemy forces. During the ensuing battle, he was killed and his crew wounded when their tank was hit by enemy fire. He is buried at Lorraine American Cemetery (Plot C, Row 5, Grave 53).
Rivers’ citation: “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty: Staff Sergeant Rivers distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action during 16-19 November 1944, while serving with Company A, 761st Tank Battalion. On 16 November 1944, while advancing toward the town of Guebling, France, Staff Sergeant Rivers' tank hit a mine at a railroad crossing. Although severely wounded, his leg slashed to the bone, Staff Sergeant Rivers declined an injection of morphine, refused to be evacuated, took command of another tank, and advanced with his company into Guebling the next day. Repeatedly refusing evacuation, Staff Sergeant Rivers continued to direct his tank's fire at enemy positions beyond the town through the morning of 19 November 1944. At dawn that day, Company As' tanks advanced toward Bourgaltoff, their next objective, but were stopped by enemy fire. Captain David J. Williams, the Company Commander, ordered his tanks to withdraw and take cover. Staff Sergeant Rivers, however, radioed that he had spotted the German antitank positions: "I see 'em. We'll Fight'em!" Staff Sergeant Rivers, joined by another Company A tank, opened fire on enemy tanks, covering Company A as they withdrew. While doing so, Staff Sergeant Rivers' tank was hit, killing him and wounding the rest of the crew. Staff Sergeant Rivers' fighting spirit and daring leadership were an inspiration to his unit and exemplify the highest traditions of military service.”
Pfc. Willy F. James (WWII)
|On April 7, 1945, James was serving as an infantry scout in a white unit, as segregation began to break down toward the end of the war due to the pressing need for infantry replacements. After observing the enemy and leading a squad in an assault near Lippoldsberg, Germany, James was killed by enemy machine gun fire while helping his fatally wounded platoon leader. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He is buried at Netherlands American Cemetery (Plot P, Row 9, Grave 9).
James’ citation: “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty: Private First Class Willy F. James, Jr. Distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism at the risk of his own life on 7 April 1945 in the Weser River Valley, in the vicinity of Lippoldsberg, Germany. On 7 April 1945, Company G, 413 Infantry, fought its way across the Weser River in order to establish a crucial bridgehead. The company then launched a fierce attack against the town of Lippoldsberg, possession of which was vital to securing and expanding the important bridgehead. Private First Class James was first scout of the lead squad in the assault platoon. The mission of the unit was to seize and secure a group of houses on the edge of town, a foothold from which the unit could launch an attack on the rest of the town. Far out in front, Private First Class James was the first to draw enemy fire. His platoon leader came forward to investigate, but poor visibility made it difficult for Private First Class James to point out enemy positions with any accuracy. Private First Class James volunteered to go forward to fully reconnoiter the enemy situation. Furious crossfire from enemy snipers and machineguns finally pinned down Private First Class James after making his way forward approximately 200 yards across open terrain. Lying in an exposed position for more than an hour, Private First Class James intrepidly observed the enemy's positions which were given away by the fire Private First Class James was daringly drawing upon himself. Then, with utter indifference to his personal safety, in a storm of enemy small arms fire, Private First Class James made his way back more than 300 yards across open terrain under enemy observation to his platoon positions, and gave a full, detailed report on the enemy disposition. The unit worked out a new plan on maneuver based on Private First Class James' information. The gallant soldier volunteered to lead a squad in an assault on the key house in the group that formed the platoon objective. He made his way forward, leading his squad in the assault on the strongly held enemy positions in the building and designating targets accurately and continuously as he moved along. While doing so, Private First Class James saw his platoon leader shot down by enemy snipers. Hastily designating and coolly orienting a leader in his place, Private First Class James instantly went to the aid of his platoon leader, exposing himself recklessly to the incessant enemy fire. As he was making his way across open ground, Private First Class James was killed by a burst from an enemy machine gun. Private First Class James' extraordinary heroic action in the face of withering enemy fire provided the disposition of enemy troops to his platoon. Inspired to the utmost by Private First Class James' self-sacrifice, the platoon sustained the momentum of the assault and successfully accomplished its mission with a minimum of casualties. Private First Class James contributed very definitely to the success of his battalion in the vitally important combat operation of establishing and expanding a bridgehead over the Weser River. His fearless, self-assigned actions, far above and beyond the normal call of duty, exemplify the finest traditions of the American combat soldier and reflect with highest credit upon Private First Class James and the Armed Forces of the United States.”
No African-American service member was awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II. In 1993, the Army began a process of investigating racial disparity in the awarding of the medals, working with Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. The team at Shaw University identified ten individuals, of whom seven were recommended to receive the Medal of Honor including Rivers, Watson and James. Congress passed the necessary legislation and in January 1997 President Clinton made the award presentations. There was only one recipient surviving, and the families of the others received their awards.
Sources: ABMC Historical Services, Congressional Medal Of Honor Society, The National WWII Museum.
The ABMC’s mission is to honor the service of the Armed Forces by creating and maintaining memorial sites, offering commemorative services, and facilitating the education of their legacy to future generations. It was founded in 1923 following World War I and its 26 cemeteries and 32 monuments honor the service men and women who fought and perished during World War I (WWI), World War II (WWII), the Korean War and the Vietnam War, as well as some who fought during the Mexican-American War. Burials within all ABMC cemeteries are arranged without regard to rank, race or creed.