Our American Story

Honor and Recognition Long Overdue

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defense. Photo by Robert Ward for DOD. Image DD-SC-02-05877

Freddie Stowers, the grandson of a South Carolina slave, holds a unique spot in America's pantheon of war heroes — as the only African American awarded the Medal of Honor for service in World War I. Stowers' story, however, must be told in two parts. The first part of the story is his act of heroism in 1918; the second part is that it took more than 72 years before Stowers finally received the recognition he was due.

Long before Stowers was honored by his nation, he, along with other members of Company C, received recognition from the French government: “For extraordinary heroism under fire.” Stowers and his unit received the Croix de Guerre the French War Cross — the highest military medal France awards to allied soldiers.

Prior to World War I, 49 African Americans had been awarded the Medal of Honor, including 25 men who fought for the Union in the Civil War. There were 119 Medals of Honor recipients in World War I, with Stowers being the only African American. His long overdue recognition in 1991 is a small but important sign of the progress we as a nation have made.

The United States was the last major combatant to enter World War I, the “war to end all wars.” The conflict began in Europe in 1914, but in the U.S., isolationist sentiments were strong resulting in a foreign policy of non-intervention. However, on May 7, 1915, a German U-boat sank the British ship Lusitania, killing 128 Americans on board, sparking anti-Germany sentiment in the United States.

In the next two years, a series of events added to American anger with Germany. On April 2, 1917 President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. By the end of June, 1917, American troops were in France.

More than 50 years after the Civil War, America's military was still segregated. The French, however, had no such rules, and Stowers and Company C were sent to the front lines to serve alongside French troops.

On September 28, just days after arriving in France, Stowers' company was in the midst of an attack on Hill 188, Champagne Marne Sector, France, when enemy forces appeared to be giving up.

According to the War Department, German soldiers emerged from their trenches waving a white flag, arms in the air — military actions that signal surrender. It was a ruse, however. As Americans, including Cpl. Stowers, went to capture the “surrendering” Germans, another wave of the enemy arose and opened fire.

Very quickly, Company C's lieutenant and non-commissioned officers were killed in the fight. This left the 21-year-old Stowers in command. Without hesitation, he implored his men to advance on the Germans.

Stowers would be mortally shot during the exchange. Wounded and dying, Stowers continued to fight on, inspiring his men to push the enemy back. With Stowers leading the counter-attack, Americans took out an enemy machine gun position and went on to capture Hill 188.

Following the battle, Stowers' commanding officer nominated him for the Medal of Honor, but the nomination was never processed. The Pentagon said the paperwork was misplaced. Some raise the possibility that the nomination wasn't misplaced at all, but deliberately lost. They point to the fact that American troops were segregated and suggest that racial bias in the military might be the reason for Stowers' missing paperwork.

The final part of Freddie Stowers' story begins in 1990. As the Department of Defense began to modernize its data systems, it ordered a review of all battlefield medal nominations. When Stowers' recommendation was found, the Pentagon quickly took action to give the corporal the long overdue recognition and honor he deserved.

On April 24, 1991, more than 72 years after Stowers made the ultimate sacrifice for his nation, his sisters Georgiana Palmer and Mary Bowens, 88- and 77-years-old at the time, were presented his Medal of Honor by President George H. W. Bush.