While the airwaves have been saturated with “salutes to Veterans” over the past week, it’s been a positive trend to see Americans of all different backgrounds honored for their contributions and sacrifices to our nation. I appreciate these portrayals breaking through in larger numbers in our popular culture because it’s important that we recognize no single group or ethnicity is solely responsible for the America we know today. Even before the Declaration of Independence, patriots of every race, creed, and color played important roles in building and safeguarding the United States of America.
The first casualty in our fight for independence was a black man named Crispus Attucks. During the Revolutionary War, freed slaves fought shoulder-to-shoulder with their white neighbors in integrated militias. Later, even though they weren’t allowed in regular Army units, African Americans in militias served in roughly equal numbers to their white counterparts — alongside many Native Americans — as Andrew Jackson stopped the British from seizing New Orleans during the War of 1812. And in the Civil War, the 54th Massachusetts became the first official African American unit in the U.S. military. Many of the infantry regiment’s men paid what President Lincoln later called “the last full measure of devotion,” and one of its Sergeants, William Harvey Carney, was the first African American ever awarded a Medal of Honor. Without them, we might still say “the United States are” rather than “the United States is.”
The contributions of African Americans, Native Americans and immigrants throughout our nation’s history are undeniable, but the tendency to overlook their gallant efforts is pervasive and persistent. Too few know the unique story of the 369th Infantry Regiment — the Harlem Hellfighters — a largely African American unit attached to the French Army during World War I, members of which earned 171 Legion of Honor or Croix de Guerre awards from France. And while I’ve always admired General George Patton’s operational brilliance, my admiration is tinged with disappointment that he believed African Americans couldn’t think fast enough to fight in tanks moving at only 35mph — while at the same time the Tuskegee Airmen were shooting down German jets moving faster than 500mph. That the African American 761st Tank Battalion, serving with Patton’s own Third Army, was already succeeding apparently escaped his notice.
African Americans weren’t the only people of color treated as second-class service members. Japanese Americans also were segregated by the military, leading to the legendary 100th Battalion, and very soon thereafter, the most decorated unit in American history: the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The late Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, a mentor of mine who rose to become the highest-ranking Asian American politician in US history, was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor for his service in the 442nd — at the same time the families of many of those he fought alongside were being detained in internment camps.
Despite years of disrespect, segregation, and other poor treatment afforded to people of color in America at the time, our government recognized at least one advantage of promoting diversity when it began recruiting Code Talkers from the Navajo and other Native nations. Those Americans formed a rapid and effective encryption method for tactical communications, and they served with distinction during the thickest of the fighting in the Pacific during World War II.
But even with the valiant efforts of Americans of all stripes who have served in uniform over the years, our military still resisted calls to integrate more fully. That didn’t happen until President Truman issued an executive order abolishing racial discrimination and integrating the Armed Forces. Entering the wars in Korea and Vietnam, the contributions of our nation’s many communities became more evident. Even today, I’m proud that people of color continue to volunteer for our Armed Forces in disproportionately large numbers.
The struggles of my ancestors — and all of our ancestors — helped set the stage for a biracial girl of nearly no means to join the Army, become an officer, fly assault helicopters and command a company.
We must recognize and keep in the public consciousness the significant contributions and sacrifices Americans of every community have made that have helped forge the greatest country our world has ever known. We must be an inclusive nation that respects and supports all of its citizens; a nation that doesn’t give up on anyone who hasn’t given up on themselves. I believe accurately remembering — and honoring — our whole past is the first step in governing in a way that effectively represents the whole America.