On March 23, 1945, Army Private Edward A. Carter Jr. and three others in his tank squad came under attack by German forces as they neared Speyer, Germany. Their tank ablaze, the four soldiers ran toward cover across the field. Two died, another was wounded.
Carter knocked out two enemy machine gun nests and engaged in a firefight with Germans hiding in a warehouse. He suffered three bullet wounds, a leg injury, and a shrapnel wound. When eight German soldier moved in for the kill, he lay bleeding and motionless to convincingly feign death as they neared. It worked. He suddenly opened fire with his .45-caliber machine gun, killing six of them. He took the other two as prisoners, using them as human shields so that he could return to the tank unit.
As we observe Medal of Honor Day, this native Californian’s story represents the greatest in bravery. It also represents the worst in terms of equality and injustice.
Soon after his actions, Carter received a recommendation for the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor. But because he was Black, he received the Distinguished Service Cross – the second-highest – instead.
In fact, more than half a century passed before Black soldiers who fought in World War II finally received their due honors. In the early 1990s, the Secretary of the Army commissioned a study – that was completed in 1996 and titled “The Exclusion of Black Soldiers from the Medal of Honor in World War II” – to find out why and to correct the blunders.
A year later, having reviewed the Distinguished Service Crosses presented to Blacks during the war, the Army upgraded seven such awards to Medals of Honor, Carter’s among them. Only one of the seven – Vernon Baker of Idaho – lived to receive his medal. Carter’s recognition came 52 years after his heroics in Germany this day in 1945, and more than three decades after his death.
A hero by any standards, the nation did not treat him as such while he lived. Carter endured prejudice throughout his career and his amazing life.
Born in Los Angeles in 1916 to missionary parents, he ran off at age 15 to become a lieutenant in the Chinese Army. He mastered several languages – Cantonese, Mandarin, Hindi, and German – during his time in Asia.
In 1936, he went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War with the socialist Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and against the fascist forces led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco.
Chased into France in 1938, Carter then returned to U.S., where he married, and then enlisted in the U.S. Army in September 1941, two months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Army counterintelligence watched his every move because of his associations with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and the Chinese army.
A natural leader, Carter rose to staff sergeant in the Army only to be demoted back to private and told “Black men don’t lead white soldiers.”
Regardless, he impressed, among others, General George S. Patton, who had no use for prejudice in the military. Patton picked Carter to become one of his personal bodyguards and, after Carter’s heroics in Germany, restored his rank to staff sergeant. Carter spent the remainder of the war training other soldiers.
His military honors included the Distinguished Service Cross (later upgraded to the Medal of Honor), Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and many other awards. Yet, it appeared his early associations with the Chinese and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade still loomed. When he tried to re-enlist in 1949, the Army refused, ending his military career with an honorable discharge but no official explanation as to why.
Carter died at 47 on January 30, 1963, and was buried at the Los Angeles National Cemetery. His remains were exhumed more than three decades later and sent to Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia. On January 13, 1997, his son, Edward A. Carter III, received his father’s Medal of Honor medal from President Clinton. A day later, Carter Jr. received the hero’s burial he deserved at Arlington.
His family filed Freedom of Information Act requests for declassified Army intelligence records. The 57 pages of documents showed no evidence that he ever was disloyal to this nation, its military, and his duty.
On November 10, 1999, Clinton again met with Carter’s family. They received his military records, corrected, his Good Conduct Medal and his campaign medals. His photo joined the others in the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes, where it belonged all along.
On behalf of the nation, Clinton and General John Keane apologized to the Carter family.
His Medal of Honor finally included the personal honor he deserved.
Sources: California Center for Military History, State Military Reserve, and National World War II Museum.