As we enter Black History Month, CalVet pays homage to Pvt. 1st Class James Anderson Jr., California’s only Black Medal of Honor recipient from the Vietnam War. His memory graces the Medal of Honor Wall at CalVet headquarters in Sacramento.
Born January 22, 1947, in Los Angeles, Anderson graduated from Compton’s Centennial High School in 1964. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in February 1966, arriving 10 months later in Vietnam as a rifleman with the 3rd Marines Division in Quang Tri Province.
On February 28, 1967, Anderson’s platoon was sent in to extract a reconnaissance patrol pinned down by the enemy in the jungle near Cam Lo. The platoon also came under heavy enemy fire. They hunkered down in close quarters as they returned fire against an enemy force only about 65 feet away. Several Marines suffered wounds as the fighting intensified. Anderson – just 20 years old – gave his own life to save his fellow Marines, according to his Medal of Honor Citation.
“Suddenly, an enemy grenade landed in the midst of the Marines and rolled alongside Pfc. Anderson’s head. Unhesitatingly and with complete disregard for his personal safety, he reached out, grasped the grenade, pulled it to his chest and curled around it as it went off. Although several marines received shrapnel from the grenade, his body absorbed the major force of the explosion. In this singularly heroic act, Pfc. Anderson saved his comrades from serious injury and possible death. His personal heroism, extraordinary valor, and inspirational supreme self-sacrifice reflected great credit upon himself and the Marine Corps and upheld the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.”
In 1968, a year after his death, Anderson became the first Black Marine Medal of Honor recipient. Family members traveled to Washington, D.C. where they accepted his medal from Navy Secretary Paul R. Ignatius. They also received his Purple Heart, National Defense Service Medal, and campaign medals.
Anderson is buried in Lincoln Memorial Park in Compton where, in 2020, Congresswoman Nanette Barragan, D-San Pedro, introduced a bill that would name the Compton post office in his honor. She reintroduced it in 2021, and the bill remains before the 117th Congress.
“The bravery of this 20-year-old was beyond any rational expectation for someone so young, and his family, friends and fellow soldiers still feel the impacts of that sacrifice to this day,” Barragan said in a press release at the time. “PFC Anderson made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country. Renaming the post office in Compton in his honor would recognize his duty and sacrifice and preserve that legacy right here in our community where he grew up.”