Honoring 21/2 centuries of valor by African-American veterans

As the Mahoning Valley joins the nation today in honoring all American veterans of war at countless parades and ceremonies, one observance in Youngstown at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6488 merits communitywide attention and appreciation.

At the post’s home on Coitsville-Hubbard Road today at 11 a.m., the unit and its Ladies Auxiliary will honor Jordan J. Corbett, a member of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion in World War II. Corbett just happens to be African-American, and his valiant unit in the still-segregated 1940s American military also just happened to be all black.

The honor our community will bestow upon Corbett — one of only three living original members of the unit — is highly deserved. Corbett, like hundreds of thousands of black American veterans before him, not only risked life and limb in war but also battled the stinging wounds of segregation and dodged the vicious volleys of racism while serving our nation with valor.

For too long, the contributions of African American soldiers went unrecognized and underappreciated. On this Veterans Day — observed annually on Nov. 11 to commemorate the Armistice ending World War I on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 – Americans of all creeds and colors would do well to reflect on the service of blacks to protect America’s people and its values. Those contributions, unfamiliar far too long to far too many, have been strong and many.


By most historical accounts, the first American of any race to die in the American Revolution was a black man, Crispus Attucks, killed in the Boston Massacre in 1770. More than 7,000 African Americans served in the U.S. Continental Army, many of them surprisingly in integrated units.

The rotunda of Ohio’s Capitol’s painting of “The Battle of Lake Erie” illustrates the major role African-Americans played in the War of 1812. It features Hannibal Collins, a freed slave who served by the side of Oliver Hazard Perry in that pivotal American victory over the British that sealed American independence for good.

In the Civil War, 200,000 blacks served the causes of emancipation and national reunification, and 38,000 of them died. Among them, the U.S. Colored Troops of Ohio played a critical role in the North’s victory, and today 25 of those black soldiers are buried honorably in Oak Hill Cemetery on Youngstown’s South Side.

In World War I, “the war to end all wars,” some 350,000 African Americans served with the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, including the celebrated “Harlem Hellfighters.” That unit fought on the front lines for six months, longer than any other American unit in the entire war.

Of course, one cannot neglect the celebrated Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American military aviators in the U.S. armed forces that flew 1,378 combat missions leading to the surrender of thousands of enemy Italians and Germans. Similar heroics were displayed by the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion the first-black parachute airborne unit of the U.S. Army, of which today’s Youngstown honoree — Jordan Corbett — served proudly. The unit successfully extinguished hundreds of fires set by Japanese incendiary devices in forests in the western United States.

Collectively, the gallant and dauntless heroism of these and other black units led to President Harry S. Truman’s executive order of 1948 to fully integrate America’s armed forces, a well earned victory in a war for equality that dragged on for nearly two centuries. In the modern desegregated military age, black Americans have continued to fight and shed blood in the name of America’s greatness in wars in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan.


In recent decades and years, blacks have earned important positions of leadership. In 1989, Army Gen. Colin Powell became the first African-American to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Over the past five years, Barack Obama has served honorably as commander in chief, in overseeing the killing of Osama bin Ladin, the mastermind of the 9/11 terror attacks on America, in ending the war in Iraq and in ramping down the war in Afghanistan.

Unlike Armistice Day in the 1930s, today’s Veterans Day is a fully inclusive observance. It is a day to recognize the courage and sacrifice of such men as Mahoning Valley Korean War veterans Roger Gardner, Alexander Kish and Joseph Vrabel, all of whom were inducted into the Ohio Veterans Hall of Fame last week by Gov. John R. Kasich.

It is also a day to recognize the accomplishments of veterans of all sexes, religions, races, creeds and sexual orientation whose contributions were long excluded or minimized but that today are fully integrated into the arsenal of America’s military prowess. As such, the legacy of our nation’s armed forces has gained a much sharper, more complete and accurate focus. And as a result, America’s military might has matured into a more unified and cohesive force at which the nation and the world can marvel.

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