GREENSBORO — Could a war hero who lived in Greensboro and once taught at N.C. A&T win the nation’s top military honor?
Researchers at a private Missouri university are digging into the war records of about 350 American troops who were honored for their bravery but might have been passed over for the Congressional Medal of Honor in World War I because of their race or religion.
One soldier on their list is Lt. Robert Campbell, who won the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism in the waning days of World War I. Campbell worked at A&T for four decades starting in 1911 and lived in Greensboro for much of his adult life. He was featured in a recent Greensboro History Museum exhibit on World War I and profiled in August in the Greensboro News & Record.
Researchers hope to highlight acts of valor performed by members of five overlooked groups — African Americans, Asians, Latinos, Native Americans and Jews — during World War I, said Timothy Westcott, an associate professor of history at Park University in Missouri who leads this volunteer effort.
The U.S. government awarded 121 Congressional Medals of Honor, the nation’s highest combat honor, to Americans who served in World War I. Only two of those recipients were black, and they weren’t honored until long after the war ended. The second of the two, Winston-Salem native Sgt. Henry Johnson, received a Medal of Honor posthumously in 2015. One of the five Jewish soldiers to win a Medal of Honor also wasn’t recognized until 2015.
Black and other soldiers weren’t awarded Medals of Honor during their lifetimes because of systematic racism, Westcott said.
More than 350,000 black soldiers served with the American Expeditionary Force in Europe. But they were assigned to segregated units often commanded by white officers, many of whom were dismissive of the soldiers they led.
Most black units served in support roles behind the front lines. But some black troops took part in the fierce trench warfare that defined World War I. Johnson’s infantry regiment, the famed Harlem Hellfighters, suffered more than 1,500 casualties during their six months at the front. The French honored their bravery with a top regimental award.
“They were in the thick of things in 1918” but received little recognition from American leaders, Westcott said of the Hellfighters. “You’ve really got to question things.”
Westcott saw that discrimination firsthand when he was doing research on a Park University graduate, Lt. George S. Robb. Robb — the namesake of the World War I research center that Westcott directs at Park University — was assigned to the Hellfighters.
Westcott found in Robb’s papers a recommendation that two soldiers from his unit be awarded Medals of Honor. Robb, who was white, got one. Sgt. William Butler, who was black, did not.
Westcott, with the help of two undergraduates and a New York University history professor, is examining military records, family histories and other documents to see if other black, Asian, Latino, Native and Jewish soldiers were passed over for America’s top valor award. The American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission are backing this effort. Bills filed in April in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate would order the Pentagon to review war records of minority soldiers.
The federal government did similar reviews after all major U.S. conflicts since World War II. Shaw University in Raleigh led the review of black service members in World War II. Based on the Shaw research, President Bill Clinton awarded seven Medals of Honor, six posthumously, to black troops in 1997.
“The government has done a good job of conducting systematic reviews” after prior wars, Westcott said. “Unfortunately, World War I has just been overlooked.”
This project could take seven to 10 years, Westcott said. It’s possible that some of these World War I veterans could receive Medals of Honor, he said. But Westcott said there are so many variables — lost or destroyed records, the passage of a century, the results of any official Pentagon review — that it’s hard to predict the outcome.
As for Campbell, Westcott called him “a phenomenal individual.”
Campbell came to Greensboro and A&T in 1911, then enlisted in the Army six years later when the United States entered the war. Commissioned a lieutenant, he won a Distinguished Service Cross — the nation’s second-highest war medal — and two Croix de Guerre medals from the French for two separate acts of bravery in France in 1918.
In one instance, Campbell rescued a wounded private who was cut down in no-man’s land. In the other, his unit used trickery to take out a hidden German machine gun and capture three enemy prisoners.
After the war, Campbell returned to Greensboro and served as the first military science instructor at A&T. The university’s ROTC building is named for him. He died in California in 1972 at age 96.
James Stewart, the archives and special collections librarian at A&T’s Bluford Library, said he’s not aware of any A&T graduates who have won a Congressional Medal of Honor
If Campbell becomes the first, Stewart said, “that would mean a lot for the university.”