Replacing prejudice with honor

By Kate Zernike

Sandra Fox-Charles can remember standing at her father's funeral, 4 years old and dressed in her new double breasted green coat, staring down silently at her high lace-up boots.

She barely knew him; knew only that he had died in a faraway place. She recalls hearing the word "hero" over and over that day, and knowing that they were talking about him.

Five decades later, that impression of the father she never knew remains vividly with her.

Now, the rest of the country may see John R. Fox and six other men in that same light, as they stand nominated to become the first black soldiers from World War II to receive the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest citation for valor.

"Hero was the first word I knew," said Fox-Charles, her voice breaking. "And it's the first word that still comes to mind."

To black veterans, who were turned away when they tried to bury their dead at Omaha Beach after the D-Day invasion, who fought racism from white soldiers at the same time they fought the Third Reich, the announcement of the nominations last week is a long-denied tribute to the 1.2 million blacks who fought in World War II.

After 50 years, honor replaces bias

Fox's family, too, who moved from his native Boston to Texas 10 years ago, wonders why the award was not granted decades ago, soon after he died in a battle for an Italian village.

"This is long, long overdue," said Fox-Charles, now 54.

Still, the recognition does not alter their view of the man.

"We don't need medals to tell us how wonderful he was," Fox's widow, Arlene, said by telephone yesterday. "He was a man, he was a leader, he had principles and strength and devotion to his family."

And to his nation's cause. "The Army was his life," Arlene Fox said.

First Lt. John R. Fox left his family behind in Boston to serve with the 366th Infantry Division, an all-black corps that included Edward W. Brook, later to become a US senator from Massachusetts.

On the day after Christmas, 1944, the 366th was trying to defend an Italian village. Alfred Brothers, another Boston soldier serving with him, recalled that Fox and another lieutenant were inside the steeple of a church, trying to direct the others as they fired on the Germans.

"They got trapped," Brothers recalled yesterday. "They never made it out."

Brothers and other area black veterans, including former Boston School Committee Chairman Paul Parks, worked for years to get recognition for their fellow soldiers. In the early 1980s, Fox was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross. But not one of the 432 Medals of Honor awarded for World War II went to a black soldier. Of the 127 medals awarded to soldiers in World War I, only one went to a black soldier - and that, too, came only in 1991

"It was another era," Fox's widow said yesterday. "Bias ruled."

The seven soldiers, whose names were sent to President Clinton last week, met the standards of the Army Senior Officers Award Board after being identified by a group of military historians gathered by Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C.

Still, several obstacles stand between the nominations and the awarding of medals.

Congress must waive the time limit for awarding World War II medals, which expired in 1952, before Clinton can award the medals.

Those who fought so long for recognition say the awards would be a bittersweet victory, coming so late that many of those black soldiers who returned home alive have died.

"I never thought of myself as a black soldier," Brothers said yesterday. "I just thought of myself as an American."

They still wonder if the country will ever fully appreciate how they fought in the war.

"This is just a flare in the sun-light," said Dennette Harrod, who went with Fox from Boston to Italy, and now lives in Washington, D.C. "It's like that movie, 'Glory.' They discover that blacks do something, they make a big deal of it, then everyone forgets. I don't know if people will ever appreciate our contributions."

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