In honor of Black History Month, we are celebrating several lesser-known black military heroes. We honor their sacrifices in service and celebrate the place they earned in our history of civil rights. These men and women rose above intense racism and served others without prejudice. From smothering a grenade to becoming the first black Air Force General, these men and women are not only black military heroes; they are champions.
5 Black Military Heroes You Need to Know
Born to free parents in 1825, Augusta began his medical education in 1850, and his training paved the way for him to become the highest-ranking black man in the Union army at the time. In 1861, Augusta became the first of eight eventual African-American physicians to serve in the Civil War. Augusta faced both Confederate guns and Union prejudice, yet served as a surgeon through the end of the war and continued on as a civil rights leader later in life.
In 1943, First Officer Harriet West made a legendary radio broadcast on behalf of the army, imploring black women to join the military. In her address, West said that joining a segregated military “and accepting a situation which does not represent an ideal of democracy” was not “a retreat from our fight” but “our contribution to its realization.” Waddy was the wartime advisor on racial issues, and one of the two highest-ranking black officers in the Women’s Army Corps. Waddy was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1948, and continued to live a life of service after retiring in 1952.
Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr., 1912-2002
Davis was born in the nation’s capitol in 1912, and led a highly decorated military career full of firsts. Davis was the first black officer to complete a solo flight in an Army Air Corps plane, and in 1942, he commanded the famed Tuskegee Airmen squadron. Davis accomplished another first for soldiers of color in 1949, attending the Air War College, and did so in the hot racial climate of Montgomery, Alabama. He was the first black man to be promoted to Air Force General, ascending all the way to Major General in 1962.
Dorrie Miller might be the most famous name on this list. His bravery during the attack on Pearl Harbor has been well-documented. A Messman Third Class, Miller’s bravery on Dec. 7 1941 took him out of the kitchen and included tending to many sailors, including the ship’s injured captain, and operating an anti-aircraft machine gun without any prior training. Miller’s actions were widely publicized and he received the Navy Cross, the United States Navy’s third-highest honor at the time. Miller was killed in action two years later in the Pacific Theater.
Milton Lee Olive III, 1946-1965
Private First Class Olive received a posthumous Medal of Honor in 1966 for his conspicuous gallantry, intrepitude, and sacrifice in Vietnam. On Oct. 22, 1965, Milton L. Olive III, just 18 years old, smothered a grenade, saved the lives of his platoon mates, and sacrificed his life. Olive became the first black soldier to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions during the Vietnam War.
Want more black military heroes? We do, too. Read about more trailblazers in Black History in the Military – Celebration of “Firsts.”