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First black awarded highest honor for WWI bravery

By
STEVEN HEILBRONNER

WASHINGTON -- President Bush will award the Medal of Honor posthumously to a World War I soldier, the only black in that war to receive the nation's highest award for valor, it was announced Friday.

The announcement comes nearly 73 years after Cpl. Freddie Stowers, a South Carolina native, led a charge under heavy fire to capture an enemy position in the Champagne-Marne sector of France.

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The Army, which made the announcement while Bush was traveling in California, said the medal will be awarded to Stowers' surviving sisters at a White House ceremony April 24.

Details were sketchy on the path that Stowers' recognition followed. The Pentagon said that the Army in 1988 ordered a research effort to determine whether there had been any barriers to black soldiers in the medal process.

Army officials discovered in 1988 or 1989 that Stowers had been recommended for a medal. But for unexplained reasons, the medal was never bestowed on the fallen leader.

While few details were available about Stowers' upbringing or personal life, the incident that gave rise to the medal appears to have the potential for a screenplay.

Stowers, the Army said, exhibited 'conspicuous gallantry' as he creeped on his hands an knees toward the enemy machine gun fire, inspiring the men of Company C to follow.

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After successfully destroying the machine gun position, Stowers led his squad on an attack against a second enemy defensive trench line, when he was 'gravely wounded by machine gun fire,' the Army said.

But in the kind of heroism that earns a soldier the Medal of Honor, Stowers pressed forward, helping his company capture Hill 188 and causing heavy enemy casualties before he died.

Stowers' regiment, the 371st Infantry, was awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Palm for its service.

The Army was outspoken in its praise of the fallen hero. The posthumous citation reads in part: 'Cpl. Stowers' conspicuous gallantry, extradordinary heroism and supreme devotion were well above and beyond the call of duty, follow the finest traditions of military service and reflect the utmost credit on him and the U.S. Army.'

But for many years, the U.S. military followed a different tradition, failing to recognize the steady devotion of blacks who have served in the military since the Civil War.

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