The recipients, whom the White House announced Friday afternoon, served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Collectively, their award ceremony will mark the single largest group of Medal of Honor recipients since World War II, when more than two dozen service members were honored in that conflict’s last days.
Just three of the 24 veterans who will be honored are still alive. All but five of the soldiers are Hispanic, Jewish or African American, including Melvin Morris, a former Green Beret who was wounded three times on a mid-September day in 1969 recovering the body of his fatally wounded master sergeant from a jungle ambush in the Chi Lang district of South Vietnam. …
The unusual historical accounting began in 2002 when Congress, as part of the military spending bill, ordered the Pentagon to look into whether Jewish and Hispanic service members had been passed over unfairly for the nation’s highest military honor.
Defense Department officials said there was specific evidence to suggest such discrimination may have existed in the ranks, including instances in which Hispanic and Jewish soldiers apparently changed their names to hide their ethnicity. The congressional order spanned the period from December 1941 through September 2001.
The project was an enormous undertaking that sent military personnel officials searching for lost records and battlefield histories amid the complicated politics surrounding the military’s highest honor. …
Many of the veterans under review had passed away, making interviews impossible. Much of the review relied on existing information and comparisons to Medal of Honor recipients, but even then, there were challenges unforeseen when the project began.
In 1973, a fire tore through the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, destroying as many as 18 million military personnel files. Among those were Army service records from 1912 through 1960, a period that included World War II and Korea. The Air Force lost most of its personnel files from 1947 though 1964.
The disaster forced officials to recreate the military history of scores of potential candidates for the upgraded commendation by interviewing family members, fellow battlefield soldiers, and others.