Last week, the New York Times told the story of a 98-year-old black American who served his country during WWII but was prohibited from serving as a commissioned officer — and how he finally received his promotion to second lieutenant on Friday.
Despite graduating from Officer Candidate School in 1942, John E. James, Jr., was denied his commission. According to the New York Times, he was instead “shipped overseas as a corporal with an all-black battalion.”
Decades later, James’ daughter Marion Lane discovered she could help her father obtain the promotion he was denied by requesting a correction to his military record.
She began the process, eventually involving Senator Bob Casey, Jr. (D-PA) when the request turned out to be more complicated, time-consuming, and difficult than originally expected. According to the New York Times:
In October 2016, the Army review board denied Mr. James’s request, saying they could not confirm his attendance at the Officer Candidate School. His personnel records had been destroyed in a fire in 1973.
Ms. Lane resubmitted the application, this time sending in the photograph of her father with his graduating class and another of him in uniform. In the meantime, Senator Casey’s office contacted the National Archives, which found Mr. James’s records.
But in January, the review board denied the request again, saying that the undated photos did not prove that he had attended the school. This time, Mr. Casey’s staff contacted senior Army officials to ensure that they knew that the National Archives had located proof of Mr. James’s graduation.
Despite all the difficulties and refusals, 69-year-old Lane was determined to obtain the correct military rank for her father and confident their efforts would be successful.
“I just felt that my father deserved it,” she told the New York Times. “We live in a country where, yes, there are injustices that can happen. We are blessed to be in a country where injustice can also be rectified.”
That patience, determination, and faith was rewarded. Last Friday, the 98-year-old veteran was finally promoted to second lieutenant.
Introducing the newly-minted officer, Second Lt. John E. James, who graduated from the Army's Office Candidate School in 1942. He was denied his commission then. He received it today, two weeks after his 98th birthday. pic.twitter.com/7ebRxbfKr7
— Rachel Swarns (@rachelswarns) June 30, 2018
The United States is a remarkable country. As Lane said, it’s a country where injustices can happen, but it’s also a country where we take injustices seriously and make efforts to right any wrongs.
The story of Second Lieutenant John E. James, Jr., evokes pride, hope, inspiration, and, yes, even shame, all at the same time.
Shame that this inequality happened at all due to the color of a man’s skin. Shame that opportunities were repeatedly denied to a man who was willing to serve his country. Shame that our country could mistreat a man who put his life on the line for her sake and for democracy and freedom everywhere.
Pride that our country is one in which this injustice could be corrected at all.
Hope that other black veterans who found themselves in similar situations during WWII see Second Lieutenant James’ story. Hope that it is not too late for other black veterans to receive the ranks and honors they’ve earned. Hope that Second Lieutenant James receives back pay to make up for the difference in pay between a corporal and a commissioned officer.
Inspiration to pay more attention to such injustices. Inspiration to ensure that we continue to improve. Inspiration from the willingness of a man to serve a country that didn’t see or treat him as equal. Inspiration from the love of a daughter for her father.
And inspiration from recognizing that it’s never too late to do the right thing. Even though the promotion is more than 70 years late, 98-year-old Second Lieutenant James’ joy is evident; the New York Times reported he has “already printed up return-address labels with his new rank.”
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of any other individual or entity. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahmquinlan.