Why she's working so hard to see these Black military heroes receive the Medal of Honor

Posted at 8:25 PM, May 01, 2023

CAROLINE COUNTY, Va — One manned a gun he was not trained on during the Pearl Harbor attacks; another pulled a raft of injured sailors through shark-infested waters. Neither Black sailor has received the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military award, and a Virginia woman aims to change that fact.

Dress swords from the 1870s and original Chinese finery from the 1700s dot the home office of Linda Thomas.

“It's the room that I love because it's got all the stuff I love and books, books, books,” Thomas said with a laugh. “I am a history nerd, with a particular interest in black history.”

Her love of history inspired Thomas, the former head of the Virginia NAACP, on a mission to posthumously award the Medal of Honor to two Black World War II veterans from Virginia.

“It might be a 40-foot dive into a teacup, but I decided to try it anyway,” she said.

Doris Miller and Charles Jackson French served in the Navy during World War II.

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Miller was a mess attendant on the USS West Virginia, which sank during the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor. Miller helped move the ship's mortally wounded captain, before manning an anti-aircraft gun, which Black personnel like him were not trained to use.

“And [he] managed to shoot it and shoot down several Japanese attack planes: a remarkable feat,” Thomas said about Miller, who was killed in action in 1943.

French was also a mess attendant, and in 1942, he was aboard the USS Gregory when it sank during the battle of Guadalcanal. French helped gather injured sailors on a raft that he then pulled to safety, swimming through shark-infested waters for hours.

“When he found himself in this extreme situation, he could have just tried to save himself, but he rose above any thought of self-preservation,” Thomas said.

While both men have received several awards for their valor, Thomas said the Medal of Honor would provide even greater context for their stories.

“I think that the level of service, gallantry, and valor that they displayed, certainly rose to that level,” she said.

Linda Thomas
Linda Thomas

Thomas believes racism and segregation of that era played a role in them not getting that medal. Over the decades, efforts to rectify that, including military reviews and legislation in Congress, have failed.

With nowhere else to turn, Thomas has appealed directly to President Joe Biden, asking him to award the medals to Miller and French. She admits it’s an uphill battle.

“The wheels grind slowly, but I insist they will grind,” Thomas said.

Among those supporting Thomas’ push: both of Virginia's U.S. Senators. Sen. Tim Kaine (D) and Sen. Mark Warner (D) have written letters on the issue to Biden.

Kaine notes similarities to Black Vietnam veteran Paris Davis who was only recently awarded the Medal of Honor.

“We're trying to do for them what we were able to do for Paris Davis. Sadly, they’ve passed, but their families are still around. So, this would be really very, very appropriate for them,” Kaine said.

French's nephew, Chester French, said his uncle died in 1956. The younger French, who was a teen at the time, said he didn't really learn about his story until later, a story he’s grateful others want to share in order to keep alive acts of heroism by Black service members.

“It's a heroic effort that he did. All I could say is only God could have been with him in this effort,” French said. “I think that should be in the history books, because this is something that's really great, if you can imagine what transpired,” French said

“[We work so] these stories are not lost to the dustbin of history and are told because they are American stories. History is full of holes unless we tell these important stories,” Thomas said.

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