Melvin Morris was leading a strike force near Chi Lang in South Vietnam. If Morris had have been white, what happened next would’ve gotten him the Medal of Honor. Morris who is black, had to wait more than 40 years after his group came under attack and a fellow commander, and friend, was slaughtered near an enemy bunker. In the face of overwhelming fire directed at him and his men, Morris was able to get his comrade and recover the body. He also obtained a map that included information that would have caused further slaughter if it had fallen into enemy hands.
Forty years later, Morris will receive the Medal of Honor. The award for Morris, and 23 others, came after a ten-year review of minorities who may have been neglected for the US military’s highest honor because of prejudice.
Morris the Green Beret
Melvin Morris became one of the first soldiers to qualify to wear the “green beret”. Following the receipt of his in 1961, he volunteered twice for tours of duty in Vietnam. After the September 1969 action in which he recovered his friend’s body, Morris received a Distinguished Service Cross in 1970. Morris says the never thought that his being black might have kept him from getting the nation’s highest military honor. “I never did worry about decorations,” Morris said.
In May 2013, Morris got a surprise when the Pentagon contacted him at his home in Florida. Informing him of his award, the officer who called also told Morris to stand by his phone for a phone call from American President Obama. “President Obama said he was sorry this didn’t happen 44 years ago,” said Morris.
The rare mass ceremony is scheduled for March 18. Honoring veterans mostly of Hispanic or Jewish heritage, the men had already been recognized with the Distinguished Service Cross.
The Army conducted the review under an order from Congress. The law required that the service record of every Jewish American and Hispanic American, who received a Service Cross, be reviewed for possible upgrade to the Medal of Honor. The Pentagon reviewed the cases of over 6,500 recipients of the Service Cross from World War II as well as the Korean and Vietnam wars. Of the 6,500, 600 soldiers were found who may have been of Jewish or Hispanic descent.
The Army asked him to keep the medal a secret. Although Morris is happy to be honored, he feels it’s more important to recognize his friends who never returned. “Those that aren’t here to receive their medals, those are my heroes,” said Morris.
Melvin Morris retired from the Army in 1986 as a sergeant first class.
Medal of Honor History
The initial system for rewarding acts of individual bravery was established by George Washington in August 1782. The medal was designed to recognize “…singular acts of merit…” and consisted of a purple cloth heart. During the Revolutionary War, only three persons received the award.
Although the Badge of Military Merit fell out of favor, the idea of an award for individual bravery remained until the mid 1800s. In 1847, after the start of the Mexican-American War, a certificate of merit was established for any soldier who displayed bravery in action. There was no medal that went with the certificate until early in the Civil War.
In 1863, Congress made the Medal of Honor a permanent decoration in 1863 and nearly 3,400 men, and one woman, have received the award.
When asked about his friends who didn’t return, Melvin Morris said, “They gave their whole life. They gave everything. They gave it all.”
By Jerry Nelson