Freddie Stowers was a family man, each day of his young life devoted to his wife Pearl and baby daughter Minnie Lee. The grandson of a slave, Freddie worked as a farmhand to support his young family and dreamed of a day when he could buy his own farm to support them.
But the world intervened.
When the United States entered World War I, Freddie was drafted into the Army at the age of 21. Because he was black, we was assigned to Company C of the segregated 371st Infantry Regiment and shipped off with his fellow “Buffalo Soldiers” to France.
Thousands of miles from home, Corporal Freddie Stowers now dreamed of just one thing: Getting back to Pearl and Minnie Lee.
Black regiments were not allowed to serve with white troops in combat, so Freddie’s regiment was loaned to the French Army, which badly needed reinforcement.
Early one September morning, Company C was ordered to take the heavily fortified Hill 188 in the Ardennes Forest. It was a key strategic position, and the Germans defended it fiercely, raining mortars and machine gun fire down on the French and American attackers as they tried to cut through the barbed wire and slowly climbed up the hill.
Suddenly, though, there was a pause in the German fire.
“Within a few minutes, the Germans ceased firing and began climbing up on the parapet of the trench, holding up their arms as if wishing to surrender,” Major Joseph B. Pate wrote later. “Our platoon commanders their men to cease firing as the Boche were surrendering. Our men promptly ceased firing and the battalion again started forward, and when within 100 meters of the trench someone within blew a whistle and the Germans who had been standing on the parapet immediately jumped back into their trenches.
“C Company was greeted with interlocking machine gun fire and short range mortar fire. The leading platoons of C Company were almost annihilated.”
Half of Freddie’s platoon was killed within minutes and one by one, its commanders were gunned down until only Freddie was left. He was now in command.
Rallying his disoriented and terrified soldiers, Freddie led the charge and crawled up toward a German machine gun nest. His men followed as Freddie drew the heaviest fire. They took out the German gunners and kept climbing toward the top of Hill 188.
A machine gun bullet struck him, but Freddie kept going. He wouldn’t stop until he had taken the hill. He yelled for his men to follow.
He was shot a second time, but kept climbing. He wouldn’t stop. He couldn’t. He needed to take that hill.
But he collapsed from massive blood loss. As his men tended to him, he ordered them to leave him and keep advancing. They had to take that hill no matter what.
And they did. But as they celebrated, their leader, Freddie Stowers, passed away.
The family man never returned to his wife and daughter.
When the war was over, Freddie was recommended for the Medal of Honor, the highest honor a soldier could receive for bravery on the battlefield, but it was never processed.
In fact, no black soldiers from World War I were awarded Medals of Honor even though four were recommended. They instead were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
More than 70 years passed, and Freddie’s heroism was largely forgotten outside of his family, but in 1990 the Department of the Army conducted a review of Medal of Honor recommendations and Freddie’s story was finally told.
On April 24, 1991, with his surviving family in attendance—including his two sisters and grand-nephew, an Army soldier—Freddie Stowers was awarded the Medal of Honor by President George H.W. Bush.
“We want to honor a true hero, a man who makes us proud of our heritage as Americans, a man who, in life and death, helped keep America free,” President Bush said. “I speak of Corporal Freddie Stowers, to whom posthumously we present our highest military award for valor: the Medal of Honor. It's an award for bravery and conscience, the compendium we call character.
“Today, Corporal Freddie Stowers becomes the first black soldier honored with the Medal of Honor from World War I.”
He wouldn’t be the last. Freddie’s forgotten heroism inspired the military to conduct broader reviews of the stories of black soldiers in combat to ensure that their service and sacrifice would be appropriately honored.
73 years after his death, Freddie Stowers, the family man, gave dozens of other families’ loved ones the reverence they deserved.