Edward Allen Carter Jr. (1916-1963) provides an example of not just a remarkable soldier who fought for what he believed in and whose courage would be recognised with the Medal of Honor, but of a dark period in American history and of how even heroes could come under suspicion and be persecuted.
Born in Los Angeles in 1916, Edward Carter was the son of an African-American evangelist and his Anglo-Indian wife. In 1925, when Carter was nine, the family moved to Calcutta inspired by a vision his mother had of spreading Christianity throughout the sub-continent. Carter Snr. proved to be a great success as a preacher but his relationship with his son was strained and Carter ran away twice from his family during the two years that they lived in India.
Carter was already searching for a meaning to his life and was influenced by a military barracks close to his home. Watching the soldiers drill appears to have inspired the young Carter and kindled his interest as soldiering as a career. He also learnt to speak Hindi fluently, displaying a talent for languages that would come to be an issue later in his life.
In 1927 Carter’s mother left his father for another man and the family left to return to the States. However, Carter’s younger brother William came down with typhoid on route and they were forced to go ashore in Shanghai. Once William recovered Carter Snr. returned to his missionary work. However, in contrast to his work in India, which was largely confined to the poorest sections of the community, in China he soon made acquaintance with powerful figures including Chiang Kai Shek, Generalissimo of the country. He also married a German women and young Edward added Mandarin and German to his language repertoire.
With the support of powerful patrons Carter Snr. was able to secure a position for his headstrong and adventurous son at a Chinese military academy. Here he learned to shoot expertly and received tactical and command training. This was put to good use in 1932 when the Japanese attacked Shanghai in what is known as the January 28th Incident. Carter, though only aged fifteen, volunteered for combat with the Republican Chinese Army. He would see action in the fierce battles for the city for a month before his father would extricate him from the fighting on the grounds that he was too young to be employed in combat.
Carter would resume his training at the academy after the brief conflict was resolved but was now just waiting for the time when he would be old enough to decide his own destiny. It seemed that time had come in 1935 with Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. When Carter, now a lieutenant in the Chinese army, heard of this he presented himself to the America consul in Shanghai and asked for his assistance in offering his services to the Ethiopians. Alarmed at this rather naïve request the consul instead offered to help Carter get a job aboard a merchant vessel which after several months at sea and travels around the Pacific would see the nineteen year-old idealist go ashore at Los Angeles.
Unable to find meaningful work in the depression-racked United States Carter’s chance for action finally came with the eruption of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Motivated by what he saw as the fight against the oppressive forces of fascism he, like thousands of other foreign volunteers, went to Spain and sided with the Republican government. Most American volunteers were integrated into the “Abraham Lincoln Brigade” but Carter – who made his own way to Spain via his merchant marine contacts – seems to have served in other units or else used an unknown alias and as such does not have a service record in the Brigades archives meaning details are sketchy on his service for two-and-half-years of bitter fighting and based on the recollections of stories he told his children.
Amongst these where an account of an occasion when Carter, whilst conducting a reconnaissance with a small squad, was ambushed by a German unit fighting for the Nationalist army as he and his men crested a hill. Hit in the heel and with the rest of his comrades cut down by the enemy fire Carter was able to escape by rolling hand grenades down the slope. He also may have participated in the fighting around Teruel, a savage two month battle that raged from December 1937 to February 1938, resulted in some 140,000 casualties and effectively marked the start of the end for the Republican army which could not afford the losses in man power and material. According to Carters daughter-in-law he was also captured at some point in the war but with his typical determination he escaped and rejoined the Republicans.
The defeat of the Republican’s in April 1939 saw Carter disappear from view for a period and he resurfaced in Los Angeles in 1940. With war raging in Europe Carter anticipated trouble ahead and applied to join the U.S. Army in September 1941. An experienced veteran he amazed his instructors by both his proficiency with a range of weapons and techniques. He further demonstrated his coolness under pressure when a training accident saw him fall from a damn into a frozen river with eighty-pounds of equipment. Trapped under the freezing water he calmly released his gear and surfaced, to the surprise of his drill instructors who had given him up for dead and stated that he had been submerged for four minutes.
Despite his obvious competence the U.S. Army at that time would not allow African-American troops to serve in fighting roles, instead relegating them to service units. Carter was assigned to the 3535th Quartermaster Truck Company and within a year had risen to the rank of Staff Sergeant. Though America was now fully engaged in the Second World War it would be November 1944 before Carter would be posted to anywhere near a combat zone when his unit was posted to Southern France. Much to his frustration even this was duty strictly in the rear areas, transporting supplies, but with the launching of the Germans Ardennes offensive – the “Battle of the Bulge” – Carter’s opportunity came to serve his country in combat. Critically short of replacements to rebuild units decimated by the German attack the U.S. Army had to open up its combat arms to black volunteers and with his exemplary record Carter was one of the first of 2,800 African-Americans accepted for combat service. However, he had to give up his rank to be accepted – the possibility of a black soldier commanding whites in action was still a step too far for the Army.
Carter was assigned to Dog Company of the 56th Armored Infantry Battalion, 12th Armored Division – part of General Patton’s Third Army – and participated in the drive into Germany from January to March 1945. Once again Carter impressed his officers with his capability in action and was the first of the unit’s black soldiers to be promoted to sergeant and squad leader. This culminated in an action on the 23rd of March 1945 where Carter would show just how good a soldier he was. Advancing on the town of Speyer in Western Germany on top of tanks, the troops of Dog Company suddenly came under fire from an 88mm gun and machine guns located in a warehouse outside of the town. As their men got into cover the unit’s officers wondered how best to deal with the problem when Carter stepped forward and offered lead the way with his squad.
Unfortunately a miscommunication between the infantry and the tanks meant that as Carter and his men advanced across the open ground to the warehouse they were not followed as expected by the tanks and came under heavy fire. One man was killed instantly and realising their predicament Carter ordered his two remaining men to retreat back to cover where they could cover him. Unfortunately both where hit and now alone and exposed in open ground Carter was himself hit in the left arm by three bullets and knocked to the ground.
Thinking his own time had come he “…decided that if I was going to die I’d sure some Jerries would be sent to hell”, scrambled to his feet and stormed the machine gun nest with his Thompson submachine gun. Tossing a grenade into the pit he then attacked a mortar position that was shelling the Americans, which he silenced with another two grenades.
By now the American soldier rampaging in front their position had caught the attention of every German soldier and Carter was hit twice more, once again knocking him to the ground only thirty yards from the warehouse. Crawling behind an embankment for cover Carter raised himself up to try to spot where the fire was coming from and was hit a glancing blow to the head. By now seriously wounded he tried to swallow some pain tablets and water but as he raised his canteen it was shot out of his hand. “This made me really mad,” he later said.
The Germans then sent a squad out to capture him, but Carter “…opened fire on them with the tommy gun. Got every one of ‘em.” This resulted in a pause in the battle. His own officers, watching from an observation point, could no longer see him and did not know whether he was alive or dead. Carter, very badly wounded, was trying to figure a way out of his predicament. He could not hope to cross the open ground to rejoin the American forces without being cut down. Fortunately the Germans unwittingly came to his aid. Another squad was sent out to check on his condition. As the eight soldiers came up to where he lay Carter popped up and shot down six of the enemy and took two as prisoner.
Realising he now had a chance to escape he forced both men to stay as close as possible to him and used them as a shield to cross to his unit. Not yet willing to allow Carter to get away clean German artillery began to shell the area and Carter had shell splinters lacerate his legs. Leaning on one of his prisoners for support he was able to use the shell bursts for cover and finally managed to regain his unit where he insisted on reporting his observations to his astonished officers before being evacuated to hospital. Even the seriousness of his multiple wounds did not hold him from action for long and when his company captain was informed in late April that Carter had gone AWOL from hospital he was able to send back a message that Sergeant Carter was already back with his unit on active duty.
Carter was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions and was given an honourable discharge with the end of the war a few months later. However he had trouble transitioning to civilian life and reenlisted back with the army a year later, being made a Staff Sergeant. His combat record and decorations meant he was highly regarded by his superiors and he was assigned to the California National Guard as one of an elite group of black combat veterans to help train new African-American combat units. His expertise and the training he and his compatriots gave to this new generation of black soldiers would play an important part in ending the segregation that was still the rule in the U.S. Army by proving that they could be every part as good as their white compatriots.
Unfortunately for Carter, a man of his abilities and race were something that the establishment could not stomach. His ability with languages, particularly Chinese, foreign upbringing and his association with the Spanish Republican cause before the war meant that he had been subject to several investigations by Army Intelligence and, despite each one concluding that Carter was not guilty of any form of sedition, he was by 1948 once again under surveillance. Carter, aware of this malign attention, simply carried on with his job. His superiors were delighted by his work and he thought that this new investigation would wind down as all others had.
However by 1949 the paranoia concerning subversive communism was ramping up and suspicion of being a communist, not proof, was soon to become enough to destroy lives and careers under the era of McCarthyism. In September of that year when his enlistment expired he was informed that by directive of the Adjutant General he was to be refused the option of reenlistment. After having served his country loyally and well he was now being discarded with no explanation nor recourse for address. Not a man to take such behaviour lying down Carter went to the Pentagon to request a chance to defend himself and find the reason for this sudden action. He was refused, an action that his son said ‘…broke my father’s heart’.
Carter was forced to take various low paying jobs to support his family, his vast military experience being of small value in the civilian world and he eventually settled as a car tire vulcanizer. A heavy smoker, his health began to deteriorate and he died of lung cancer in January, 1963. He was forty-six.
That might have been the end of Carter’s story but for an effort to redress wrongs made against black veterans in the 1990’s. No black soldier had been awarded in the Medal of Honor for action in World War Two and in 1992 the Army had decided that this needed to be corrected, with seven medals to be awarded to black soldiers who displayed outstanding heroism during the war. In 1996 his daughter-in-law, Allene Carter, received a call informing her that Sergeant Carter had been chosen to be a posthumous recipient for his actions at Speyer and that his grave would be moved to the National Cemetery at Arlington to honour his memory. Astonished by the revelation that her father-in-law was to be recognised as a hero she began to research his military career. Horrified by the persecution that Carter had faced which was now evident both in his personal correspondence and in released Army files she began a campaign to have his name cleared and the honor he was due properly given.
In 1999 President Bill Clinton sent a letter of condolence and apology for the wrongs that Carter had suffered and later in the year his widow and descendants attended a ceremony at the Pentagon where the Army issued a formal apology for its actions against Carter. As a final honour to a great soldier and patriot in 2001 a new military ammunition ship, the M/V SSG Edward A. Carter Jr., was commissioned into the fleet, a fitting memorial to a man who believed in fighting for what he thought was right and was persecuted for it.