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World War II veteran wants the Army to upgrade his discriminatory 'blue discharge' to 'honorable'

Nelson Henry, seen here in a World War II-era photo, wants the Army to clear his name and grant him an honorable discharge.

FAMILY PHOTO

By MELANIE BURNEY | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: May 3, 2019

PHILADELPHIA (Tribune News Service) — World War II Army veteran Nelson Henry believed he had no choice when his superiors offered him a “blue discharge” in 1945 to leave the military along with thousands of other black soldiers targeted because of their race.

Nearly 75 years later, Henry, 95, of Philadelphia, wants the Army to clear his name and grant him an honorable discharge. His lawyers have filed a petition with the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records to change his status.

Henry is among more than 48,000 soldiers, mostly blacks and gays who were disproportionately given “blue discharges” by the Army at the end of the war, according to Elizabeth Kristen, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Work in San Francisco, which is handling Henry’s appeal.

Between 1941 and 1945, blacks comprised only 6.5 percent of the Army, but received 22.2 percent of the discharges, about 10,000, she said. Gay soldiers received about 5,000 of the discharges.

The “blue discharge” designation, neither honorable nor dishonorable, was a stigma and denied veterans benefits such as the GI Bill to get a college education or the right to have an honor guard at their funeral or be buried at a national cemetery. Printed on blue paper, the discharge was a red flag to potential employers who refused to hire soldiers without an honorable discharge.

“They were used to deny minority service members their hard-earned benefits after they had served this country so honorable,” Kristen said in an interview. “It is a horrible injustice.”

Henry, one of seven siblings, grew up Bryn Athyn and enlisted in 1942 while attending Lincoln University. The junior pre-dental major registered for the draft and decided to join his classmates who were heading to fight for the country. An added incentive was an offer by the Army to pay for him to attend Howard University Dental School, where he had been granted a conditional acceptance.

He managed to pass the rigorous Army physical, despite a knee injury from playing football at Lincoln. He began his active duty service in 1943 at Camp Lee in Virginia and later was sent to Camp Crowder in Missouri. He was assigned to segregated units where black soldiers endured racism and horrible conditions especially in the south with Jim Crow laws.

When it was time for his unit to ship out overseas, Henry failed his medical exam after aggravating his knee injury. He was unable to squat and stand with his packed field bag on his back. His unit left and Henry remained behind and, then, his problems began.

Henry was disciplined for minor infractions that his lawyers say were unsubstantiated — letting a fire burn out, ignoring a command and allegedly stealing a baseball glove from another soldier. After the third infraction, Henry was sent to the stockade for 30 days. His superior officer recommended a “blue discharge,” an administrative separation that avoided a court martial as well as the right to attorney or to hear evidence against him.

“I was furious to tell you the truth. I had no choice,” Henry said in a recent interview in his Logan Square apartment.

Henry reluctantly accepted the discharge on Oct. 17, 1945, but vowed to appeal.

Once in Philadelphia, Henry resumed life with his wife, Lydia, a secretary in the public schools he married while on military leave. The couple had two sons and a daughter. He landed several jobs and eventually became a taxi driver.

Henry, with help from the NAACP and the American Red Cross, appealed to have his discharge upgraded and his benefits reinstated in the late ’40s. His requests were denied. He stopped talking about it, not even telling his children until decades later. But he never forgot.

“It left a bad taste in my mouth, a cloud over my future. This was a blot on my character," Henry said. “I really can’t describe to you what it feels like to be charged unlawfully.”

The NAACP and the Pittsburgh Courier, a leading black newspaper lobbied Congress in 1945 to end the blue discharges. A 1946 congressional report deemed them discriminatory and recommended that they be abolished and a year later the military replaced them with two new classifications, general and undesirable. The blue discharges already handed out were not automatically upgraded and soldiers had to appeal on an individual basis.

It is not known how many soldiers appealed their discharges or how many are alive today. The military estimates that about 496,777 of the more than 16.2 million members of the Armed Forces during World War were still living as of September 2018.

“What quickly became clear was that it was abused,” said Jennifer Mittelstadt, a Rutgers University military history professor. “There were too many people getting them.”

The military issued blue discharges to soldiers who allegedly showed “undesirable habits or traits of character,” mostly for homosexuality, author Christine Knauer wrote in her book “Let us fight as free men.” Black soldiers believed the discharges were part of a “widespread conspiracy” against them, she said.

With time against him, Henry, who will turn 96 in June, has requested an expedited hearing on his appeal. The process typically takes up to 18 months. An Army spokesman said the review board "considers applications properly brought before it to correct an error or injustice in a Soldier’s record. "

“The Army doesn’t have much time to do right by him, or by the many other veterans who were wronged by this shameful practice,” said Daniel Devoy a professor with Golden Gate University School of Law Veterans Legal Advocacy Clinic in San Francisco, which is assisting with his appeal. “It’s a travesty of justice that needs to be corrected.”

Denied his GI benefits, Henry attended Temple University at night, while working to take care of his young family. It took him 13 years to obtain a Bachelor’s in Psychology in 1969. He eventually went to work for the Pennsylvania Employment Office.

A breakthrough on his discharge came when Henry’s son, Dean, saw a segment on NBC about Helen Grace James, a lesbian who was kicked out of the Air Force in 1955 because of her sexuality and her discharge was upgraded in 2018. The Legal Aid at Work handled her appeal and agreed to take Henry’s case.

James, who grew up on a dairy farm in Scranton, enlisted in 1952 after teaching for three years. A descendant of a Union soldier in the Civil War, she followed in the footsteps generations of relatives who served in the military.

She was sent to Roslyn Air Force Base in Long Island where she worked as a radio operator, responsible for contacting military bases on the East Coast, a vital task during the Cold War. She loved the military and planned to make it a career and applied for a commission as an officer.

Long before the “Don’t ask, don’t tell policy,” the military sought to expel gays and lesbians and James became a target. An Airman Second Class, James and two other lesbians were arrested and interrogated by the Office of Special Investigations, which was investigating service members suspected of being gay.

When military officials threatened to tell her parents who were unaware of her sexuality, James reluctantly accepted an “undesirable” discharge. She was expelled without severance, insurance or other benefits.

“I couldn’t talk to them,” James, 92, recalled in an interview from her home in Clovis, Calif. “I said `write down anything you want and I’ll sign it.”

James said she decided to fight back by proving that she was a good person. She obtained degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University and later taught physical therapy at Fresno State University. She also had a private practice.

Like Henry, her military past was always in the back of her mind. At age 89, she applied to the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records to upgrade her discharge to honorable. It took nearly two years and a federal lawsuit for the Air Force to change her status.

James never shared details about her discharge with her family until 2016 when her appeal was filed. She now gets speaking engagements to share her story and wants to encourage other veterans to come forward.

“It has changed me and how I feel about who I am as an America Citizen. It made me whole again," James said. “Now if I can help other people that is the joy of it.”

In the petition for Henry, the lawyers cite his pristine record as a law-abiding community member. A member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, Nelson was recognized by the group in 2016 as one of its oldest brothers.

Henry is holding out hope that the Army will render a decision while he is still alive. His wife of 71 years died in 2016.

“I won’t believe it until I see it. It’s something that stays with you all of your life,” he said.

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