WASHINGTON -- A pair of World War II veterans have recently been approved by the acting Army secretary to receive Purple Hearts over 76 years after being wounded during the Battle of Normandy.
Because of racial inequalities, both Johnnie Jones, a 101-year-old former warrant officer, and Ozzie Fletcher, a 99-year-old former private, had their war stories overlooked for decades, despite rightfully earning the medals in the same historic battle.
Following two months of fact-finding through various sources, “history will be made right,” said Lt. Col. Scott Johnson, the Army Human Resources Command’s chief of awards and decorations.
Potential ceremonies for the veterans to pin on their medals are still being planned.
Johnson, along with his team, compiled an executive summary for the acting secretary of the Army.
While similar, there were different requests on behalf of the veterans. For Jones, Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana submitted his request after hearing from his family. Meanwhile, Fletcher’s daughter, Jacqueline Streets, contacted the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff regarding her father’s medal.
Their requests “just happened to line up,” Johnson said. As straightforward as the requests seemed, completing them turned out to be no simple task.
“A lot of times, [Soldiers] never received the documents required,” he explained on Monday. “Most times, they did not even make the documents. That is the most challenging part for us.”
With the help of both veterans, Johnson and his team dug up everything they needed. “Their memories are very good,” he said about them.
“I could pull from their testimonies and multiple other sources and historical data,” he said. “It was exactly like they laid out. Where they were, what they were doing, what types of munitions were being used against them, what types of weapons [were used]. It was very interesting to see these stories come together.”
In the end, their experiences lined up with the historical data. “These men have the scars and stories that are hard to ignore,” Johnson said.
Their scars came after battling alongside over 175,000 other Allied troops during the invasion on the beaches of Normandy, France. Known as Operation Overlord, or D-Day, the mission was the largest amphibious invasion in world history and a defining moment of the Western Front during the war.
Around 2,000 African-American troops took part in the battle in various capacities, including Fletcher and Jones. Although they faced the same dangers as everyone else, they also faced racial segregation both in service and when they returned home, Johnson said.
That’s why the Purple Heart review came in. It was one way to “right a wrong,” Johnson said.
Upon notification, both men were ecstatic. “They were thankful that the Army put the time in to make these corrections,” Johnson said, adding that Jones requested a service uniform to wear during the ceremony.
“Wanting to be dressed appropriately that many years later [shows] he is still thinking like a Soldier,” Johnson said.
Jones joined the military in 1943 after graduating from Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Shortly after, he served with the 494th Port Battalion leading up and after D-Day. He was a warrant officer tasked in a unit responsible for unloading equipment and supplies onto Omaha Beach.
To this day, he can vividly recall wading ashore followed by getting snowed under by German sniper rounds, Johnson said.
It was during that battle he received shrapnel wounds to the neck, according to a medical letter from a Veterans Affairs doctor, Camalyn W. Gaines, who reviewed Jones’ wounds, qualifying him for the Purple Heart medal.
Fletcher is a New York native who served with the 254th Port Battalion. He was a private in the battle when his vehicle was hit by a German missile, killing the driver and wounding him.
Although he survived the blast, he was not initially given the Purple Heart, like Jones.
For Johnson, having the opportunity to dig into history and help two former Soldiers has been “an impactful experience,” he said, adding it was an honor to provide them the recognition they deserve.