Veterans Day

By Kimberly Dennin

History of Veterans Day

Veterans day has its origins in the end of WWI. On November 11, 1918 an armistice went into effect and so this date is considered the end of WWI. In 1919, President Wilson declared November 11 to be the first commemoration of Armistice Day. On May 13, 1938 November 11th was made a legal holiday. It was known as “Armistice Day” and the purpose was to celebrate world peace and honor veterans of WWI. After the immense loss of life in WWII, the 83rd congress amended the Act of 1938 by replacing “Armistice” with “Veterans”, and on June 1, 1954 November 11th officially became a day to honor American veterans of all wars. President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued the first “Veterans Day Proclamation” on October 8th, 1954. As a part of this, he designated the Administrator of Veterans’ Affairs as the Chairman of a Veterans Day National Committee.

Veterans Day briefly moved days when the Uniform Holiday Bill was passed on June 28, 1968. This was to ensure three-day weekends for Federal Employees and designated the celebration of Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Columbus Day on Mondays. Veterans Day returned to November 11 beginning in 1978 with the signing of Public Law 94-97 by President Gerald R. Ford.

In celebration of Veterans Day, we are highlighting some veterans who come from marginalized communities and are oftentimes overlooked. These Black, Hispanic, female, and LGBTQ+ veterans provided exemplary service to their country and deserve to have their stories told. While this list does not include all of the veterans from all marginalized communities, we hope you are inspired by their stories and continue to learn about these amazing people who served their country.

Henry Johnson: WWI

Harlem Hellfighters

Henry Johnson was a part of the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters. The Harlem Hellfighters were formed as the 15th New York National Guard Regiment by Governor Charles Whitman in 1916. This was the result of years of lobbying from Harlem’s civic leaders, and most of the enlistees came from Harlem. It was also the first Black troop in New York’s National Guard. William Hayward, a white attorney and former Nebraska National Guard colonel, served as the commander. Hayward advocated for the fair treatment of his regiment and warned white officer candidates that the men would be treated according to their rank as soldiers and if they could not do that they should leave.

Despite the support from Hayward, the troop still experienced racism and had to deal with the challenges of being Black in America. In October 1917 they trained in Jim Crow-ruled Spartanburg South Carolina. Hayward told his men to report any incidents of racist insults and threats to military authority, but warned them to not offer any retaliation when these incidents occurred. These confrontations created a tight bond among the men of the 15th, which served them well when they arrived in France. Upon arrival they were renamed the U.S. 369th Infantry Regiment and assigned to the U.S. Army’s Services of Supply. This was common for African American soldiers at the time. It was very difficult for them to get into the military because there was a perception that they would not perform well in battle. Those who did join often found themselves cleaning latrines and unloading ships instead of engaging in combat. During this time, General John Pershing was adamant about Americans fighting for America under an American general. However, the exception was the 369th, which he gave to the French. Despite this insult, it finally allowed the 369th to fight, and they spent 191 days on the front, more than any other American soldiers, and were the most celebrated African American regiment in WWI. The 369th were involved in the Second Battle of the Marne, where they withstood heavy bombardment and lost 14 members with 51 injured. They were also involved in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in which more than a million American and French troops attacked the German lines. During this the 369th suffered some of the worst casualties by an American regiment with 144 killed and 1,000 wounded.

Members of the 369th Infantry via Smithsonian Magazine

The Harlem Hellfighters returned to America as heroes with a parade on Fifth Avenue on February 17, 1919. However, they were returning as second class citizens, and could not eat in restaurants or stay in hotels because of Jim Crow. During the war, news of the success of the Harlem Hellfighters began to spread throughout America and in response the American Government sent the French a memorandum essentially requesting the French to implement Jim Crow. The purpose behind this was to prevent the African American soldiers from believing that they were equals and demanding equality upon their return. Ultimately, this is what African American soldiers were fighting for, their rights to be full American citizens.

Henry Johnson via Smithsonian Magazine

Henry Johnson

Henry Johnson is one of the most notable members of the Harlem Hellfighters. He is famous for defending a listening post from German attack, along with Needham Roberts. They were both injured in battle, and Johnson fended off the remaining German soldiers in hand to hand combat. As a result they were the first Americans to receive the French Croix de Guerre. Upon his return to America in 1919, he testified before the New York Legislature in support of a bill to give veterans a preference in government hiring. White people expected him to be a voice for racial harmony, but in a public speech in St. Louis in March 1919 he accused white soldiers of racism and cowardice. He continued to experience racism upon his return when he was not awarded the purple heart and there was no record of his injury from battle. Because of this he was not able to work or receive assistance and eventually passed away in July 1929. For his service, he was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously from President Barack Obama.

Robert Smalls: Civil War

Young Robert Smalls via Biography

Robert Smalls was born on April 5, 1839 as a slave to John McKee. As he got older, he was sent to Charleston to be rented out to work. He started working on the C.S.S. Planter, a sidewheel steamer used by the Confederacy as an armed dispatch boat and transport, and proved himself to be a skilled ship pilot. While in Charleston he met his wife Hannah and they had two children, Elizabeth and Robert Jr. With the constant threat of being sold, Smalls wanted to purchase his family, but he did not have enough money. During the Civil War, when the Northern states (Union) were fighting the Southern states (Confederacy), there was a Union blockade of Confederate ports to prevent smuggling of war material into the Confederacy and the export of cotton. Union Navy commanders were accepting runaway slaves as contraband, so Smalls thought that their best chance at freedom was by sea.

Smalls began to develop a plan to hijack the Planter and use it to get past Confederate check points and make it to the Union blockade. He convinced the other slaves on the Planter to join his plan. On May 12, the three white officers of the Planter, Captain Charles J. Relyea, first mate Smith Hancock, and engineer Samuel Z. Pitcher, left to spend the night on shore, despite strict orders against doing so. The ship was full of guns and ammunition and on the morning of May 13, Smalls disguised himself as captain Relyea and hoisted the South Carolina and Confederate flags as decoys. They stopped at the West Atlantic Wharf and picked up his family, four other women, three men, and another child, resulting in 16 total people on the ship. They were able to pass both Fort Johns and Fort Sumter because Smalls knew the correct Navy signals and in the dark looked like Captain Relyea. As they approached the Union blockade they hung a white bed sheet and announced that they had guns and ammunition for the Union.

Robert Smalls via PBS

After reaching freedom, Small lobbied Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, to begin enlisting Black soldiers. President Abraham Lincoln eventually authorized free African Americans to serve, and Smalls worked as a spokesperson and reportedly recruited 5,000 himself. In October 1862 he became the pilot of the Planter as a part of Admiral Du Pont’s South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. According to a 1883 Naval Affairs Committee report Smith was involved in approximately 17 military actions, including the April 7, 1863 assault on Fort Sumter and the attack at Folly Island Creek, S.C. where he assumed command of the Planter when the white captain hid while they were under attack. After the battle at Folly Island Creek Smalls was promoted to the rank of Captain and served on both the Planter and USS Keokuk.

After the war, Smalls served in the South Carolina state assembly and senate, and for 5 nonconsecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He continued fighting for rights in the face of Jim Crow, especially when South Carolina rolled back Reconstruction and stripped Blacks of their voting rights in 1895. He also started a general store, school for African American children, and a newspaper. He died on February 22, 1915.

Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben: Revolutionary War


Baron von Steuben via LGBTQ Nation

Before Valley Forge, America was losing badly and it was realized that if they wanted to win, the Revolutionary Army desperately needed training and discipline. General George Washington turned to Europe for seasoned military experts to train their troops. Benjamin Franklin, who was in Paris at the time, heard about Lt. Gen. Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. Steuben was a Prussian military genius who, despite his exemplary military career, was asked to depart most of the Germanic states and countries because of his attraction to men. He escaped to Paris, where he met Franklin. Franklin then asked Steuben to volunteer to help the Revolutionary Army, an offer which was initially turned down by Steuben. However, his attraction was also discovered in Paris which caused the French clergy to try and run him out of France. He was summoned to Karlsruhe for a military vacancy but allegations of familiarities with young boys and rumors of him being a homosexual caused him to return to Paris. There is no historical evidence that von Steuben was a pedophile, but being gay was a criminal aberration at the time and most likely the allegations and rumors were spread to give further reason for his arrest. Franklin most likely knew about the rumors of von Steuben being a homosexual but he decided that von Steuben’s expertise was more important than his sexuality. Von Steuben was about to be jailed when Franklin wrote a recommendation letter to Washington and he set sail for America in September 1777.

Reshaping the Revolutionary Army

Von Steuben is credited with creating America’s professional army, turning the revolutionary soldiers into a military powerhouse. During his time serving with the army Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens were assigned to him as aides, he served as Washington’s chief of staff, and is considered to have been instrumental in helping the Americans win the Revolutionary War. He wrote “Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States” which became a fundamental guide for the Continental Army, was published in over 70 editions, and remained in active use through the War of 1812. He also established efficient firing and reloading methods and improved the organization of camps and hygiene.

Baron von Steuben via History

After the war he was granted U.S. citizenship and assisted in formulating plans for the post-war American military. During his time in the Revolutionary Army and after there were widespread rumors about von Steuben’s sexuality, which he never denied. After the war, he was rewarded with a house at Valley Forge by Washington which he shared with aide-de-camps Capt. William North and Gen. Benjamin Walker. He legally adopted North and Walker, which was a common practice among gay men before marriage was legal, and lived with Walker through the remainder of his life. Von Steuben was highly praised by Washington, who most likely knew about his sexuality, and one of the last letters that Washington wrote as president was to von Steuben, praising him for his service. Despite the U.S. military’s history of discrimination against people suspected to be gay, it was a gay man who is credited with establishing the U.S. military.

Leonard Matlovich: Vietnam

Leonard Matlovich served three tours in Vietnam earning the Bronze Star for heroism under fire and the Purple Heart for being seriously wounded in a land mine explosion. While he was teaching Air Force race relations courses he realized that discrimination against African Americans is similar to that of gays. In 1974, gay rights activist, Frank Kameny, was looking for a case to test the military’s ban on gay service members. In response to this, in June 1974, Maltovich wrote a letter to his commanding officer coming out and requesting that the discharge of homosexuals be waived in his case. In the letter Maltovich claimed that he was fully qualified for further service and cites his 12 years of unblemished service to support his claim. The Air Force began proceedings to give him a general discharge, but Maltovich declared he wanted the decision to be reviewed. The review board refused to overturn the decision even though they had the option to overturn it in “most unusual circumstances”.

Matlovich TIME Magazine cover via TIME

On September 8, 1975, Matlovich was on the cover of TIME magazine with the headline, “I am a Homosexual”. In 1980, after five years of legal battle, the U.S. District Court ordered that Maltovich be reinstated and given five years’ worth of back pay, however they did not rule against the ban itself. Maltovich accepted the Air Force’s offer of a financial settlement because he feared that they would find another reason to discharge him. Maltovich dedicated his life to advocating for gay rights and ran for the San Francisco public office that was Harvey Milk’s, the first openly gay elected official in California. He died of AIDS in 1988 at 44 years old and was buried with full military honors in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington D.C. His tombstone does not have his name, instead it has the following inscription: “A gay veteran. When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one”.

Deborah Sampson: Revolutionary War


Deborah Sampson via Smithsonian Magazine

Deborah Sampson was born on December 17, 1760 in Plympton, Massachusetts. She was one of seven children who, because of financial hardships, were placed in different households. Sampson was indentured as a servant to Deacon Benjamin Thomas at age 10. In the early 1780s she tried to dress as a man and enlist in the military but was rebuffed. The town she was living in was scandalized and she was excommunicated from the Baptist church in September 1782.

Service in the Revolutionary War

In 1782, Sampson disguised herself as a man named Robert Shurtleff and joined the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment. She was assigned to Captain George Webb’s Company of Light Infantry and served at least 17 months as a combat soldier. Sampson scouted neutral territory to assess British activities in Manhattan, led 30 infantrymen with two sergeants on an expedition that ended with conflict in June 1782, and led a raid on a British home and captured 15 men. There are also claims that she was involved with the siege of Yorktown, however the Diary of Abner Weston revealed that her first attempt at enlistment was in January 1782, after Yorktown. During one of the battles Sampson was involved in she received a wound on her forehead from a sword and was shot in her left thigh. In order to avoid discovery she extracted the pistol ball herself and sewed the wound.

Sampson Delivering a letter to Washington via Holloman Air Force Base

She was eventually discovered when she became ill during an epidemic. She was taken to a hospital and lost consciousness. Dr. Barnabas Binney realized she was actually a woman and brought her to his home without reporting it. His wife and a nurse cared for her until she regained consciousness. After her discovery she received an honorable discharge on October 23, 1783.

After the War

After the war, Sampson eventually arrived at the home of her aunt, Alice Waters, dressed as a man. Alice thought she was Ephraim Sampson, one of Deborah’s brothers and she continued to dress as a man until she met Benjamin Gannett. After meeting Gannett she decided to become female again, discarding her male garb and marrying him on April 7, 1785.

Sampson and Gannett soon fell into financial hardship. During this time Sampson became acquainted with Paul Revere who thought that she should be given a pension for her services. Thanks to his support, on January 19, 1792 she was granted 34 pounds with interest from October 23, 1783, and this document was signed by John Hancock, the Governor at the time. In 1805 she was placed on the pension list and received an annual payment, and is the only woman to receive a pension for participation in the Revolutionary Army. In 1802 she completed a year-long lecture tour about her experiences, becoming the first female lecturer. During her tour she would sometimes dress in full military regalia and conclude lectures by performing the manual of arms. She died on April 29, 1827 and was declared the Official Heroine of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts by Governor Michael J. Dukakis on May 23, 1983. This was the first time in the history of the U.S. that a state had proclaimed anyone as their official hero or heroine.

Cathay Williams: Civil War

Cathay Williams via National Parks Service

Cathay Williams was born a slave in Missouri in 1844, and when the Union forces occupied Jefferson city in 1861 was taken as contraband, as all captured slaves were, and forced to serve as an Army cook and washerwoman. While serving, she witnessed the Red River Campaign and the Battle of Pea Ridge. There was still a prohibition against women serving in the military and so she enlisted under the name William Cathay on November 15, 1866 in the U.S. Regular Army in St. Louis, Missouri. She enlisted for a three-year engagement and was assigned to the 38th U.S. Infantry. She quickly contracted smallpox and was hospitalized, and though she recovered, she continued to be hospitalized due to various illnesses and it was eventually discovered that she was a woman. She was honorably discharged on October 14, 1868. She continued serving, however, with the all-Black regiment, the 38th U.S. Infantry, which eventually became the Buffalo Soldiers. After her time with the Buffalo Soldiers she suffered many ailments including toe amputations, neuralgia, deafness, and rheumatism and she applied for disability pension in 1889/1890. She was denied the pension, even though there was a precedent for women receiving it, and died in 1893. Though there were over 400 women who served in the Civil War posing as men, Williams was the first African American woman to enlist, the only documented woman to serve in the U.S. army, disguised as a man, during the Indian Wars, and the only known female Buffalo Soldier.

Edward Hidalgo: WWII

Edward Hidalgo was born on October 12, 1912 in México City, México and emigrated to New York when he was 6. He received his B.A. from Holy Cross College in 1933, J.D. from Columbia Law School in 1936, and a Degree of Civil Law from the University of México in 1959. From 1943-1945 he served on the carrier USS Enterprise as an air combat intelligence officer. During this time he was a member of the Eberstadt Committee in 1945 which reported to the Secretary of the Navy on the Unification of the Military Services, received the Bronze Star for service on the Enterprise, and received a Commendation Ribbon for his service with the Eberstadt Committee. He also served as the Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal in 1945 and 1946.

Edward Hidalgo via Naval History and Heritage Command

After his time serving on the Enterprise Hidalgo served in various assistant roles and partners in law firms. He received the Royal Order of the Vasa for legal services to the Swedish Government and in 1948 he was a member of the U.S. Delegation to the Inter-American Conference in Bogotá, República de Colombia. On September 13, 1979 Hidalgo was nominated by President Jimmy Carter to be the Secretary of the Navy and was confirmed by the Senate on October 19. He was the first and only Secretary of the Navy of Hispanic descent. Hidalgo established the Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale Award for Inspirational Leadership and founded the Association of Naval Services Officers (ANSO) which acts as the Latino/Hispanic Leader Resource Group (LRG). Hidalgo died on January 21, 1995.

Maria Dolores Hernández: WWII

Maria Dolores Hernández via CSUF

Maria Dolores Hernández came to Fullerton in 1913, when she was 6 years old, when her family fled the Mexican Revolution. She entered Orange County General Hospital’s Nursing School and became a registered nurse in 1930 and eventually became Orange County Hospital’s supervisor of communicable diseases. In 1940 she became the first Red Cross nurse from Orange County called into active duty as a second lieutenant. She was transferred to the Air Force after the war and travelled throughout the U.S., Far East, and Europe. She accumulated wealth from acquiring small properties and selling them wherever she was stationed. She became a major and retired after 20 years of service. After her service she joined Cal State Fullerton’s Continuing Learning Experience (now Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) and when she died in 1997 left $1 million to the university’s Nursing department to establish an endowment for scholarships and $750,000 to St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton.


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