WASHINGTON — President Obama will seek to right a historical wrong next month when he awards two dozen veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam — including 17 Latinos — the Medal of Honor after a lengthy Pentagon review into racial and ethnic discrimination in the awarding of the nation's commendation for combat valor.
Obama will present the medals to three Vietnam War veterans, and to family members of the 21 veterans who are receiving it posthumously, the White House said late Friday. Collectively they form the single largest group of Medal of Honor recipients since 1945, when 28 medals were awarded in a single ceremony near the end of World War II.
The 24 honorees served in the Army and already had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest medal for valor. The White House said those awards would be upgraded in recognition of the recipients' "gallantry, intrepidity and heroism above and beyond the call of duty."
The Pentagon review, which Congress ordered in 2002 to determine whether deserving Latino and Jewish veterans had been discriminated against, looked only at the six decades between America's entry into World War II in December 1941 and the 2001 terrorist attacks, before the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Obama has made a priority of ending discrimination in the military. He pushed Congress in late 2011 to repeal the law banning gays and lesbians from serving openly, and last year ordered hundreds of combat assignments in the Army and Marines opened to women.
Among the posthumous honorees is Pvt. Joe Gandara, who was born in Santa Monica and served in the 507th Parachute Infantry regiment of the 82nd Airborne during the Allied invasion of France. His unit was fighting in Amfreville on June 9, 1944, when it "came under devastating enemy fire from a strong German force," according to the award citation. Gandara, who was 19, "advanced voluntarily and alone toward the enemy position and destroyed three hostile machine guns before he was fatally wounded."
His niece, Miriam Adams of Lompoc, will accept the medal with the others on March 18 at the White House. "Was there prejudice in those days?" she said in a statement Friday. "Of course. Is there prejudice today? It's better, but sadly it's still here."
The Pentagon review led the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines to scrutinize battlefield records. The Army found more than 600 cases needed to be reexamined, and the other branches identified an additional 275.
After a series of review boards scrutinized after-action reports and witness statements, Pentagon officials recommended that Obama award the medal to 18 Army veterans — 17 Latinos and one of Jewish descent. The review also identified six, including an African American, who were not Jewish or Latino but should have gotten the medal.
The lone Jewish recipient is Pfc. Leonard M. Kravitz of Brooklyn, N.Y. Kravitz was an assistant machine-gunner with the 24th Division in Yangpyong, Korea, in 1951 when his unit was overrun by the enemy. He "voluntarily remained at a machine gun position" until he was killed, allowing his unit to retreat, his citation says.
Among the Vietnam veterans being honored is Spc. Leonard L. Alvarado, a native of Bakersfield. His unit came under fire in Phuoc Long Province in August 1969. "Alvarado quickly moved forward through the hostile machine gun fire in order to engage the enemy troops," his citation reads. Wounded by a grenade explosion, he crawled forward, suffering another wound.
"He continued advancing and firing" until he died, his citation says.
"I've always known my father was a hero for what he did in Vietnam," Lenora Alvarado said in an interview. "Now, regardless of the amount of time that has passed, everyone else will know of his bravery."
The group includes five from Texas, four each from California and Puerto Rico, three from New York, and one each from Colorado, Arizona, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Florida and Missouri. Two honorees were from Mexico: Pvt. Pedro Cano, who was born in La Morita and joined the Army in 1944, and Sgt. Jesus S. Duran, who was from Juarez but grew up in San Bernardino.
Serving with the 4th Infantry Division in the monthlong battle of the Hurtgen Forest in Germany in 1944, Cano was credited with killing 30 German soldiers. "Cano lay motionless on the ground until assailants closed in, then tossed a grenade into their midst, wounding or killing all of them," his citation says. He was killed shortly afterward.
Sgt. 1st Class Eduardo C. Gomez, a Los Angeles native, is cited for assaulting an enemy tank during a 1950 battle in Korea. Although wounded, he poured "accurate fire into the ranks of the enemy, which exacted a heavy toll in enemy casualties." He died in 1974 of a heart attack that his doctors thought was caused by shrapnel that was never removed, said his nephew, Pete Carroll.
"I don't think that discrimination was an issue at all" in the decision not to originally award Gomez a Medal of Honor, Carroll said. His uncle always told him the paperwork got lost.
"We know the stories of his heroism," he added. "We're proud of him."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times