Operation Hero Homecoming

Honoring World War II Medal of Honor Recipient

Honoring World War II Medal of Honor Recipient
Private First Class Willy Frederick James Jr., United States Army

Friday, April 7, 2023
11:00 AM

Willy F. James, Jr. was one of seven African Americans to receive the Medal of Honor for service in World
War II, an award delayed decades by bias and discrimination. “He enlisted as a young man and he died as
a young man,” recalled Margaret Pender, James’s family member, in the 2015 event, Unsung Heroes.
James was born on March 18, 1920 in Kansas City, Missouri and grew up there the only child of a widowed
mother. He was drafted into the Army in September 1942, but before he left Kansas City, he married, not even
having time for a proper honeymoon with wife, Valcenie.

In the last days of 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, certain African American troops, formerly largely barred
from combat duty, were called upon to volunteer and form replacement battalions to supplement depleted infantry
regiments. James was one of more than 2,200 Black soldiers selected for an expedited four-week training course
at the Ground Forces Reinforcement Center in France. He was recognized in that training for his marksmanship
and leadership, and emerged as Private First Class James—a scout with the 413th Infantry Regiment, 104th
“Timberwolf” Infantry Division.

Just two days after his 25th birthday, on March 20, 1945, PFC James and the other 413th Infantry Regiment
reinforcements arrived in the ruins of Cologne, Germany, just two weeks after Americans first entered the ancient
city. Joining up with the 2nd Battalion, they didn’t stay put for long. The next day, they crossed the Rhine River
and relieved the 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division. Pinned down by German artillery for several
days, the 413th slowly began to resume the offensive and gain ground. German POW numbers grew as some
defenders were overrun, but SS troops remained at the attack, withdrawing to regroup as the Allies pushed ahead.
PFC James was one of several tapped to lead rifle squads in pursuit. After a firefight, near Paderborn, nearly 100
miles from Cologne, the three Black squads gained the advantage, ultimately capturing or killing 40 SS troops,
an event that was reported on by Ann Stringer, a United Press war correspondent, who wrote, “An all-Negro
platoon saw action for the first time today and licked Adolf Hitler’s supermen.” The 413th continued deeper into
Germany, westward toward the Weser River.

On April 7, 1945, James’s unit crossed the Weser near Lippoldsberg. He was sent forward to scout the enemy
position and made critical observations while pinned down by heavy fire for more than an hour. Still under fire,
he raced back to his company to report his observations. Undaunted, James volunteered to lead the attack on
Lippoldsberg. As the men advanced, they drew fire from every direction. SS troops emerged from the windows
and doorways of the town. Platoon leader, Lieutenant A.J. Serabella was gravely wounded in the attack. James
raced to his aid, intending to pull him to safety. Before he could make any movements, James was struck and
killed by German sniper fire.

James’s legacy lives on at The National WWII Museum and in the exhibition Fighting for the Right to Fight:
African American Experiences in World War II. His grave in Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten,
and those of the other 8,300 Americans buried there, is lovingly tended by the American Battle Monuments
Commission, the Dutch people, and visitors who come year-round to pay their respects.
In 1996, the United States Government affirmed that seven African Americans, including PFC James, had
been unjustly denied the Medal of Honor for actions during World War II. In a 1997 White House ceremony,
President Bill Clinton presented Valcenie James with her husband’s Medal of Honor, the US military’s highest
decoration. It had taken more than 50 years for this belated recognition of his heroic acts performed under the
most adverse conditions.