Considering the sheer amount of schlock that Hollywood routinely pumps out, it is amazing that it never got around to making a movie about World War II hero and Medal of Honor recipient Sergeant First Class Edward A. Carter. The man’s life was a real-world action-adventure epic. Like a comic book hero, he put on a figurative cape and traveled worldwide to fight evil wherever he encountered it. And the man was as handsome as a matinee idol to boot.
Carter’s life could be distilled into six words: he wanted to fight bad guys. There were plenty of those in his day, and he went at them like hammer and tongs. He ran away from home when he was fifteen years old to fight Japanese militarists in China. His next bout was against the fascists of General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Finally, just like in a video game where you work your way up to the top level, Carter capped off his combat career by taking on Hitler’s Nazis and earned a Medal of Honor while doing so.
Adolescent & Fighting the Japanese Militarism
In 1916, Edward Allen Carter, Jr. was born in California to a Christian missionary couple: an African-American father and an East Indian mother. He grew up in India before his parents moved to China, which was a huge magnet for missionaries in those days. Young Edward’s African-American and Indian mixed-race background had already set him apart as pretty unusual for his era. An upbringing in India and China, viewed at the time as the epitomes of the exotic and mysterious East, just added more layers of complexity to his makeup.
Although China was a magnet for missionaries at the time, they were still relatively rare on the ground. That in of itself would have set Carter apart while growing up there. Blacks were even thinner on the ground in China, and that set him apart yet even more. It would not be exactly accurate to say that Edward was a social misfit. Still, his background, the restrictions imposed upon him by his religious parents, and the environment in which he grew up all combined to mold him into a different sort.
He manifested just how different when he was only a teenager. There is nothing unusual about teenagers acting up, rebelling, and testing boundaries. When Edward’s teenage rebellion came, however, it not only tested limits but outright shattered them. He didn’t engage in the usual stuff like taking up smoking, drinking, drugs, or hanging out with punks and wannabe tough guys. That kind of nonsense was for pretenders and would not do for Edward A. Carter, Jr. Instead, he ran away to fight against the Imperial Japanese Army.
The Great Depression had left Japan reeling. As countries turned to high tariffs and other trade restrictions to protect their industries, Japan’s export-based economy was hit hard. So the Japanese looked at the teeming millions of nearby China and saw in them great potential for a captive market. When diplomacy failed to convince China to adopt trade policies highly favorable to Japan, the Japanese turned to force. A red flag operation was staged in 1932; Japan falsely claimed it was the victim of Chinese aggression and launched an invasion that came to be known as The Shanghai Incident.
Fifteen-year-old Carter ran away from home and joined the Nationalist Chinese forces as they resisted Japanese aggression. Fighting in the Chinese 19th Route Army, Carter endured aerial bombing from Japanese carrier planes, shelling from Japanese artillery, and ferocious ground attacks from Japanese infantry. He displayed a knack for combat and got a brevet commission to lieutenant in the Chinese Army. His fun ended when his age was discovered. To Lieutenant Carter’s embarrassment, he was yanked from the front lines, discharged from the Chinese Army, and turned over to his parents. By then, however, he had gotten a taste of combat and decided that he liked it. He would be back at it soon enough.
A Different Country and a New Enemy
Carter thought that a spirit had visited him while he was fighting the Japanese. It told him that he would become a great warrior but that he would not die in war. Whether it was a delusion caused by a concussion from all the shelling and bombing or some such, Carter believed it. Convinced of his spiritual military destiny, he enrolled in a Chinese military school in Shanghai as soon as he was old enough. He excelled in the usual subjects taught in military schools and also learned German as a fourth language on top of English, Hindi, and Mandarin Chinese which he already spoke fluently.
Carter became active in leftist politics during his years in China, and when the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936, it drew him like a magnet. On one side were the fascists, under the leadership of General Francisco Franco, who were supported and generously supplied by Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy and Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany. On the opposite side was the duly elected leftist Republican government of Spain. Carter was an antifascist to the core, so he travelled to Europe in order to fight for the Republican side.
When he reached Spain, Carter enlisted in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade – an American volunteer unit composed primarily of leftists. It fought as part of the International Brigade against the fascists throughout the Spanish Civil War. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of Carter and his comrades, the bad guys won. As Spain’s fascists surged to victory and the Republican government collapsed, he and the rest of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade had to flee to France in 1938. From there, he made his way back to America.
After having spent most of his life overseas, Carter took a stab at settling down when he returned to his birthplace. In 1940, while World War II raged in Europe, he met and married his wife, Mildred, in Los Angeles. However, as the clouds of war lowered and grew darker, Carter sensed that it would not be long before America was drawn into the fight. So he enlisted in the US Army in September, 1941, just three months before the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the US into the war.
Given his background and experience, Carter rose swiftly through the ranks and was made staff sergeant within a few months. However, there was a downside to his background and experience. Globetrotting African-Americans were rare back then.
African-Americans who spoke Hindi, Chinese, and German and who had fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade were rarer still. The US Army did not know what to make of Carter. A counterintelligence file was opened, and it was deemed advisable to place him under surveillance because his Spanish Civil War experience meant that he had “been exposed to communism.” The file also noted: “Subject… capable of having connections with subversive activities due to… early years (until 1938) in the Orient.”
The Road to the Medal of Honor
Edward A. Carter was shipped to Europe in 1944, but with typical Army logic – or illogic – he was not sent to the best place for a man with his experience and talents. He was not assigned to one of the black combat units – few as those were in the racially segregated US military of the era – but to supply duties instead. However, racism had to make way, at least partially, to the dictates of necessity in December 1944, and thus allow Carter yet another opportunity to fight the bad guys in person.
The Wehrmacht launched a surprise strategic offensive on December 16th, 1944, that caught the Allies off guard. As the ensuing Battle of the Bulge raged and the Army desperately fought to contain the Germans, it ran short of replacement combat troops. So General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe, instituted the Ground Force Replacement Command. In a break from precedent, it accepted volunteers from the rear echelons regardless of race. Staff Sergeant Carter jumped at the chance to have a go at the Nazis and immediately volunteered for combat duty.
There was a hiccup, however. The ad hoc units cobbled up by the Ground Force Replacement Command might have been racially integrated. However, they were racially integrated on the basis that no black soldiers could command white ones. In order to join, Carter had to accept a demotion from staff sergeant to private. Carter thought that having a go at the Nazis was worth it, so he accepted. It set him on the path to receiving the country’s highest award for valor. He was assigned to the 1st Infantry Company Provisional, 7th Army (Negro Company). Man and moment met on March 23rd, 1945. As his medal citation read:
Carter was hospitalized for a month, restored to his previous rank of staff sergeant, and spent the rest of the war training troops. He wanted to serve his country as a career soldier, so he put in his reenlistment papers in 1949. By then, however, the US was gripped by anticommunist hysteria. His background in China, which had recently fallen to the communists, and in the Spanish Civil War, where he had fought in the leftist Abraham Lincoln Brigade, was problematic. Carter’s reenlistment was rejected, and he was discharged from the US Army.
He resumed civilian life, worked in the tire business, and became a dedicated family man. In 1962, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Doctors attributed it to shrapnel still in his neck from his wartime injury. It killed him the following year. Carter’s wartime heroics had earned him a recommendation for a Medal of Honor, but because of racism, it was downgraded to a Distinguished Service. That injustice was finally corrected in 1997 when Carter was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor that his actions had earned him during WWII.
Some Sources and Further Reading
California Center for Military History – “Staff Sergeant Edward A. Carter, Medal of Honor Recipient”
Carter, Allene G., and Allen, Robert L. – Honoring Sergeant Carter: Redeeming a Black World War II Hero’s Legacy (2003)
US Army Online – “Medal of Honor: African American Hero Recognized Decades After Brave Act”
War History Online – Fought Japanese in China When 15, Then Franco in Spain, and in WWII Europe Killed 6 Germans and Took 2 POW
Weebly – Edward Allen Carter II
Wikipedia – Edward A. Carter, Jr.