Private First Class Willy F. James Jr. finally got his hero’s welcome home. 

A wreath in his honor was placed Friday at the Black Veteran’s Memorial at 12th & Paseo. A chaplain led a prayer before a 21-gun salute and a trumpeter played taps. Then, a horseback colorguard led a memorial procession of marching bands, fire fighters, veterans, and Buffalo Soldiers on motorcycles down Paseo to the Black Archives on 18th street.  

All for PFC Willy James who is one of only seven Black WWII vets to receive the Medal of Honor, the US military’s highest decoration, and the only one from Kansas City.

“This is a historic event,” said onlooker Brian Wilson, “It’s something I wouldn’t want to miss.  [It’s] long overdue.” 

Commanding General’s Mounted Color Guard leads a memorial procession for PFC James
Commanding General’s Mounted Color Guard leads a memorial procession for PFC James

James was recognized for his bravery in capturing or killing 40 Nazi SS troops. James died in combat in April 1945, from sniper fire, while attempting to save his commanding officer. Due to bias and discrimination, It took until 1996 for him to be honored as a Medal of Honor recipient.  

James’ only surviving family are nieces who donated his Medal of Honor to the Black Archives of Mid-America for display. There are no known photographs of PFC James, and for a time, it looked as though his story could have been lost to history.

“[In the past] He was seen as Black and therefore not worthy,” said Lt. General Milford H. Beagle Jr. “But there’s no caveat with a Medal of Honor, he’s not a ‘Black’ Medal of Honor recipient, he’s a Medal of Honor recipient who will always be remembered as a hero.” 

In 1996, the U.S. government recognized seven Black WWII Veterans, including PFC James, had been unjustly denied the Medal of Honor. In response in 1997, President Bill Clinton presented Valcenie James with her husband’s Medal of Honor. 

It had taken more than 50 years, but PFC James finally received recognition for his bravery. Generations to come can see his Medal of Honor on prominent display at the Black Archives of Mid-America located at 1722 E. 17th Terrace in Kansas City, MO.

PFC James Backstory

Willy F. James Jr., was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on March 18, 1920, and grew up there as the only child of a widowed mother. He was drafted into the Army in September 1942, just before his marriage to his wife, Valcenie, and was recognized for his marksmanship and leadership during his training.

On April 7, 1945, James’s unit crossed the Weser River near Lippoldsberg, Germany. He was sent forward to scout the enemy position and made critical observations while pinned down by heavy fire for more than an hour. Despite the danger, James raced back to his company to report his observations. Undaunted, he volunteered to lead the attack on Lippoldsberg.

As the men advanced, they drew fire from every direction, and SS troops emerged from the windows and doorways of the town. Platoon leader Lieutenant A.J. Serabella was gravely wounded, and James raced to his aid, intending to pull him to safety. Before he could act, 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. He is buried in the Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten, where his grave and those of the other 8,300 Americans buried there are lovingly tended by the American Battle Monuments Commission, the Dutch people, and visitors who come year-round to pay their respects.

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