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World War II veteran calls honorable discharge from Army to correct an ‘injustice’ nearly 75 years later ‘a miracle’

Emblem of the United States Department of the Army (Dept. of the Army)

World War II veteran Nelson Henry, Jr. never thought he would see the day the Army would correct his discharge nearly 75 years after he was forced to leave the military because of the color of his skin.

Henry, 95, of Philadelphia, received word Monday from the Army Correction Of Military Records office that his discriminatory “blue discharge” from 1945 because he was black has been changed to honorable. He called the unanimous decision by a three-member board a miracle.

“It’s unbelievable. I’m still wondering if it’s a dream,” Henry said in an interview Tuesday in his Logan Square apartment. “I had my doubts, believe me.”

Between 1941 and 1945, more than 48,000 soldiers were given “blue discharges.” Of those, a disproportionate were black, gay or lesbian service members. Printed on blue paper, the discharge was a red flag to potential employers who refused to hire soldiers without an honorable discharge.

Nelson Henry’s lawyers filed an appeal in March seeking to my to upgrade his discharge. Due to his age, the Army agreed to expedite its review, a process that typically takes at least 18 months. Henry tried unsuccessfully in the 1940s to have his discharge changed and then stopped trying until recently.

In a 20-page decision, the Army reviewed hundreds of documents, including a story that appeared in The Inquirer last month about Nelson’s appeal and concluded that Henry should receive a DD Form 214, a discharge from active duty “showing his character of service as honorable.”

“He served his country with honor and is entitled to have this injustice corrected during his life by upgrading his discharge to honorable,” the Army said in a letter. “The Board discussed that there was evidence that an injustice occurred.”

In its findings, the Army Board largely agreed with the arguments and factual account made by Henry’s lawyers in their appeal. It noted that his case “represents the thousands of disenfranchised veterans who were unable to avail themselves of the rewards that should have followed their years in the military.”

In 1942, Henry had enlisted in the Army while attending Lincoln University. The junior pre-dental major decided to follow in the footsteps of classmates who were heading off to serve the country. He began active duty in 1943 at Camp Lee, Va., and later was sent to Camp Crowder, Mo. He was assigned to segregated units, where black soldiers endured the sting of racism.

A college football knee injury aggravated in the Army kept Henry from shipping out with his unit. Henry was transferred from the Army Specialized Training Program, which was created to meet the wartime demands for junior officers and soldiers with technical skills. He never had the chance to become an officer.

Henry landed in the stockade for 30 days for several minor infractions that his lawyers contend were unsubstantiated — letting a fire burn out, ignoring a command and stealing a baseball glove. The Army Board said it found no evidence of misconduct and that Henry had been targeted by his superiors and “that there may have been an environment of racial discrimination” that led to his eviction from the Army.

Fearing that things would only get worse, Henry reluctantly accepted a blue discharge, an administrative separation that avoided a court martial but also the right to an attorney or to hear evidence against him. He vowed to appeal and did several times.

The “blue discharge,” neither honorable nor dishonorable, denied veterans benefits such as the right to have an honor guard at their funeral or be buried in a military cemetery. The Board that reviewed Henry’s case said the discharge was treated as dishonorable.

On Oct. 17, 1945, Pvt. Nelson Henry was released from the military, ending a once-promising career and his dreams of becoming a dentist. He returned home to Philadelphia, where he raised three children with his wife, Lydia.

The Army never lived up to its offer to pay for him to attend Howard University Dental School, where he had been granted conditional acceptance. His GI benefits were cut off after three years, so he attended Temple University for 13 years, earning a bachelor’s degree, drove a taxi for years and later worked for the Pennsylvania state employment office.

Henry rarely talked about his military experience, but never forget. He kept bins of Army records, refusing to toss them when the family moved. He was hesitant about filing another appeal.

“I was reluctant because I had been burnt so many times,” Henry said. “I’ve had it on my shoulders all these years.”

A breakthrough on his discharge came when his son, Dean, saw a segment on NBC about Helen Grace James, a lesbian woman who was kicked out of the Air Force in 1955 because of her sexuality, and whose discharge was upgraded in 2018. Legal Aid at Work in San Francisco handled her appeal and agreed to take Henry’s case. Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey also appealed on his behalf.

Dean Henry, 66, of Berwyn, broke the news to his father Monday that the Army had ruled in his favor. With his wife, Karen, he prayed over the packet before opening it.

“Talk about praising God,” Dean Henry said. “I was shocked.”

Nelson Henry has one regret, that his wife of 71 years died before the Army cleared his name.

“To me it was a miracle. I don’t know how many more days I have left, but I may not ever get over it. It’s a great feeling,” Henry said.


© 2019 The Philadelphia Inquirer

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.