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KC’s Forgotten Medal of Honor Recipient Family Seeks Local Recognition for Willy James

A niece holds up a sketch of Medal of Honor winner Willy F. James Jr.
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1 minute read

Margaret Pender first met her Uncle Willy when she opened a letter summoning her family to the White House. 

Pfc. Willy F. James Jr. was one of seven African American World War II veterans awarded the Medal of Honor by President Bill Clinton in 1997. James was killed at age 25 when he willingly gave his life to save his platoon leader from SS gunfire in Cologne, Germany, on April 8, 1945. 

Recognition of his valor was delayed by decades of discrimination, which made the moment bittesweet for his family. 

Willy F. James Jr.'s enlistment card.
Medal of Honor recipient Willy F. James Jr.’s enlistment card.

“I was just completely excited about (the Medal of Honor),” said Patricia Greene, another niece of James. “But the one thing that came to my mind was, ‘I wonder why it took so long.’”

The Medal of Honor sent the family on a hunt for information about their long lost relative, but they couldn’t so much as find a photograph of him. This was partially due to a massive fire in 1973 at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, but Pender also feels that it was due to discrimination.

“To me it’s like, if you don’t care about a person, you don’t care about keeping records on them,” Pender said. “To me it was like no one cared about him, and so it’s very emotional to think that we live in a society where some people are not given a second thought.”

When they returned from the White House, the family waited for acknowledgement from Kansas City, Missouri, James’ hometown. Now, more than two decades later, they’re taking matters into their own hands.

Watch the video above to learn more about James and the nonprofit organization hoping to bring him honor in Kansas City.

Catherine Hoffman covers community affairs and culture for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

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2 thoughts on “KC’s Forgotten Medal of Honor Recipient

  1. I appreciate the coverage on my great Uncle PFC Willy F. James but understand that Margaret Pender is not his blood niece. His Blood Nieces are Patricia Greene and Phyllis Edwards. Phyllis is my Mom. My mother and her children took care of PCF’s Widow, Valcene James in her latter years until she past away to glory. Not to expose decension in the ranks but the truth needs to be said. He left behind a great great granddaughter and a plethera of great great great grandchildren. The story needs to be told correctly. Margaret was just a point of contact. My Uncle Johnny Pender her husband was the one that held on to Uncle Willy’s artifacts. Thats it and thats all. When it comes down to it, Margaret is MARRIED into the family. We had not heard nor seen her in years after my Uncle Johnny passed away. All of a sudden she appeared when it was time for my Great Uncle to receive recognition. Where was everyone when his wife needed help, or toiletries, etc. you’d be better off mentioning Auntie Pat and Phyllis and leaving it at that.
    you can reply. no shame in my game.
    thank you for your time and attention.

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