WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Last week, 72 years and seven months after his death, Cpl. Freddie Stowers of the 371st Infantry finally got the Medal of Honor he had won for gallantry in France in World War I. It took so long because Stowers was black.
He is not alone, in being black and a hero. But until the past generation, the U.S. armed forces were reluctant to acknowledge that those traits ever coincided. There is no way to know just how many black Americans deserve recognition for doing more than their duty in wars from the Revolution through Korea.
Today, some officials remain skittish about conceding past prejudice. They fear that publicity could stir a flurry of ''affirmative action'' efforts to award overdue medals or upgrade lower-ranking medals already given to black soldiers. Necessary details of battles fought long ago are hard to establish.
But it is no secret that even while hundreds of thousands of black Americans were being drafted during the World Wars and Korea, official bigotry kept most of them out of combat situations. It often blocked honors for those who distinguished themselves although assigned to segregated units whose morale and fighting reputations were low.
This was true in 1918, when Corporal Stowers led his squad of the all-black 371st against a German machine-gun position. His company was cut up, but Stowers urged his men on until he was killed. Many soldiers have won high medals by dying heroically for their country, and Stowers' commanding officer recommended him for the Medal of Honor. But until last week, he got no medal at all.
That attitude prevailed in high military ranks even after Harry Truman ordered desegregation of the armed forces in 1948. Often the lingering prejudice of one ranking officer could prevent honors to blacks, against the wishes of higher commanders and the president himself. That happened in Korea.
The most notoriously prejudiced general there was X Corps commander Edward M. ''Ned'' Almond, who had graduated from Virginia Military Institute more than 35 years earlier. Against his wishes, Almond had been assigned to command the 92nd Infantry Division, all black except for most of its higher officers, in Italy in World War II. The division was broken up after failing to carry out its mission.
Almond felt that his career had been slowed by that failure, and never forgot his resentment. He and others like him upheld the old Army notion that ''Negroes won't fight.'' In an oral-history interview, speaking for the historical record, Almond said, ''The Negro is a useful individual . . . but to expect him to exercise characteristics that are abnormal to his race is too much. . . . The general tendency of the Negro soldier is to avoid as much effort as possible.''
In the first month of the Korean war, a black Army engineer and ex-fighter pilot, Charles M. Bussey, rounded up an impromptu force to wipe out an enemy flank attack on the 25th Division. He set up and operated two machine guns, hanging on after being twice wounded. The division commander congratulated him and awarded him the Silver Star on the spot, saying that medal was just a ''down payment'' on what Bussey deserved. Although his comrades interviewed eyewitnesses and a recommendation for the Medal of Honor was sent upward, it never got past Almond's headquarters.
Later, a black 2nd Division company commander, Forrest Walker, led a classic bayonet attack that drove the enemy off a hill at Wonju. Gen. Matthew Ridgway ordered that he be awarded a Silver Star, the services' third-ranking medal for valor. But when corps commander Almond heard of this he halted the award -- and ordered Walker transferred to an all-black unit.
Clay Blair, who relates such incidents in his authoritative, 1,136-page book on ''The Forgotten War,'' says this happened simply because Almond was ''a devout anti-black bigot.'' So were many others in key places. Though Ridgway asked Washington to desegregate all-black units, and was supported by higher Pentagon brass right up to Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall, Truman's long-standing order was carried out slowly and cautiously.
Against this background, the combat record of black soldiers in Vietnam and the presence of a Colin Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are all the more remarkable. From recruit to four-star general, the armed services today are the most thoroughly integrated, color-blind meritocracy in the nation. Not enough Americans remember to thank men like Freddie Stowers, Charles Bussey and Forrest Walker -- the unthanked soldiers who led the way.