Although he was an infantry staff sergeant, Edward Carter had hitched a ride on a tank as American troops fought the Nazis in Germany on March 23, 1945. But then the armored vehicle was hit by enemy fire. Carter’s bravery in the seconds that followed still has the capacity to amaze more than 70 years later.
Edward Allen Carter Jr. was born in May 1916 in Los Angeles, California. Carter’s father was an African American while his mother was from the Indian city of Calcutta. Both of his parents were missionaries and Carter spent much of his childhood in India and later in the Chinese city of Shanghai.
In Shanghai, the young Carter had the benefit of a military education. A talented linguist, he could speak his mother’s native Hindi as well as Mandarin Chinese and German. Then in 1932, Japan’s bombing of Shanghai had a profound effect on the teenager.
Despite being still only 15, Carter’s furious response to the attack was to run away from home and join the Chinese Nationalist Army. Lying about his age, he quickly rose through the ranks to become a lieutenant.
But, belatedly, the Chinese military found out that Carter, by now 16, was underage. They despatched the young man home to Shanghai. This early incident in Carter’s life gives a flavor of his fearless courage. It was an exceptional character trait that was to stand him in good stead in the years to come.
Conditions in Shanghai had become increasingly threatening, and Carter now returned to the U.S. with his parents. Yet he had not lost his thirst for adventure. First he tried to join the army, but his application was rejected. However, he wasn’t about to let that stop him from tasting military action.
In 1936, he traveled to Spain and teamed up with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to take part in the Spanish Civil War. This was a volunteer unit fighting with the Republican government forces against the fascist rebels led by Spain’s future dictator, General Francisco Franco.
Carter fought the fascists with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade as a corporal. But by 1938 Franco’s forces, with the support of another European fascist, Adolf Hitler, were on the brink of victory. Carter and the surviving fellow members of his unit had little option but to flee to France.
From France, Carter made his way back to the States. Although the soldier did not know it, the time he spent in Spain fighting the fascists was later to count against him in his career. Back in his home country, Carter fell in love; wasting little time, he tied the knot with new sweetheart Mildred in Los Angeles in 1940.
Then in September 1941, just weeks before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor drew America into WWII, Carter finally joined the U.S. Army. Previous combat experience in China and Spain gave him a head start on his fellow recruits, and he was soon promoted to staff sergeant.
Carter was posted to the European theater of war in 1944, but despite his previous combat experience, he was given an administrative job organizing supplies. Among the possible explanations for this are that as an African American, Carter may have been the victim of racist discrimination – back then, an all-too-common occurrence.
Certainly Carter’s experiences in the U.S. when he had joined up lent credence to this explanation. He had seen for himself the prejudice and even physical abuse meted out to African Americans during training at Fort Benning in Georgia. And those who had resisted had in many cases been dishonorably discharged. Carter himself, despite his rank of sergeant, had been forced to accept the position of cook.
But there is another possible explanation for Carter’s treatment in the army, in its way even more sinister. Not long after he’d joined the army, an intelligence file on him had been opened. His time fighting fascists in Spain was coming back to haunt him.
One entry in Carter’s file said that because he had been attached to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade it was “advisable” that he should be watched carefully. “While not necessarily communist,” the report continued, he had been “exposed to communism.” His time in China and his ability to speak Mandarin were also regarded as suspicious. Henceforth, each of Carter’s commanding officers was instructed to keep a close eye on him.
But Carter knew nothing of this and once in Europe he forsook his rank in order to join a combat unit as a volunteer. Now in the 56th Armored Infantry Battalion of the 12th Armored Division, his commanding officer, Captain Floyd Vanderhoff, quickly spotted Carter’s martial talents and promoted him back to sergeant.
And Carter’s qualities were recognized by a much more senior officer – General George S. Patton, who appointed him as one of his bodyguards. So, at last, Carter was able to get into combat in WWII, which brings us back to that March day in 1945 when we first met him, hitching a ride across a battlefield on a tank.
A round from a panzerfaust, the German equivalent of a bazooka, hit the tank, stopping it in its tracks. Unscathed, Carter and three buddies jumped from the stricken vehicle. Another round might come in at any moment and the four were dangerously exposed in an open field. They ran for cover.
As they made a beeline for shelter, two of the men were hit and killed, and a third was badly wounded. Now on his own and despite being shot five times, Carter made it to cover, but he was far from out of danger. Eight Nazis now charged towards him. Despite his injured state, Carter shot six of them dead and took the other two captive. Using his prisoners as human shields, he managed to rejoin his unit. The two Germans, it turned out, had crucial information about enemy troop placements.
For this singular act of bravery, Carter was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Carter made a remarkably quick recovery from his wounds and spent the rest of the war as an instructor. But astonishingly, when he tried to re-enlist when his time was up after the war in 1949, he was refused. The army still had delusions this brave soldier might be a communist.
Sadly, Carter died of lung cancer at the age of just 47 in 1963. That meant that he never knew about the 1992 enquiry into why no African-Americans had won the highest bravery award during WWII. In 1997, Sergeant Carter and six other African-Americans were belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor. Posthumously, this exceptional man finally received the recognition his valor deserved.