He is disabled by pancreatic and prostatic cancer, is $40,000 in debt for a 9-foot memorial and has endured 37 years of frustration and ridicule for it.
Never mind all that.
“I’m almost like Lou Gehrig,” Wilson Smith said Wednesday. “I think I’m the luckiest man in the country.”
Since he first was inspired by his high school English teacher, Smith has dreamed of an African-American Medal of Honor Memorial.
A replica of the memorial was unveiled Wednesday as part of the new African-American Military Heroes corridor at the Pentagon.
“I’m just happy that these guys finally are going to get some recognition - 86 men who died for a country that despised them for their color,” said Smith, a former Delaware longshoreman. “It wasn’t easy for them to put their lives on the line.”
It took a war of his own to make this memorial happen. Smith was inspired by his teacher in the early 1950s. She led a Civil War field trip to Virginia and he asked questions about the lack of monuments to blacks.
“At that time, I didn’t know there were any black heroes,” recalled Smith, 58, and still living in Wilmington, Del. “They weren’t teaching it. She said, ‘Why don’t you do some research and give me a report?’
“When I read the William H. Carney story, I said, ‘I’m going to put together a memorial.”’
Carney, a flag-bearer for the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry, was the first black to receive the Medal of Honor - for his deeds during an assault on Fort Wagner, S.C. Popular culture memorialized the battle in the movie, “Glory.”
Smith’s vision was a monument with the names of all the black Medal of Honor recipients since the honor was created during the Civil War. Finding the names was difficult because no listing distinguished recipients by race.
His efforts frequently were interrupted. But tours in the Army and National Guard, including service in Vietnam with the Special Forces, paid off. His platoon sergeant was able to pick out many of the black recipients from the official list.
Smith received help from a variety of other sources and finally discovered the Congressional Medal of Honor Society in the 1980s. He still had to dig to pull together the memorial.
A chemical company donated the material for the monument, and a trophy shop made the plaques on credit. A New Jersey cabinet maker put it all together.
Most people expressed their doubts about Smith’s project. “What’s so strange about it, for many years I couldn’t get black veterans organizations to help me out,” Smith said.
The Wilmington United Auto Workers local pitched in, as did the Vietnam Veterans Association, and Smith’s American Legion Post. The national VFW office recently donated $5,000 so Smith could have plaques made for the replica. Meanwhile, Smith still owes $40,000 of the $65,000 he’s invested.
“A lot of people have been good to me,” he said of his creditors. Smith first dreamed of having eight statutes on the top of the memorial, one portraying a black soldier from each of the major conflicts for which they have received the Medal of Honor.
That was too many statues for the monument. Two would have to suffice. He chose Carney, his Civil War hero, and Milton L. Olive III. Olive dove on a grenade in October 1965, sacrificing himself to save four fellow soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam. He was the first black Vietnam veteran to receive the Medal of Honor.
Sculptor Charles Parks agreed to do the statues, and has yet to be paid. Smith first attempted to get Congress to agree to put the memorial in the Capitol rotunda, and was rebuffed.
Then he turned to the Pentagon, which said no several times. That changed with the momentum to bestow the Medal of Honor on seven black World War II veterans, including Vernon Baker, of St. Maries, Idaho.
But by the time the Pentagon decided it wanted the memorial, Smith had given it to Morgan State University in Baltimore.
A replica was created. Despite the long fight, Smith is not bitter.
“I feel good about it, but I’ll be glad when it’s over,” he said. “If anybody deserves a Medal of Honor, it’s my wife, Nettie. She’s put up with it for 27 years.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo