J. Cameron Wade, World War II veteran and activist for forgotten black soldiers, dies at 87

J. Cameron Wade, who was among the first African American soldiers to integrate Army combat units during World War II, died Jan. 18 at the Kensington Park assisted living facility in Kensington. He was 87.

He had dementia, his daughter Lisa Wade said. His family announced his death only recently.

(Courtesy of family members) - J. Cameron Wade

Mr. Wade, who had been an Army truck driver before being called to the front lines, was part of a little-known cadre of 2,221 black soldiers who fought alongside their white counterparts in the final months of World War II.

Afterward, he and many of the African American soldiers discovered that their wartime service had gone unrecognized by Army authorities. Mr. Wade formed the Association of the 2221 Negro Volunteers, World War II, and launched a lobbying effort aimed at military and political leaders to restore the benefits, ranks and medals that black troops had been denied.

Mr. Wade was an exceptionally determined man. In search of a better life, he hopped a freight train headed north out of Mississippi when he was only 11. He later became a successful businessman and financial adviser who counted such sports and entertainment stars as Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Berry Gordy among his clients.

He was a teenager when he was drafted into the Army in 1943. In basic training, he won awards for marksmanship, yet he was assigned a job as a truck driver. A similar fate awaited many other black troops, who were often relegated to supporting roles in supply, transportation or food-
service units.

Mr. Wade became a sergeant in the “Red Ball Express,” a renowned and heavily African American unit in the Army Transportation Corps that supplied Gen. George S. Patton’s troops in Europe.

But after U.S. infantry forces were depleted by heavy casualties during the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander, signed an order allowing volunteers from black service units to join white soldiers on the front lines.

The volunteers served in all-black platoons, with many of them, including Mr. Wade, accepting demotions so as not to outrank white soldiers. Otherwise, they fought as equals.

“I was a member of the first platoon to integrate the infantry, which had been a sacred cow for whites only,” Mr. Wade told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1995. “The results were amazing. We ate together, slept together, fought together. There were no incidents. The Army couldn’t believe it.”

The black infantrymen “rated extremely high” in battle, said David P. Colley, author of “Blood for Dignity: The Story of the First Integrated Combat Unit in the U.S. Army.” “These guys were essentially the first [black soldiers] to be integrated into units in the Army since the American Revolution.”

Mr. Wade, a member of the 99th Infantry Division, was among the first U.S. troops to cross the Rhine at Remagen, Germany, in March 1945. Not long afterward, he was leading a squad of 12 soldiers when they were hit by a shell from a German tank. Six men under his command were killed, and Mr. Wade was evacuated to a hospital in England with shrapnel in his lungs, shoulder, arm and eyelid.

An Army officer strode through the hospital, awarding Purple Hearts to wounded troops.

“He went to each bed, shook the soldier’s hand, made a speech and presented the medal,” Mr. Wade recalled to the Dallas Morning News in 1998. “When he reached my bed, he took a medal from the cart and threw it on my bed without saying a word to me.”

Once the war was over, Mr. Wade and other black troops were shipped back to their original units, without having their previous, higher ranks restored. In most cases, their combat experience was omitted from their Army records.

Mr. Wade was born July 28, 1924, in Kinloch, Mo. He had no name at birth, just the initials “J.C.” He later adopted Cameron as a middle name.

He spent several years with an aunt in Columbus, Miss., before jumping aboard a train bound for St. Louis. With both of his parents dead, he lived with relatives.

“I did not have a home or a family,” he said in 1998. “I survived on whatever food my pennies would buy. In the Army, I had my rest, exercise, money in my pocket, and I got three squares a day.”

After his wartime service, Mr. Wade graduated in 1951 from Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., with a degree in accounting. He was an investigator for the Internal Revenue Service before becoming business manager for Johnson Publishing, the Chicago-based publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines.

He started a financial consulting business in Chicago in 1966 and moved to Reston in 1970. He had interests in real estate and insurance and later formed ­SEDAW Management, a contracting company that operated military dining facilities throughout the country. He retired in 1989 and lived in California and Texas before returning to the Washington area several years ago.

His marriage to Eugenia Wilson Wade ended in divorce. Their daughter Deborah Templeton died in 1991.

Survivors include three children, Jay Wade of the Bronx, N.Y., and Lisa Wade and Byron Wade, both of Washington; and three grandchildren.

In 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order prohibiting segregation in the armed forces. But the story of the 2,221 African American volunteers of World War II was all but lost until Mr. Wade made it his mission to keep it alive.

He took his concerns to the Army Board for Correction of Military Records and gained the support of Gen. Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and influential members of Congress. President Bill Clinton presided over a ceremony honoring many of the volunteers and other black veterans in 1994, but Mr. Wade still wasn’t finished.

Eventually, at a Pentagon ceremony in 1998, Mr. Wade and hundreds of other members of the 2,221 volunteers received Bronze Star Medals and had their old ranks restored.

Meanwhile, the Army had conducted a study to determine why not one of the more than 400 Medals of Honor awarded to World War II veterans had gone to a black soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.

Mr. Wade was present at the White House on Jan. 13, 1997, when Clinton conferred seven Medals of Honor — six of them posthumously — on African American soldiers whose wartime valor had been overlooked for more than 50 years.

“They were prepared to sacrifice everything for freedom,” Clinton said, “even though freedom’s fullness was denied to them.”