World War II veteran Nelson A. Henry Jr., of Philadelphia, who battled for racial justice for nearly 75 years after the Army kicked him out because of the color of his skin, was laid to rest Thursday with military honors.
Henry died in May 2020 after complications from the coronavirus. He was 96. His burial was delayed because of restrictions on gathering. His family was determined to give him the military service he so desperately wanted. His remains were interred at Washington Crossing National Cemetery along with those of his wife of 71 years, Lydia, who died in 2016.
As the family sat under a pavilion Thursday, an honor guard fired a 21-gun salute, played Taps, the mournful bugle call, saluted, and then marched away solemnly.
After folding an American flag, a serviceman presented it to the family, saying, “On behalf of the president of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.” The family also received three brass casings from the rifle volleys, representing the words duty, honor, and country, and a memorial certificate signed by President Joe Biden.
Henry began trying to clear his name shortly after he was evicted from the Army in 1945 and given “blue discharge,” which was neither honorable nor dishonorable but was considered a badge of shame. He was among more than 48,000 soldiers given such between 1941 and 1945, a disproportionate number of whom were Black, gay, or lesbian.
After several failed appeals in the 1940s, Henry stopped trying until 2019. Lawyers with the Golden Gate University School of Law Veterans Legal Advocacy Clinic and Legal Aid at Work filed an expedited appeal because Henry was 95.
An Army review board found an injustice had occurred and changed Henry’s “blue discharge” to honorable, entitling him to full military benefits, including burial at a national cemetery.
During Thursday’s service in Newtown, about a dozen mourners recalled his decades-long fight to overturn his discharge. His three children, Dean, Kent, and Lydia, offered remembrances and a grandson said a prayer.
“We admire the tenacity, the perseverance, and the stick-to-it-ness displayed, fighting against all odds,” said Bill Smith, a member of the Philadelphia chapter of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity veterans group, of which Henry was a member. “He made history.”
Lincoln University will posthumously award Henry an honorary degree at commencement Friday. He was supposed to graduate with the Class of 1944 but left to join the Army. He later graduated from Temple University.