Melvin Pender was a 25-year-old soldier headed to the 82nd Airborne Division when he first tied on some running shoes to race, but it quickly became clear that he would become a legend in the sport. He was fast. So fast, in fact, that the Army would twice recall him from active duty to train for the Olympics.
A helicopter deposits troops in the Mekong River Delta of Vietnam.
(U.S. Air Force)
The first recall came in 1964 for the Tokyo Olympics, where Pender placed sixth. After the games, he went to officer’s candidate school. A few years later, Pender was sent to the Mekong Delta of Vietnam as a platoon leader.
The fighting was fierce, with rounds tearing through the underbrush to crash into the bodies of American soldiers. One day was particularly bad for Pender and his men.
“You couldn’t see the enemy; they were shooting at us from the jungles,” Pender told his friend Keith Sims during an interview. “And, uh, I had one of my kids killed. This young man died in my arms.”
U.S. Army soldiers take a break during a patrol in Vietnam.
(Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. Collection, Texas Tech University)
Later that same day, Pender was told that he had to go home. The Army needed him to run in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, this time as part of a four-man relay team. Pender tried to stay, but was told it wasn’t optional.
“And I told my men, I says, ‘I’m going back for you. I’m going to win this gold medal for you guys,'” Pender told Sims.
But the 1968 Olympics were roiling with the same racial tensions that were consuming America as black athletes protested racial violence in the states.
When we got to Mexico, we start getting threats from the president of the Olympic Committee, saying if we demonstrated in the Olympics, ‘I’m going to send all you boys home.’
How are you, how are you going to call someone ‘boy’? I mean, here I just got out of combat, seeing people die defending my country, and you’re going to call me a boy? They don’t make boys like me.
While Pender opposed the restrictions that were being placed on black athletes at the games, he acceded to orders from a colonel to not take part in any protests.
He focused on the games and the promise he had made to his men to win a gold medal for them.
“To be on the relay team, it was my time to shine,” he said. “I ran my heart out. We ended up winning the race at a world record time of 38.2 seconds.
The world record in the event has been beat numerous times since, but only by fractions of a second each time. Pender’s team’s 38.2 second run is still less than two seconds from the current world record of 36.84 set by a Jamaican team (You can see the race on YouTube here).
Despite Pender keeping his head down at the games, he did end up tangentially connected to protests. His roommate was John Carlos, one of the athletes who famously gave the Black Power salute on the podium during the U.S. Anthem, something that the athletes and Pender maintain was about asserting black humanity, not disrespecting the anthem. Pender told Sims:
You know, when Carlos came back to the room, I could see the hurt in his eyes and he just said, ‘I did what I had to do, Mel.’ And that’s when I told him, I said, ‘I’m so proud of you.’
They was not trying to disgrace the national anthem of America. What was happening was wrong. They were trying to show the world. ‘Hey, we are human beings. We are human.’ That changed my life.
Carlos and another demonstrator were stripped of their medals. Pender, meanwhile, went back to Vietnam after the games and received a Bronze Medal for his service. He rose to the rank of captain and served as the first black track and field coach at West Point before retiring with 21 years of service in the military.
Pender lives in the Atlanta area with his wife and recently told the Atlanta Journal Constitution the he still believes America “is the greatest country in the world,” a sentiment he shares with during motivational talks at high schools and other venues.
Most of the quotes in this article came from a recent StoryCorps interview between Keith Sims and Dr. Melvin Pender. A two-minute excerpt from that interview is available here.