Being born to missionaries in the early 20th Century didn’t change Edward Allen Carter’s mission in life, once he knew what it was. Even though the American-born Carter spent his early years in India, it was in China that he first got a taste of that mission. Fighting the Japanese in Shanghai at just 15 years old gave him a taste of what true freedom meant — and who he needed to fight to preserve it.
He would spend the rest of his life doing just that.
World War II started a lot earlier for Nationalist China. In 1932, the Chinese were fighting Japanese invaders on the coast, in the streets of Eastern China. Unfortunately for the Japanese, fascist Spain, and Nazi Germany, just a few years prior, a family of American missionaries moved to China from India and their young son was ready for a fight.
He actually ran away from home to realize his martial dreams.
Edward Allen Carter was just 15 years old when he joined the Chinese Nationalist Army in their fight against the Japanese. Soon after the street fighting in Shanghai, the Japanese came in full force and Carter was determined to be a part of the force repelling them — no matter the cost.
He was just getting good at the action on the Chinese front when they discovered he was just a teenage boy. They kicked him out of the service. Fortunately for the scrappy young man, there was plenty of fascism to fight — and he soon found himself in Spain.
Japanese mortar companies open up on a building in Shanghai, 1932
(Imperial War Museum)
Fighters from around the world came to fight on either side of the Spanish Civil War, numbering 40,000 from 53 different nations. They came to Spain to defend the elected Republican government from the upstart fascists, led by Francisco Franco and supported by Nazi Germany. The American volunteers joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigades, comprised of some 2,800 volunteers from the United States.
Though he didn’t come from the U.S., Edward Carter was one of 90 African-Americans to join the Republican cause. He brought with him his experience in Chinese street fighting and soon became a fierce opponent to the fascists. And, at age 19, the Republicans couldn’t kick him out of the Army. But the fascists eventually turned the tide in the war and forced an end to the Lincoln Brigades.
Carter and his American battle buddies in Spain were forced to flee the country into France as Franco and the fascists took full control by 1938.
Some of the Lincoln Brigades fighters.
By this time, world war was looming on the horizon and everyone knew it. It was only a matter of time before Edward Allen Carter would be back on the lines against fascism somewhere. He went back to the United States and, in 1941, enlisted in the United States Army, finally wearing the uniform of his birth country.
With his extensive combat experience, it was clear that Carter was a leader of men. He was promoted to Staff Sergeant within a year. Unfortunately, his race trumped his combat experience and his Chinese language skills at the time. He was relegated to rear echelon duty for much of his time in the Army.
But as soon as General Dwight D. Eisenhower began allowing any rear duty troop to serve as a replacement combat soldier, Carter immediately volunteered. He even accepted a lower rank – private – to make the switch. He was ready to get back into the fight.
In March, 1945, Carter was riding a tank when it was hit by an enemy anti-tank weapon by Nazi infantry. Carter and three others immediately responded in an all-out bum rush for the enemy ambush. The other three men were shot immediately, but Carter pressed on by himself, sustaining five wounds before finally finding cover.
As eight enemy soldiers moved in for the kill, Carter used his eight-round M1 Garand rifle to kill six of them. The other two wisely surrendered. Carter used them as human shields to rejoin the American lines. Those two soldiers were interrogated and divulged a trove of useful intel.
Carter was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions that day, but his fellow troops said his bravery and quick thinking deserved the Medal of Honor. Carter also received a Bronze Star, Purple Heart, American Defense Service Medal, Combat Infantry Badge, and other awards
He never saw that the Medal of Honor. By the time it came for him to re-enlist after the war, he was denied and given an honorable discharge. Anti-Communist paranoia was rampant in the U.S. by this time and even though it helped him fight later in World War II, fighting with the Soviet-backed Republican Army in Spain was too much for the U.S. Army to overlook.
The heroic Carter died of lung cancer in 1963 at the young age of 47. It was only in 1992 that Secretary of the Army John Shannon commissioned an independent study to identify unrecognized African-American heroes from World War II. Carter’s case was among the first to be reviewed.
In 1997, President Clinton awarded the posthumous Medal of Honor to Carter’s son, Edward Allen Carter III in Washington, D.C. Carter’s body was exhumed from his grave a reinterred with our nation’s heroes at Arlington National Cemetery.