Legion of Merit Part of a Life's Work

Intern Brynn Hoffman works with the Elmer Gibson Collection in the State Archives

Brynn Hoffman has a summer of surprises in store for her. She is learning the inspiring story of Rev. Elmer P. Gibson, an African American chaplain during World War II and the Korean War, through the study of his papers and war documents. Hoffman is a graduate student in the Public History program at North Carolina State University and is interning with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources in the Office of Archives and History in Raleigh.  She will be blogging about what she learns about him, and what it’s like to be an archivist working with the Military Archives.

My latest find in working the Elmer P. Gibson collection concerns the correspondence regarding his Legion of Merit Award in 1945. It delighted me, and it is wonderful to know that I have to opportunity to work with the papers of such an incredible man.

A Legion of Merit medalI get more excited each time I sit down with his collection because I feel like I am getting the opportunity to know a man who still has so much to teach us. He worked hard and always seemed to go above and beyond his assigned duties and made himself useful wherever possible.Rev. Gibson felt that it was his duty to serve all people, not just certain groups, and that is a lesson still worth learning today. 

The Legion of Merit Award, first awarded in 1942, is very prestigious and usually awarded to members of the armed services that display exceptionally meritorious conduct in their roles and go above and beyond in the performance of their daily duties and achievements.

Gibson was awarded the Legion of Merit for his service between January 25, 1944 and October 17, 1945. During this time, he was Regimental Chaplain of the 364th Infantry Regiment stationed in the Aleutian Islands. He mentions in a biographical note he wrote that, at the time he was awarded the Legion of Merit Award he was one of only two living African-American chaplains to receive the decoration.

From what can be found in Gibson's collection, Gibson was recommended for the award by several of his peers and superiors, highlighting the fact that he must have been a truly deserving recipient. Chaplain William E. Austill, one of Gibson's peers wrote of him in a letter of recommendation: 

He has constantly maintained a high quality of work, in spite of the fact that there were no promotions available for him in his Regiment nor in the Department. He had the best interests of the men of his Regiment in mind at all times. He sent pictures of them to home-town papers, whenever the men were given recognition in any event…I felt it my duty to call his superior achievements to your attention. If there would have been any opportunity whatsoever, we would have promoted him to the rank of Major, but he suffered the same fate as several others in the Department who had been in grade a long time, but for whom there were no openings.

Rev. Gibson was also praised by many for performing services not only for the black troops for which he was assigned, but also offering religious services for the white troops as well. He believed strongly in bringing white and black men together as often as possible in order to teach each group tolerance for the other.

From the letters that I have found in his collection, his peers found this to be an especially praiseworthy quality.

Thanks to Rusty Edmister whose genorosity is making this project possible.

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