Black History Month: Mel Pender's incredible story of serving in Vietnam, winning Olympic gold in 1968 and fighting racial injustice
83-year-old Mel Pender joined the army at the age of 17 and served two tours of Vietnam; he was asked to leave combat to train for the 1968 Olympics where he won gold in the 4x100m relay; American talks about a rollercoaster life of racism, family, speaking up and achieving the "dream"
By Tejas Kotecha and Sam Obaseki
Last Updated: 26/10/21 11:46am
The 1968 Olympic champion and war veteran Mel Pender talks about his Olympics pain and glory, a 21-year career in the US Army which includes the Bronze Star for fighting in Vietnam, the importance of listening to family and the lifelong battle against racial injustice.
In an emotional interview, Pender reflects on his life which some friends say is "the greatest story that's never been told". He also reveals his inspirational message for young people in the UK for Black History Month.
"I'm a world record holder. I'm a gold medallist. I'm a two-time Vietnam veteran. I'm a Bronze Star - one of the highest medals you can get in combat," Pender tells Sky Sports News reporter Sam Obaseki.
The 1968 Olympic champion in the 4x100m relay had a rollercoaster life on and off the track. His Olympic story is one of redemption while the fight against racial injustice dominated his life.
At the age of 83, Pender talks about his experiences, anecdotes and insights. He is not afraid to talk about the ups and downs of an incredible life and still has strong opinions.
This is the story of Mel Pender…
'I helped to rebuild Stansted airstrip'
Probably the biggest influence in Pender's life was to enlist in the US Army at the age of 17. He left his friends and it was also a way to escape the discrimination as a young Black person in the South.
But the main reason was the best way to take care of his wife and young child.
Pender says: "I got married at 16. So as soon as I turned 17, I joined the military because that's the only way I could get a decent job to take care of them."
He says he "didn't want to be a labourer anymore", with those jobs the only realistic options available.
"So I joined the army and I went to England. I was stationed in Stansted.
"The United States Army sent engineers to rebuild all the airstrips that were bombed by the Germans during the Second World War. You had Lakenheath, Molesworth, Stansted, Brize Norton. I was at Stansted.
"You use Stansted now as a civilian airport, I understand. Well, Stansted - I helped build that airstrip. I was there 18 weeks."
Pender says he returned to the US and joined The Airborne to "make the extra money so I could feed my family. You were a paratrooper so it was 55 dollars extra a month."
'I tried track running while serving in Japan...'
Pender had no experience of track running until his mid-20s when he was serving with the Army in Japan. In 1960 he was sent to Okinawa as part of the 82nd Airborne Division.
Pender's route to the Olympics was unusual. He impressed while playing American football and says he was the quickest player.
Despite no experience, he got a chance to try track running. A coach asked him to participate in an athletics competition between the American military and Japanese athletes training for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.
Pender says: "I told my coach I don't know anything about running track. He said don't worry about it. He said just go down to the supply room. Pick up some equipment and I'll take you down."
The competition was in Nago in Okinawa. Pender has a strong memory of the event. "I think everybody on the island was there! It had to be at least five or ten thousand people.
"So he [the coach] said 'just watch what they do Mel, and whatever they do, you do.' He said watch how they exercise and how they get in the blocks. I said, I don't have no blocks! He said dig two holes! So I dug two holes in the ground.
"The gun went off. I said, oh hell, I better go now! So about 50 yards down the track, I guess I was behind by about five yards and I caught them. And I won my first track meet. I ran 11.2 seconds on a hundred metres on a grass track. So that's how I got started in track."
With his speed, he was offered scholarships by several big colleges who wanted him to focus on track running. But Pender turned them down because he "didn't think he was smart enough."
However, when a friend saw an advert that the Army was looking for runners to train for the 1964 Olympics, he was given dispensation to train for two hours a day while he was with the 82nd Airborne Division.
Pender made the Olympics in Tokyo and reached the 100m final. But he was injured.
Unfortunately for him, during some horseplay Pender was punched by a team-mate before the semi-final. He had actually torn muscles around his rib cage and reportedly needed a stretcher to carry him off the track after finishing the semi.
He ran the final against the advice of doctors and finished 6th. He assumed because of his age that would be his only Olympics experience. He was wrong.
'I was ordered to leave Vietnam for 1968 Olympics'
In an interview with NBC Sports Pender talked about the challenges of war and combat. As part of the 9th Infantry Division stationed in the Mekong Delta, trying to stop the enemy North Vietnam moving weapons, Pender says the experience was tough.
"All those rivers and rice paddies," he told NBC. "We were on boats and my men thought that was nice until they started to get shot at like sitting ducks out there."
Pender was there for five months before one of his cadets was killed. He died in Pender's arms.
On the same day, he was told the Army wanted him to leave to train for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City the following year. The orders had come from Washington and he did not really have a choice.
Pender told Sky Sports News: "I didn't want to leave my men. I was a platoon leader. I had 14 guys in my platoon, young guys from 18 to 22 years old. I was 28 and I didn't want to leave those young men.
"I had trained with those guys for six months at Fort Riley and they were just kids. Like my sons.
"The General said, 'Mel, you have to go back' (to the United States). So I went back to my men and I told them. I said, 'I'm sorry I have to leave. And I said, 'I'm going to win a gold medal for you'."
An emotional Pender adds: "I get a little choked up when I talk about that... because I lost a couple of men and young boys [in Vietnam]."
Winning Olympic gold in 1968
Pender says the US team was "the greatest Olympic team in the history of the Olympics." It included John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Lee Evans, Ralph Boston, Bob Beamon and Wyomia Tyus.
In 1968, he also reached the 100m final. But despite leading early in the race, he once again finished sixth. It was in the 4x100m relay that Pender and the US team set a world record of 38.24 seconds.
Running the second leg Pender, with Charlie Greene, Ronnie Ray Smith and Jim Hines, won the gold medal in the 4×100m relay at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
At the age of 30, he was finally an Olympic champion. The promise he had given to his comrades was accomplished.
Pender, now almost 84, says: "The Army Times newspaper had me rated as the best physical specimen in the United States Army because of my age making the Olympic team and winning a gold medal."
It was also his final Olympic race. Injury stopped him from qualifying for his third Olympics in 1972.
Why I didn't protest like John Carlos and Tommie Smith
The two athletes took off their shoes and wore black socks on the podium to highlight black poverty. Smith also had a black scarf to represent black pride, while Carlos had a necklace of beads to remember people who had been lynched.
They raised their fists in black gloves as the national anthem of the United States played to show their support and solidarity with Black people and racial injustice in the world.
Pender stayed with Carlos in 1968 as a roommate. He said: "John Carlos and Tommie Smith were the two guys that stood up to hate and discrimination in America and around the world." Pender has previously said he told Carlos he was proud of his protest when he returned to their shared accommodation.
He explains to Sky's Sam Obaseki why he did not protest.
"I was called in by my commander. He said, 'Mel, I understand the black athletes are prepared to demonstrate.' He said 'I understand you're part of it.' I said, 'I'm not part of anything.'
"I said because I'm an officer of the United States Army and I know better. And I said, but if I was not an officer of the United States Army, I would be right there with them. I would be part of the demonstration.
"But I know being an officer in the Army, I could go to jail and I don't want to go to jail because I have a family.
"I said, let me tell you something. Look at my skin. My skin is black. I said even in the military, we have discrimination. I said I grew up in the South. The reason I joined the Army was because I want to get away from that type of environment and I said in the Army, it's there too.
"And if I had not been in the military, I'd have been standing on that victory stand doing the same thing, doing the same gesture with my hand in the air just like them.
"People call it 'the Black Power Salute'. It Is not the Black Power Salute. We call it the silent gesture to let people know around the world that we are human beings."
Making history at West Point Military Academy
Pender served his last six years from 1970 to 1976 at West Point Military Academy where he broke barriers as the first black coach of track and field.
He says this ranks "very high" on his list of achievements.
"You have to be in the top 10 per cent of contemporaries in your rank in order to get to West Point. Most of them are teachers - they've got medicine and doctor's degrees.
"My job was assistant coach and the first black coach… most of the track team was black athletes." But Pender also came face to face with discrimination, which stopped him from getting the role of head coach.
"I applied for the head coaching job because the head coach passed away. So I became the interim coach."
But Pender then heard that senior officers had said at a dinner that "West Point is not ready for a head black coach".
"It hurt me really bad. I'm a world record holder. I'm a gold medallist. I'm a two-time Vietnam vet. I got the Bronze Star in Vietnam - one of the highest medals you can get in combat.
"And then I'm not good enough because of the colour of my skin to be the head coach?"
Pender describes an extraordinary meeting when the black Secretary of the Army called and criticised the Commandant for not considering Pender, saying "why are you doing that to this man?"
Later, at a lunch he was invited to, Pender said he made a speech which was so good it could have come from the "President of the United States".
He remembers the key moments. "I said: 'I want you all to know that I am very hurt in my heart. I grew up in the South when I couldn't ride on the front of a bus. I drink out of a water fountain because of the colour of my skin.'
"I'll go to a bathroom because of the colour of my skin. I said to them, 'Why do we have to have people with crooked minds?' I said we have people in the military with crooked minds because of people of colour.
"I said I have honoured my country in track and field with a gold medal. I've honoured my country with a Bronze Star and many other medals to the highest esteem. I said you know, God is on my side.
"I leave here with pain in my heart to leave my athletes, my students that I coached and trained to be the best they could be. I said they are my sons.
"You're not going to hurt me, you hurt them. You can tell... at this one track meet when they didn't perform at all, to protest at what you did to me.
"I said God speed, God bless and I say all you people in here with crooked minds should get on your knees and pray for forgiveness. And I walked the hell out."
The speech had an impact as the senior officers allowed Pender to stay in the accommodation at West Point as long as he wanted, until he got his degree.
He had travelled over 70 miles - sometimes in snow - several times a week to New York as he got a BA degree in Social Science in 1976 from Adelphi University. He fulfilled a promise made to his mother and grandparents that he would get a degree.
While at West Point, he had also turned professional and surprised many with his speed. At the age of 35, Pender got another world record when he ran 60 yards in 5.8 seconds. It was not his only world record in his sprinting career. He had set the world's best times in the 50 yards and 70 yards too.
'We helped build the White House...'
Pender returned home to Atlanta after graduating, where he had grown up and experienced racial discrimination.
What had been the biggest motivation to achieve so much in the Army and at the Olympics?
He says: "Thinking of my mother, my grandparents. The way we had to live. And right across the street, there was a white community. Well, we had no running water. We had a well where we had to get water and an outdoor toilet."
Recalling the past, and in tears, Pender says: "We have some of the greatest athletes in the world in America. We had a Black President in America.
“The theme of my life story is overcoming adversity.” - Mel Pender, retired @USArmy Captain and 1968 Olympic gold medalist.— USATF (@usatf) November 11, 2018
USATF thanks all military members for their tireless dedication and countless sacrifices to protect 🇺🇸. #VeteransDay #Celebrate68 pic.twitter.com/gL7266s0pr
"We had people that did great things, the Tuskegee Airmen that flew in the Second World War - the top pilots in the United States Army Air Force. We had people that defended this country. In Vietnam, we had young men who died for this country.
"The colour of our skin shouldn't matter. We helped build the White House. We fought in wars. We helped build America."
Life after the Army
Pender retired from the Army as a Captain in 1976 after a 21-year career which also included going to Officer Candidate School where he graduated top of his class.
He had earned the Bronze Star for his service in Vietnam which is awarded for heroic service, or meritorious service/achievement. Among many medals, he also received a Joint Service Commendation Medal and the Vietnam Service Medal.
In one of our most profound traditions, the entire student body was privileged to honor more than 120 military veterans in chapel! All #MPCSFamily in attendance were moved by the words of guest speaker and Vietnam veteran Dr. Mel Pender, US Army Captain, & Olympic Gold Medalist. pic.twitter.com/NeGv25by7w— MountParanChristianSchool (@mtparanschool) November 11, 2019
He went into business launching his own consultancy company and also ran a bottled water business in South Africa. He also held executive positions with the National Football League Players Association and the Atlanta Hawks basketball team.
In recent years, he promotes annual golf tournaments, auctions, and many special events to raise funds to provide scholarships for young men and women who want to get a college degree as he did.
He now holds an honorary doctorate from Adelphi University in New York which he was awarded 31 years after getting his degree.
In 2016, Pender co-authored an autobiography with his wife Rev. Debbie Pender called Expression Of Hope: The Mel Pender Story to inspire others. He hopes young people around the world will see that they can reach their ambitions if they work hard.
'I achieved my dreams'
Pender says he achieved his dreams through hard work and explains how he wanted to change his life from a young age.
"When I was younger, I always dreamed to live a different life. I used to be a caddie, I used to walk to the golf course from my house. I walked through these beautiful neighbourhoods, beautiful grass, beautiful cars, beautiful houses. I used to say to myself 'one day, I'm going to have this'.
"And I used to go to the magazine and I would cut out a beautiful house, a beautiful car, and I put it in the Army wall locker where I hung my clothes.
"And every time I opened that locker, I would see it. And I accomplished those dreams, I've had several beautiful homes, I live in a beautiful house now.
"I had to work for it and that college degree helped me. I'm not bragging, don't get me wrong, but I had to work in order to accomplish those goals.
"Those dreams did come true to a certain extent. But still, I'm black. And I'm treated different.
"I'm treated a little different because I'm 'the great Mel Pender.' People treat me different, they treat you differently if you do something great. I'm like a hero to some white people because I did what I did."
Pender's message for Black History Month
The coronavirus pandemic has affected Pender's plans to travel to London. He wanted to visit and travel through Europe with his wife, who previously spent three years working as a Minister in London. They plan to reorganise their trip if they can travel safely.
So, what would be his message to young people in the UK for Black History Month?
"First thing, to learn about your heritage. Learn about who you are, where your people came from. Learn about the suffering that they had to endure. Think about that," he says.
"And think about how it's important for you to do better. To shine as my grandfather said. Listen. Read, as my grandfather said. Read your history, learn your history, learn about your people. Then when you learn about your people, that should encourage you to do better.
"And as John Lewis (American civil rights leader and Democratic Congressman) said, 'speak up, speak out!'
"Always believe in yourself. I had to believe in myself in order to get that college degree to travel 70 miles to Long Island, New York, from West Point Military Academy.
"I had to believe in myself to be good in the military, to win the Bronze Star. You have to shine. You can't say give me... because nobody gives you. You've got to go out and you got to earn it.
"That's the word I give to young people in England and all around the world.
"Be you. Don't be a follower. Be a leader."