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Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Buffalo Soldiers

The term “buffalo soldiers” dates to post-Civil War conflicts with Indians who granted the honorific to an all-black cavalry outfit. Buffalo soldier units served in the Spanish-American War, World War I, and the Italian campaign of World War II, when elements of the 92nd Division were among a handful of black units in that war to serve in combat. The road to Italy passed through various posts in the segregated South and Ft. Huachuca, an isolated Arizona outpost where the 92nd assembled for the final push. As featured in the novel and film Miracle at St. Anna, the 92nd distinguished themselves on the battlefield, disproving skeptics and earning an honored chapter in the history of World War II. Two years after the war ended, President Truman signed an order to desegregate the U.S. Armed Forces, closing the book on the buffalo soldiers.
In The New York Times, columnist Charles Blow notes that the Captain America movie falsely depicts an integrated army in the Second World War. he recounts his grandfather's heroism as a Buffalo Soldier, and observes:
As the 1997 study “The Exclusion of Black Soldiers from the Medal of Honor in World War II” pointed out, by mid-1947 the U.S. Army had awarded 4,750 Distinguished Service Crosses and only eight, less than 0.2 percent, had gone to black soldiers and not a single black soldier had been recommended for a Medal of Honor. (Roughly 1.2 million blacks served in World War II and about 50,000 were engaged in combat.) Until 1997, World War II was the only American war in which no black soldiers had received a Medal of Honor. President Bill Clinton changed that that year by awarding Medals of Honor to seven of the men who had been awarded the Distinguished Service Crosses, the only ones whose cases were reviewed for the upgrade. Just one of them, Joseph Vernon Baker, a lieutenant in my grandfather’s regiment, was alive to receive it.

Even when this news of the Buffalo Soldiers was making headlines in the ’90s, my grandfather never said a word. There’s no way to know why. Maybe it was the pain of risking his life abroad for a freedom that he couldn’t fully enjoy at home. Maybe it was the misery of languishing in a military hospital for many months and being discharged with a limp that would follow him to the grave. Or maybe it was simply the act of a brave soldier living out the motto of his division: “Deeds Not Words.”