The Buffalo Soldiers of World War 2

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The Buffalo Soldiers of World War 2

Connecting Vets has an article today about the testimony of our Legislative Director yesterday before the House Veterans Affairs Committee:

Staff Sgt. Herman A. Day fought in the Italian campaign of World War II, assigned to the 92nd Infantry, “the colored division.” He was a Buffalo Soldier.

Reports at the time cited the division for poor combat performance, low morale and malingering. The division was considered of inferior quality by both German and U.S. commands, according to those reports. The 92nd Division’s commander advised the Army against ever again using African American soldiers as combat troops. 

But now, historians have taken a second look at the combat records of Day and the other members of his division, as concurrent reports of its honorable performance continue to surface, Melissa Bryant, national legislative director for the American Legion, former Army captain and Iraq combat veteran, told members of Congress Tuesday. 

Veterans of the division believe reports of poor performance were motivated by “racist sentiment present within senior officer ranks” and some still seek to suppress the truth of the division’s honorable conduct, Bryant said. 

Day was killed in action in Italy 75 years ago on Feb. 10, 1945, she said. He was her grandfather.

Of all the recipients of the Medal of Honor from World War II, three of them have stood out to me.  The first is our own treasured Department of West Virginia Legionnaire and MOH recipient Woody Williams, who despite his diminutive stature (he was imnitially denied enlistment because of his size) repeatedly charged the enemy with a flame thrower.  When I proposed to my (now) wife she said that  the only man she'd ever leave me for was Woody, and after meeting him several times now, I get it.  In fact, all the girls who worked at the USO in Dallas (where my wife volunteered) would fight over who was Woody's favorite.

The second was Walter Ehlers, a Staff Sergeant who led his troops through Normandy, and years later would spend the night drinking with me at a pub in Washington, DC and regailing me with his stories.  

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty on 9–10 June 1944, near Goville, France. S/Sgt. Ehlers, always acting as the spearhead of the attack, repeatedly led his men against heavily defended enemy strong points exposing himself to deadly hostile fire whenever the situation required heroic and courageous leadership. Without waiting for an order, S/Sgt. Ehlers, far ahead of his men, led his squad against a strongly defended enemy strong point, personally killing 4 of an enemy patrol who attacked him en route. Then crawling forward under withering machinegun fire, he pounced upon the guncrew and put it out of action. Turning his attention to 2 mortars protected by the crossfire of 2 machineguns, S/Sgt. Ehlers led his men through this hail of bullets to kill or put to flight the enemy of the mortar section, killing 3 men himself. After mopping up the mortar positions, he again advanced on a machinegun, his progress effectively covered by his squad. When he was almost on top of the gun he leaped to his feet and, although greatly outnumbered, he knocked out the position single-handed. The next day, having advanced deep into enemy territory, the platoon of which S/Sgt. Ehlers was a member, finding itself in an untenable position as the enemy brought increased mortar, machinegun, and small arms fire to bear on it, was ordered to withdraw. S/Sgt. Ehlers, after his squad had covered the withdrawal of the remainder of the platoon, stood up and by continuous fire at the semicircle of enemy placements, diverted the bulk of the heavy hostile fire on himself, thus permitting the members of his own squad to withdraw. At this point, though wounded himself, he carried his wounded automatic rifleman to safety and then returned fearlessly over the shell-swept field to retrieve the automatic rifle which he was unable to carry previously. After having his wound treated, he refused to be evacuated, and returned to lead his squad. The intrepid leadership, indomitable courage, and fearless aggressiveness displayed by S/Sgt. Ehlers in the face of overwhelming enemy forces serve as an inspiration to others.

The third though was a guy who died nearly 30 years before I was born, Lt. John R. Fox:

John was a member of Cannon Company, 366th Infantry, 92nd Infantry Division near the town of Sommocolonia, Italy in December 1944. He served as a forward observer for his division and the 598th Field Artillery Battalion. On Christmas night, German soldiers sieged his division. John directed defensive fires from the second floor of a local house. He called for artillery fire close to his own position telling his battalion commander, “That was just where I wanted it. Bring it in 60 yards!”

His commander refused and cut the distance of fire in half, but as the Germans pressed closer, John insisted for artillery fire. The last radio communication from John was, “Fire it! There’s more of them than there are of us. Give them hell!” John passed away during this artillery exchange, but his actions delayed the German’s advances and gave the infantry units time to reorganize.

John was awarded the Medal of Honor for his selfless sacrifice.

I remember when the medal was awarded to his family, and I remember my shock and incredulity that it hadn't happened sooner.  If calling in artillery on your own position isn't the specific sort of act that the Medal of Honor was intended for, I don't know what is.

Obviously I grew up in a military that was fully integrated, and coming from a small town in Massachusetts I never really understood or witnessed any sort of racist behavior.  But I remember when I was in the Guard when I sort of had an epiphany about how much it had existed prior to my service.  I was helping our Readiness NCO go through our file cabinets of personel records (after a deployment to Bosnia) and trying to get them squared away when I came across that of my First Sergeant.  He was an African American guy and to be frank, I thought he was the worst First Sergeant I'd ever had.  And as I was making sure he had everything in there I came across his Army Achievement Medal from Vietnam.  He'd been attached to a Special Forces unit and received the award when he was out on an LP/OP and had killed 6 guys trying to infiltrate the base, some of them in hand to hand combat.

I was pretty stunned.  Today you can get an Army Achievement Medal for having a good PT score, something that as an Infantryman is already your job.  And this guy was in the absolute thick of combat and got one for this?  Crazy.

[For the record, in case he ever reads this, that 1SG later became my Command Sergeant Major, and he was far and away the best one I ever had.  I don't know why he was terrible as a 1SG and so great as a CSM, but he shielded so many guys from punishments and lobbied so hard for the troops it was almost like it was a totally different guy.]

Anyway, it was a spectacular testimony by Legislative Director Melissa Bryant and I wanted to share it with you.  I've queued the video to her testimony here:

For more on the Buffalo Soldiers in World War 2, here is an excellent documentary:

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.