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The Buffalo Soldiers: Men of Honor


From the Revolutionary War on, African Americans have fought in every major conflict in which the United States has been involved. Each time, black soldiers were committed to combat in racially segregated units, and had to prove themselves all over again. Regardless, we served with distinction.

Of the one million Black Americans selected for Army duty during World War II, only one black division saw infantry combat in Europe: the 92nd Infantry division.

The vast majority of African Americans in uniform were assigned to segregated construction or supply units or placed in units that performed unpleasant duties such as graves registration. The government’s view was that blacks were not motivated enough or aggressive enough to fight.

In the spring of 1944, after years of pressure from the black community, the government grudgingly rescinded its policy excluding African American soldiers from combat.

While the 92nd was referred to as a black unit, and its enlisted men and most of its junior officers were black, its higher officers were white. The 92nd, which had fought in France during World War I, was once again activated in 1942. Under the command of Major General Edward M. Almond, the 92nd began combat training in October 1942 and went into action in Italy in the summer of 1944.

The unit continued a long and proud tradition by retaining the buffalo as its divisional symbol. The 92nd even kept a live buffalo as a mascot.

The nickname “Buffalo Soldier” dates back to the late 1860s, when black soldiers volunteered for duty in the American West. The American Indians coined the phrase “Buffalo Soldier” out of respect for their worthy enemy. According to one story, the Indians thought that the black soldiers, with their dark skin and curly hair, resembled buffaloes. Another story attributes the name to the buffalo hides that many black soldiers wore during the harsh winters out west, as a supplement to their inadequate government uniforms.

When the Buffalo Soldiers deployed along the front, they began to work together with the tankers of the U.S. 1st Armored Division.

The main attack started on September 10, and three days later the Buffalo Soldiers and the 1st Armored tankers stood at the base of the northern Apennines. This momentum continued as the Buffalo Soldiers entered the Serchio Valley in the later part of the month.

Two black officers leading the Buffalo Soldiers were Lt. Otis Zachary and Lt. John Fox. Zachary and Fox were best friends. As a matter of fact, Zachary stood as Fox’s best man.

By now, the Buffalo Soldiers controlled the crucial east-west communications artery for the Germans.

In early October, they were ordered to take the city of Massa, near the coast, which was the first step in capturing the enemy’s naval base at La Spezia. The Germans resisted fiercely. Beset by cold autumn rains, the Buffalo Soldiers found themselves fighting an additional enemy—mud.

After a six-day battle for control of Massa, the Buffalo Soldiers pulled back to regroup. A fourth regiment with black soldiers, and men came under the division’s control. The 366th Infantry regiment had originally trained for combat but had been initially assigned to guard duty on Allied air bases throughout Italy. The men of the 366th had performed so well in their former assignment, their commanding general did not want to give them up. Curtis and Mariah’s second born son, First Sgt. Carud (pronounced Cord) Bailey was a member of this regiment.

As the Buffalo Soldiers moved deeper into the Serchio Valley, re-supply became a logistical nightmare. No vehicles could reach the Buffalo Soldiers as they fought their way to the high ground of the 35-miles-long valley. The Buffalo Soldiers found themselves depenedent upon pack animals, the same mode of transport employed by Hannibal when he invaded Italy more than 2100 years earlier.

On Christmas Eve, the second battalion of the Buffalo Soldiers was sent into the little village of Sommocolonia. There seemed to be little enemy activity, so most of the 2nd battalion moved out for duty elsewhere, leaving only two platoons. Before sunrise on the day after Christmas, the Germans attacked Sommocolonia, and with two hours, the two American platoons were surrounded. A third platoon moved up to reinforce the embattled Sommocolonia troops. Lt. John Fox, an artillery forward observer for the 366th was a member of that platoon. When enemy troops surrounded the lieutenant’s position inside a house, and were about to over-run him, he ordered artillery fire directly on his own position.

Receiving that order was Fox’s best friend and best man, Lt. Otis Zachary. Zachary immediately recognized that such action would result in grave detriment to his friend John Fox. Maj-General Edward Almond intervened and ordered Zachary to fire.

What would you do if you were Zachary? Would you follows orders and kill your best friend, or would you face court martial?

I’m Colonel Butch Murphy U.S. Army retired. Join us tomorrow for the outcome.

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