More than sixty years after the end of World War II, most Americans remain unaware of the Negro soldier's contribution to America¹s victory over the Axis forces of Germany, Italy, and Japan in the great struggle to preserve Western civilization.
Black Warriors: The Buffalo Soldiers of World War II is a survivor's memoir of the contribution that one segment of the U.S. military, the all-Negro 92nd Division of the U.S. Army, made to the Allied victory over the Germans in Europe.
Ivan J. Houston was a 19-year-old member of 3rd Battalion in Combat Team 370 of the 92nd (Buffalo Soldier) Division that entered combat for the first time on the night of Aug. 23-24, 1944, on the south bank of the Arno River near Pontadera, Italy, not far from Pisa and the Ligurian Sea. The 370th was an untested Negro infantry regiment in the segregated U.S. army, poised to fight against the retreating battle-wise forces of Germany¹s 16th Panzergrenadier Reichsfuehrer Division under the overall command of Field Marshal Albert Kesselring. Once Herman Goering's deputy, “Smiling Albert” had commanded Germany's air fleets during the invasion of France and the Battle of Britain in 1940 and later served as Gen. Erwin Rommel's co-director of Germany's North African campaign.
The Combat Team's assignment was to cross the Arno and break through the Germans' deeply fortified Gothic Line, which stretched 170 miles from the Ligurian Sea on the west across the Apennine mountains that form the spine of Italy to the Adriatic on the east.
The U.S. armed forces during World War II relegated most Negroes to service units as drivers, cooks, and laborers in support of the combat forces, and never really wanted to place them in direct combat. The 92nd Infantry Division was one of the few exceptions. (The all-black 93rd Division fought in the Pacific and the 332nd Fighter Group, later to become known as the Tuskegee Airmen, fought over Africa and Europe.)
Combat Team 370 was comprised of 4,000 men, predominantly southern Negroes of modest education, along with a smattering of college men. The team¹s junior officers were Negroes, mostly college men. All senior officers were white, and mostly southern. Many of them, including Commanding General Edward M. Almond, were outspokenly bigoted on the record and strongly opposed to Negroes serving under fire. Their racism is documented in U.S. military archives.
For nine months until the German surrender in May 1945, the 92nd Division (the Buffalo Soldiers) fought the Nazis and the Italian Fascists with honor, face to face in the villages and rugged mountains of Italy, in such little-known places as Ripafratta, the Serchio River Valley, Pietrasanta, Seravezza, Mount Cauala, and Pontremoli. The Division broke through the Gothic Line and moved north on the attack. Eventually, in the last campaign of the war in Italy, the 370th Combat Team was joined by the 442nd Regimental Team, all Japanese Americans, one of this nation's most highly decorated military units. The combined forces suffered hundreds of casualties and in the end defeated the Nazis proponents of a Master Race and their allies.
When Houston and his fellow Negro GI's returned home, they discovered that the heart of America had not changed. They encountered the same segregation and discrimination that had existed since the end of the Civil War. They had won the hearts and the minds of those in Italy whom they had freed from Fascist domination, men and women to whom color was no issue at all. Yet, back in the States, returning Negro soldiers, even those with college degrees, could not get jobs. Engineers went to work as janitors. Members of the fabled Tuskegee Airmen were denied positions as commercial pilots. Mr. Houston, a three year letterman in track and field at the University of California at Berkeley, was given an apartment with Negro shipyard workers several miles from the campus.
America is clearly a different place now. But it is important that young people of all races know what people of color did in defense of freedom all those years ago, and remember.