This is part two of a sponsored series for Wells Fargo’s Untold Stories Collection.
My family has a long legacy of military service. My grandfather served in World War II, my uncles served in Vietnam, and I have several cousins who served in the recent conflict in the Middle East.
I am proud by the way my family has served our country because they are a part of the rich African-American military legacy in this country that began with African Americans’ serving in the Minutemen and Crispus Attucks’ being the first person to die during the Boston Massacre.
Perhaps the most celebrated African-American soldiers in our country’s history are the Buffalo Soldiers, formed on September 21, 1866 at Fort Leavenworth, KS and originally members of the U.S. 10th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army. The nickname was given to the “Negro Cavalry” by the Native American tribes they fought. The term eventually became synonymous with all of the African-American regiments formed in 1866.
I recently visited the Buffalo Soldier National Museum in Houston, TX where I learned about these legendary soldiers and their acts of bravery, courage, and honor. On the day I was there, I was fortunate enough to meet one of the Buffalo Soldiers, Harold Cole, who had just celebrated his 90th birthday. He took photos with the crowd until he was too tired to stand up. I led him to a chair in a quiet corner and he shared stories about it was like to be a Buffalo Solider during World War II.
Cole enlisted in the military in 1942 when he was 17 years old. Because he had experience riding horses, Cole was assigned to all-black Troop F, 9th U.S. Cavalry and was stationed in Fort Clark, TX.
“I was a bit nervous about going to Texas because I had heard bad stories about the South,” said Cole. “When I got there, I noticed that the Southern officers treated us better than the Northern officers. I guess they were more accustomed to interacting with black people.”
But Cole still had to contend with racial disparities. Separate facilities had to be built for the black soldiers because they were not allowed to go to the PX, theater, or any facility on the post except the hospital.
In 1943, the 2nd Cavalry Division moved to Oran, Algeria. This was the first time that Cole had been outside of the U.S. He was excited about going to a different country until he arrived to his campsite.
“When we first arrived in North Africa, the first sergeant ordered the black soldiers to dig foxholes,” said Cole. “We complained because the terrain was rocky and we didn’t have the right tools to break through the rock. Later that night, a German aircraft flew over and bombed our area. The next morning, there were plenty of foxholes.”
Although they dealt with racism and harsh environments, Cole still marvels at what he and his fellow Buffalo Soldiers were able to accomplish under the most adverse conditions.
“I was proud to serve with those guys because they worked hard and always remained professional and honorable,” said Cole. “We never had the best equipment, but we did our best with what we had.”
After Cole’s service in Algeria, he was transferred to Italy where is served in Sicily, Naples, and Anzlo. Later, he participated in the invasion of Southern France. During his time in France, he witnessed something he’d never thought he’d see in his lifetime.
“My jeep was parked at the camp and a white officer took it from me because he didn’t want to walk,” Cole recalled. “I didn’t resist because I didn’t want to cause any trouble. A few minutes later, my superior officer called me for a meeting. When he saw I was walking to his office he asked me where my Jeep was. I told him how the white officer had taken it. He immediately called the officer into his office and proceeded to chew him out in front of me. That was the first time I had ever seen a white person stand up for a black person.”
Cole continued to serve in France until 1946 when he was discharged. During his time as a Buffalo Soldier, Cole earned the rank of Master Sergeant was also a drummer in the Regimental Drum and Bugle Corps, bugler for the 4th Brigade, 2nd Cavalry Division, and a motion picture operator (he was responsible for entertainment). His list of military awards includes Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with two Bronze Stars, and a World War II Honorable Service Lapel Button.
Cole and the rest of Buffalo Soldiers continue to inspire legions of servicemen and women. In this video from the Wells Fargo Untold Stories Collection, Captain Paul J. Matthews shares his story about the impact that the Buffalo Soldiers had on his own military career.
Join the conversation: I would love to hear about your untold stories. Please join me on March 19th for a Google Hangout with Lisa Frison (VP and African-American Segment Manager, Wells Fargo) and Ronnie and Lamar Tyler as we celebrate the My Untold Stories campaign and talk about culture, heritage, and family history.
P.S. I would be remiss if I didn’t post a link to Bob Marley’s song, Buffalo Soldiers. Enjoy – https://vimeo.com/25552020