Bring on the Buffalo
October 15, 2010
- Of three African-American divisions in World War II, only the 92nd would serve as a full division in combat.
- The racial intolerance of white society of the time prevented the unit from training together initially.
- The assault on the Cinquale Canal in Italy proved to be a disaster for the 92nd Division.
- The 92nd Division was the first fully integrated division down to regimental level fielded by the U. S. Army.
"You may be whatever you resolve to be." With these words taken from "Stonewall" Jackson's immortal challenge to cadets at the Virginia Military Institute, Maj. Gen. Edward M. "Ned" Almond activated the 92nd Infantry Division (Colored) at Fort McClellan, Ala., on October 15, 1942. Of the three African-American divisions activated during World War II, only the 92nd would serve as a full division in combat. The division would go on to a checkered combat career, with some early successes, some tragic failures, and final victory as the only division in the Army integrated down to regimental level.
The division trained hard for the next two years, battling illiteracy, military discipline problems, and white societal norms. The racial intolerance of white society of the time prevented the unit from training together initially. No other division in the Army during World War II experienced this sort of training separation, and it made unit cohesion very difficult. After nearly eight months of this dispersed training, the division moved to Fort Huachuca, Ariz., to complete its unit training. The 92nd Division, already using a buffalo patch as its distinctive insignia, adopted a live buffalo as a mascot in an effort to instill unit pride in its history as "Buffalo Soldiers."
The requirements for well-trained Soldiers clashed with the realities of race-based education in the 1930s. Most of the 92nd Soldiers suffered from the effects of inadequate education, provided by a "separate but equal" society. Their unequal education became clear when the 92nd found that 13% of its Soldiers were illiterate, and another 62% were in the two lowest classification categories as determined by the Army General Classification Test. Many Soldiers in these lower categories proved untrainable, and many more would prove unreliable in combat. Moreover, many African-American Soldiers failed to fully embrace and support the goals of an Army they saw as perpetuating the Jim Crow system that had oppressed them throughout their lives. These difficulties increased the time the division required to conduct all of its training. In all, the division needed eight more months of training than did similar white divisions.
The division deployed to Italy in the fall of 1944, assigned to the Fifth Army for the continuing assault toward the Alps after the fall of Rome. On Oct. 19, a rendezvous area near Leghorn was designated for most arriving elements of the 92nd. By then, Task Force 92 (370th Infantry Regiment and 2nd Armored Group) was already attacking up the Ligurian (west) coast of Italy as part of the Fifth Army assault on the Gothic Line. The next five months of difficult fighting in the Northern Apennines and Italian Alps identified some genuine heroes, but also uncovered some deadly unit weaknesses. While many individual soldiers performed well, ineffective officer leadership proved disastrous. Every unit had stragglers, but the 92nd Infantry Division experienced them in much greater numbers than did other divisions. Maintaining unit cohesion became impossible during combat operations, as many Soldiers deserted during combat. Junior officers sometimes found themselves at or near the objective, but with too few Soldiers to take and hold it. The division began establishing "straggler lines" behind the regimental boundaries to stop fleeing Soldiers and return them to their units.
In February 1945, the division received the mission to cross the Cinquale Canal on the Italian coast and attack a German position from the flank. Despite overwhelming artillery, tank, and engineer support and three days of rehearsal, the infantry units became bogged down in the canal. Units disintegrated as many Soldiers fled to the rear, thus exposing the remaining units to even greater fire. After three days, the 92nd Division broke off the assault and withdrew without accomplishing the objective.
The failed attack at the Cinquale Canal was the most significant of the unit's several failures, and Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall ordered the division reorganized. The 365th and 371st Infantry Regiments were detached from the division for re-training, taking all the substandard Soldiers with them. All the best remaining troops joined the 370th Infantry Regiment. The War Department then assigned two new regiments to the division: the 473rd Infantry Regiment, a white unit, and the 442nd Infantry Regiment (Nisei), the Japanese-American unit which would become the most decorated regiment in the U.S. Army.
This created the Army's only division integrated down to regimental level. The newly structured division then continued up the coast and enjoyed great success. The missions in the spring of 1945 were aimed at rooting out determined German units defending in the Italian Alps, and the fighting was some of the most difficult of the entire Italian campaign. The division captured the cities of Massa, La Spezia and Genoa by war's end.
The 92nd Infantry Division released the 442nd and 473rd regiments in June 1945, and the 369th and 371st returned to the division. After final re-training, re-fitting, and patrolling operations, the 92nd Infantry Division returned to the United States and inactivated on Nov. 28, 1945. Though full integration would come many years later, the U.S. Army would never again field a segregated division. The Army's experience with segregated units during World War II proved the weaknesses of this system, and President Truman ordered the military to integrate in 1948. Despite the problems encountered in combat, full integration of the military did not occur until the early 1950s, prompted in part by manpower needs during the Korean War. The 92nd Infantry Division, having been designated a "colored" division in both World War I and World War II, has not returned to the force structure since its inactivation.
ABOUT THIS STORY: Many of the sources presented in this article are among 400,000 books, 1.7 million photos and 12.5 million manuscripts available for study through the U.S. Army Military History Institute (MHI). The artifacts shown are among nearly 50,000 items of the Army Heritage Museum (AHM) collections. MHI and AHM are part of the U. S. Army Heritage and Education Center, 950 Soldiers Drive, Carlisle, PA, 17013-5021. Website: www.carlisle.army.mil/ahec