ANAHEIM, Calif. -- "As far as being patriotic--I guess I was patriotic … but I didn't think about it in those days."
At 92 years old, World War II Veteran and Buffalo Soldier Vernon McDonald stood unassisted and shrugged, giving a little smile, down-playing the significance of his service to the United States. McDonald, a Los Angeles resident, was a guest of honor at the Black Chamber of Orange County's Annual Banquet at the Disneyland Hotel Aug. 27.
The banquet, held annually by the Black Chamber of Orange County, highlights a black history theme each year. This year's theme was the legacy of Buffalo Soldiers, or Soldiers who served in segregated units from 1866-1954.
Also present at the event, former president of the Orange County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Donald Craig, founder of the Buffalo Soldier National Museum Paul Matthews, a Disneyland ambassador, a representative from the Veterans Legal Institute, representatives of the U.S. Postal Service, re-enactors from the Buffalo Soldier Mounted Cavalry Unit, and presidents and representatives from local area colleges and universities.
Like other World War II Veterans, McDonald is one of very few remaining living Buffalo Soldiers.
"We have been able to highlight and bring forth historical data about a real significant piece of American History that is seldom told or talked about," said Bobby McDonald, Vernon McDonald's son and executive director of the Black Chamber of Orange County.
The event included a historical presentation about the "Iron Riders" -- the 25th Infantry U.S. Army Bicycle Corps, presentations of service, community and scholarship awards, a silent auction, and the unveiling of a current postal stamp of Yellowstone National Park -- which is significant because Buffalo Soldiers played a big part in National Parks history. Prior to the National Parks Service standing up in 1916, military troops bore responsibility for patrolling federal lands. Buffalo Soldiers marched into Glacier, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon national parks protecting and improving lands, building roads and facilities; they were, in essence, the nation's first park rangers.
While McDonald spoke humbly about his service during World War II, his sacrifice, along with that of his storied Buffalo Soldier brothers, cannot be overlooked.
Serving in World War II, McDonald, assigned to the 1331st Engineer General Service Regiment (later re-designated as a battalion at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana) deployed in 1943 to England on the RMS Queen Mary, and spent time serving in France, Germany, Japan and eventually South Korea. Reaching the rank of master sergeant, it was three years before he returned to the U.S.
While World War II veterans are often lauded as the "Greatest Generation," African-American Soldiers during World War II had a very different service experience than their Caucasian counterparts.
"To be quite honest, during the time that I served, we were a segregated Army," explained McDonald when asked about his service. "Yet we knew that we were serving our country -- there was no doubt about that."
Segregation of the military continued until 1954, and African-American troops returning home from serving overseas still faced discrimination.
"I really appreciate now, more than ever, his efforts and the sacrifices of all men of color, because they fought for the rights of freedom and liberty … but they had to come home to less than freedom and liberty," said Bobby McDonald.
According to the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum in Houston, Texas, African-American Soldiers earned the moniker "Buffalo Soldiers" after impressing members of the Cheyenne and Apache tribes with their combat prowess, bravery, and tenaciousness -- a title of honor and respect.
While African-Americans have fought in military conflicts since colonial times, the first African-American military regiments established in peacetime were the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments in 1866. These segregated units were often provided less equipment and fewer supplies than their brothers-in-arms, and were assigned to labor-intensive positions with little responsibility.
"After coming back from Vietnam, I actually saw and felt a lot that he went through," said Bobby McDonald, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Navy from 1965-1968. "I did learn and understand that if you were going to succeed, in any endeavor, you still had to overcome obstacles and barriers to make things happen."
Which is exactly what the Buffalo Soldiers did.
"It is part of my history," said retired Col. Franklin L. Henderson of being a member of the 9th and 10th Cavalry association. "I think I have an obligation … those men made my service [experience] much better than theirs had been."
Henderson, who spent five years on active duty and 25 years in the Army Reserve, joined the 9th and 10th Cavalry association, an official Army Unit Association, because one of his Reserve Officers' Training Corps instructors in college served as an original Buffalo Soldier and World War II veteran.
While not considered a "Buffalo Soldier" himself, Henderson joined the association and became a national president of the organization to keep the legacy of Buffalo Soldiers alive.
"I think it is important to impress upon them that freedom is not free … young people have an obligation to keep that patriotism alive," Henderson said.