Posts tagged ‘Buffalo Soldiers’

SHAKO: Black History Month — African Americans in War Movies Part II

An Additional Four Movies to explore how Hollywood changed in its treatment of black actors and black history in films about war and life in the military.

RED BALL EXPRESS (Universal Pictures, 1952)

This film is on this list for all the wrong reasons. Puportedly, it’s the story of one of the little known Army operations involving a great many black soldiers during World War II, the eponymous Red Ball Express.” But there aren’t many blacks in the film.

Three months after D-Day, it was hard to supply Gen. George Patton’s hard-charging Third Army which was advancing as much as 80 miles a week. French railroads, as well as highways and bridges had been wrecked by Allied bombing. The only open seaport was in Normandy, far from the front.

To meet the need, thousands of trucks and hundreds of soldiers to drive them were pressed into service to deliver food, fuel, ammunition and other supplies to the front-line troops. The truck convoys had a dedicated route marked by round red signs — red balls — an old railroad term for high priority freight trains.

Almost 75 percent of Red Ball Express drivers were African Americans, who dealt with breakdowns, accidents, land mines, air attacks, bad roads and exhaustion on their 57-hour round trips.

But it’s hard to find many black actors in the movie. One of the few was a young Sidney Poitier in his third motion picture. Poitier’s character, Private Robertson, has a run-in with his C.O. and practically disappears for the rest of the movie. Nearly all the heroics are performed by white soldiers in the movie.

In a 1979 symposium at UCLA, the director, Bud Boetticher, revealed that the Defense Department pressured Universal Pictures to alter its portrayal of the tense race relations that existed at the time and to emphasize an upbeat, positive spirit, according to the IMBd website. Commenting on the studio’s whitewashing of history, Boetticher said, “The army wouldn’t let us tell the truth about the black troops because the government figured they were expendable. Our government didn’t want to admit they were kamikaze pilots. They figured if one out of ten trucks got through, they’d save Patton and his tanks.”

That sounds plausible when you see the official 1945 Army short film about the Red Ball Express, “Rolling to the Rhine,” only shows black drivers taking a break smoking and drinking coffee. This contemporary footage, which includes much of what’s shown in “Rolling to the Rhine,” shows blacks loading, driving and repairing trucks.

By The Way: Actor James Edwards (“Home of the Brave” and “The Steel Helmet’) was originally cast in the role of Robertson, but was fired during production when he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was replaced by Poitier, according to IMDb.

PORK CHOP HILL (United Artists, 1959)

While peace talks are underway at Panmunjom to end the Korean War, reluctant U.S. troops fight to retake a hill from Communist Chinese forces and then hold on to it despite rising casualties, in this film based on actual events. Directed by veteran war film maker Lewis Milestone (1930’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “A Walk in the Sun” from 1945), racial tensions in the recently desegregated U.S. Army are a key element in the film.

Instead of white bigotry against Soldiers of color, the focus in “Pork Chop Hill” is on a Black soldier, Franklin, played by Woody Strode (in the photo above on the right), who doesn’t want to die fighting for Korea when he’s sure he wouldn’t even die for the squalid conditions he lives in back home. After two confrontations, his company commander orders another Black Soldier, Corporal Jurgens (James Edwards, same photo on the left), to keep an eye on Franklin and shoot him if he refuses to fight. A verbal confrontation between the two black men is equally tense.

SERGEANT RUTLEDGE (Warner Brothers, 1960)

This movie is the only one that strays from wars in the 20th Century, but it’s one of the first films, if not the first, to portray the black Buffalo Soldiers of the Old West. Directed by legendary film maker John Ford, it’s part Western, part crime thriller, part courtroom drama and part social justice advocacy.  

Woody Strode is Sergeant Braxton Rutledge, the black 1st Sergeant of the 9th Cavalry in the Jim Crow Army. At an Arizona Army post in the early 1880s, he is being tried by a court martial for the rape and murder of a white girl as well as for the murder of the girl’s father, who was the fort’s commanding officer. The story of these events is told in several flashbacks.

Strode gives a memorable performance as a Top Soldier who loves his regiment and fellow black troopers but knows he can’t get a fair trial because he’s in the worst kind of trouble a black man can get in — “white woman trouble.” While the film is another paean to the U.S. cavalry and an attempt at a fair telling of the heroism and professionalism of its black soldiers, this trailer from Warner Bros. makes it look more like a lurid thriller.


ALL THE YOUNG MEN (Columbia, 1960)

This Korean War drama is much like some of the others listed before, a small group of Marines must hold a farmhouse that controls a valley their battalion will pass through, despite relentless enemy attacks.

What sets it apart is that it takes place in winter (filmed in Glacier National Park) and the sergeant in charge is black. Also unusual for it’s time, Sidney Poitier’s name appears with co-star Alan Ladd’s above the title in the opening credits. In fact, the film was written as a star vehicle for Poitier, but the studio would only back it if a major white co-star could be found. Ladd (“This Gun for Hire,” “The Blue Dahlia” and “Shane”) apparently was the only one who would agree. In fact his Ladd Company co-produced the movie.

The Story:  Poitier plays a young sergeant unexpectedly placed in command of the survivors of an ambushed platoon. Not only does he have to win the trust and respect of the other men who are all white, but he has to contend with the contempt of one who is an out-and-out racist, and the second-guessing of Ladd’s character, a more experienced former top sergeant from the South who was was busted down to private.


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SHAKO is an occasional 4GWAR posting on military history, traditions and culture. For the uninitiated, a shako is the tall, billed headgear worn by many armies from the Napoleonic era to about the time of the American Civil War. It remains a part of the dress or parade uniform of several military organizations like the corps of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York

February 28, 2021 at 1:08 am 1 comment

SHAKO: Buffalo Soldiers UPDATE

Remembering the Buffalo Soldiers.

Buffalo Soldiers-2 10th Cav

The Buffalo Soldiers from A Company, 10th U.S. Cavalry regroup to move out after battle. Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson (center) issues orders to Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper (left), the first black graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, to keep the Chiricahua Apache renegade Victorio bottled up near the Rio Grande. (Photo courtesy via U.S. Corps of Army Engineers, Southwest Division)

UPDATES and CORRECTS: To add material about Buffalo Soldiers serving as early park rangers, include a photo of Buffalo Soldiers in World War II and to CORRECT that Buffalo Soldier units did not fight in World War I and only the 24th and 25th Infantry regiments still existed in World War II.–the Editor

As February and Black History month draws to a close, here at 4GWAR we’ve been wracking our brains trying to decide how best to honor the month and the people it celebrates. Should we focus on individuals like Medal of Honor recipient Sergeant Henry Johnson, or Dorie Miller, the first African American awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism at Pearl Harbor? Or should we examine a unit like the Tuskegee Airmen of the Second Word War or the Harlem Hellfighters of World War I?

In doing our research we came across four all-black units, the 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments and the 24th and 25th Infantry regiments, in the segregated Army of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Collectively, they were known as the “Buffalo Soldiers.” Created right after the Civil War, these four regiments at times battled or protected Native Americans on the plains, deserts and mountains of the American West. They charged up San Juan Hill in 1898. Five members of the 10th Cavalry were awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery above and beyond the call of duty in Cuba.  and fought insurgents in the Philippines in the early 20th Century after the United States annexed the islands in 1899. They also chased Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa with General John “Black Jack” Pershing in the 1916-1917 Mexican Punitive Expedition.


Buffalo soldiers of the 25th Infantry, some wearing buffalo robes, at Fort Keogh, Montana. (Library of Congress)

None of the regiments served as units in France during World War I, although some veteran non-commissioned officers were dispatched to other segregated units that served on the Western Front. The two cavalry regiments were disbanded in World War II but the 24th Infantry and 25th Infantry, both served in the Pacific. In 1948, President Harry Truman issued an executive order eliminating racial segregation and discrimination in America’s armed forces; the last all-black units were disbanded during the early 1950s.

Between 1891 and 1913, Buffalo Soldiers served during the summer months in Sequoia and Yosemite national parks, in effect as the nation’s first park rangers, introducing the broad brimmed campaign hat that is now part of the standard park ranger uniform, according to historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr.   Their duties in the parks included fighting wildfire, curbing poaching of the park’s wildlife, ending illegal grazing of livestock on federal lands, and constructing roads, trail and other infrastructure, according to the National Park Service.

Buffalo soldiers WWII

Troops of the 24th Infantry, attached to the Americal Division, wait to advance behind a tank assault on the Japanese, along Empress Augusta Bay on Bougainville in 1944. (U.S. Army archive photo) 

An 1866 Act of Congress created six peacetime regiments of exclusively black soldiers. Later, these regiments were melded into four—two infantry and two cavalry—colloquially referred to as the Buffalo Soldiers. There are a few competing theories as to how they got this name, but as the National Museum of African American History and Culture notes, the soldiers “considered the name high praise.”) Throughout their history, the soldiers had a rocky relationship with the American government they served.

The regiments faced extreme and sometimes deadly racism. Especially in some towns near where they were based. Buffalo Soldiers were attacked during racial disturbances in Texas at Rio Grande City in 1899, Brownsville in 1906, and Houston in 1917. The regiments were first commanded only by whites, and the rank and file often faced extreme racial prejudice from the Army establishment, according to the museum. “Many officers, including George Armstrong Custer, refused to command black regiments, even though it cost them promotions in rank.

One who did, was Colonel Benjamin Grierson, a music teacher-turned Civil War cavalry officer (the 1959 John Wayne movie “The Horse Soldiers,” was based loosely on the long- range cavalry raid into Mississippi he led in 1863). Grierson organized the 10th Cavalry in 1866 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Another officer was then-Lieutenant John J. Pershing who took command of a troop of the 10th Cavalry in 1895.  His nickname of “Black Jack,” stems from his service with the 10th Cavalry, although “Black” was a euphemism for the “N” word, which resentful white officers and West Point cadets attached to Pershing’s name. Tenth Cavalry troops were with Pershing’s expedition into Mexico to capture or kill Pancho Villa.  They participated in one of the last cavalry battles fought by U.S. troops at  Carrizal.


SHAKO is an occasional 4GWAR posting on military history, traditions and culture. For the uninitiated, a shako is the tall, billed headgear worn by many armies from the Napoleonic era to about the time of the American Civil War. It remains a part of the dress or parade uniform of several military organizations like the corps of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York.

February 28, 2019 at 11:59 pm Leave a comment

SHAKO: Mexican Punitive Expedition 1916

Pancho Villa’s Raid.


General Francisco “Pancho” Villa. (Photo from Library of Congress via Wikipedia

A hundred years ago today the tiny border town of Columbus, New Mexico was reeling and the rest of the country was howling for revenge following a bloody cross border raid by hundreds of Mexican irregulars commanded by bandit-turned general and Mexican Revolution hero “Pancho” Villa.

In the early morning hours of March 9, 1916, about 500 mounted gunmen loyal to Villa attacked Columbus — three miles north of the border — and the adjoining U.S. Army base, Camp Furlong.

Part of the town was looted and burned and at least 17 Americans — both civilians and soldiers — were killed in the three-hour attack. More than 100 Villistas were also killed, wounded or captured on the streets of Columbus and on their retreat back to Mexico by pursuing U.S. cavalry troopers.

The Columbus raid prompted President Woodrow Wilson to send a punitive force of cavalry, infantry and artillery — eventually numbering more than 10,000 men — plus trucks and airplanes (deployed by the Army for the first time in a conflict zone) to catch and punish Villa’s irregular forces.


Brigadier General John J. Pershing and some of his staff crossing a river in Mexico 1916.

Crossing into Mexico on March 15, under the command of Brigadier General John J. Pershing, the U.S. troops — including the celebrated Buffalo Soldiers of the black 10th Cavalry regiment — pushed hundreds of miles over rugged terrain deep into the Mexican state of Chihuahua searching for Villa.

Within two months they killed or wounded scores of Villistas in several gun battles. But after two skirmishes with Mexican government troops nearly brought both nations to the brink of war, Pershing’s force returned to U.S. territory in February 1917. Just two months later the United States was at war with Germany.

We’ll be following the major events of this unusual U.S. military action over the next few months, and looking for parallels to the current border security crisis.

shakoSHAKO is an occasional 4GWAR posting on military history, traditions and culture. For the uninitiated, a shako is the tall, billed headgear worn by many armies from the Napoleonic era to about the time of the American Civil War. It remains a part of the dress or parade uniform of several military organizations like the corps of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York.

March 10, 2016 at 11:50 pm Leave a comment

SHAKO: Old West Cavalry Post at Fort Garland, Colorado

Boots and Saddles

While your 4GWAR Editor on vacation last week we traveled from Denver, Colorado to Santa Fe, New Mexico via the scenic route through La Veta Pass. The aspens were turning golden in the bright fall sunshine and made a striking contrast to the lodge pole pines and other evergreens.

Fort Garland plaza or parade ground
(4GWAR Photo by John M. Doyle)

Along the way we passed historic Fort Garland, an Old West Army post saved from ruin by local activists. The fort is actually a collection of adobe buildings, arranged in a rectangle around a tree-lined parade ground without walls. We toured the officers’ quarters — now the museum shop — commandant’s quarters and the two barracks buildings: one for a company of cavalry and one for a company of infantry.

After the Civil War, the post was commanded for a year by Kit Carson, the mountain man and trapper turned Army officer. Carson is famous/or infamous (depending on your point of view) for subduing the Navaho (Dine) tribe in the mid-1860s. Troops from Fort Garland took part in the 1862 battle of Glorieta Pass, in which union troops — assisted by volunteers from the Colorado and New Mexico territories prevented Confederates who marched up from El Paso, Texas from invading Colorado and seizing its rich gold and silver mines. (Think of the impact that might have had on the Civil War).

Bunks in the old infantry barracks at
Fort Garland, Colorado.
(4GWAR Blog photo by John M. Doyle)

For about three years in the 1870s the fort was garrisoned by troopers of the 9th Cavalry, one of two all black cavalry regiments formed after the Civil War. The Buffalo Soldiers, as they were known, patrolled the San Luis Valley keeping Ute Indians and encroaching white miners, ranchers and traders away from each other’s throats. There was no need for Army protection by the early 1880s and the post was closed in 1883.

Vehicles on display in the old cavalry
barracks at Fort Garland, Colorado.
(4GWAR photo by John M. Doyle)

SHAKO is an occasional 4GWAR posting on military history, traditions and culture. For the uninitiated, a shako is the tall, billed headgear worn by many armies from the Napoleonic era to about the time of the American Civil War. It remains a part of the dress or parade uniform of several military organizations like the corps of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York.

October 10, 2012 at 1:14 am Leave a comment


December 2022


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