Author Recounts 'Buffalo Saga'

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The Buffalo Soldiers have been called the unsung heroes of World War II. James Harden Daugherty was only 19 when he was drafted in the U.S. Army. He left the United States, where he was still abiding by "Coloreds Only" Jim Crow laws, to help fight for freedom and liberation for those abroad. Daugherty, who's written a book called The Buffalo Saga, revisits those years with host Guy Raz.

GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

For nearly 60 years, James Daugherty kept his memories of fighting on the western front during World War II largely to himself. Daugherty was drafted into service in 1943, and he would eventually be assigned to the storied 92nd Infantry Division, an almost entirely African American unit whose troops were known informally as the Buffalo Soldiers.

After the war, Daugherty sat down to write about his experiences as a young soldier fighting for a cause he couldn't quite reconcile. On the one hand, the mission was to liberate Europe from tyranny. On the other, as a black man, he wasn't free at home.

Now, 60 years later, James Daugherty has published those recollections in a book called "The Buffalo Saga." We sat down with him at his home outside Washington, D.C., this past week, and he started by telling us about the official government letter he received on Christmas Eve, 1943.

Mr. JAMES HARDEN DAUGHERTY (Author, "The Buffalo Saga"): Greetings and salutations. You are to report to a certain place, a school it was, in the district immediately without failure. You are ordered to report, that you have been drafted into the United States Army.

Now, I was 19 at that time, and I was quite upset because I had gotten a government job at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and I had just been out of high school a year. And I settled down, thinking, hey, I'm going help the family in some way.

What came into mind was the fact that I lived in Washington, D.C. That was one of the most segregated cities in the United States of America. The schools were segregated. You couldn't ride in certain taxicabs. They wouldn't stop for you. If you wanted a job and you looked in the paper, it would say for white only.

They had advertisements for whites and blacks, but it would state for whites only and for blacks only. And of course, same thing for the theaters downtown. We only went to the theaters along U Street, the Booker T, the Lincoln Theater, which is still there. But if you wanted to go to the theaters downtown, you would not be admitted.

And so here I am now being told to report and fight for a country that segregates me, discriminates against me, and they tell me I'm fighting for freedom. And the people I'm fighting, of course, are the Germans and the Italians, who claim to be a superior race.

So I have a choice of two evils is the way I saw it. The Germans and the Italians, how would they treat me if they won? My own country, I know. They've already segregated me.

RAZ: So what did you think when you got that letter? Were you scared? I mean, you - I guess you didn't have a choice. You had to show up.

Mr. DAUGHERTY: You know, I was sort of amused�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAUGHERTY: �which is a strange - I wasn't scared, and I wasn't angry, but I was amused at how dare they think of doing this.

RAZ: Within a few weeks, Daugherty reported for basic training at a site in Alabama and eventually was sent off to fight in Italy. One of his unit's earliest missions was to hold a position taken by another regiment in Northern Italy, somewhere between Bologna and Florence.

The idea was to keep German troops occupied to make sure they wouldn't be diverted to France, where larger battles were taking place.

Mr. DAUGHERTY: We were to take Hills X, Y and Z. We had taken Hills X and Y, and the artillery behind us was firing on Hill Y.

RAZ: This was friendly fire.

Mr. DAUGHERTY: Friendly fire. They didn't know we were there. They thought we were on X, Hill X. And so this shell fell right on the command post, the second shell, and it killed five guys outright. The one who wasn't dead, and he wasn't a combat infantryman, he was with the Red Cross, he was the conscientious objector, he didn't carry a weapon, but he didn't die instantly, but he stood up, and he asked for a drink of water, and then his leg bone fell - came through his leg, and he collapsed and fell down. He bled to death within a matter of minutes.

RAZ: Daugherty himself cheated death. The shrapnel from that mortar shell almost killed him, as he recalls in this passage from the book.

Mr. DAUGHERTY: (Reading) Fellow soldiers stared at me in amazement. A fragment of steel, sparkling in the sunlight, was wedged in my steel helmet. The piece of shrapnel had punched a hole in my helmet liner and stopped one-fourth of an inch from penetrating my head.

RAZ: At a certain point, your unit had taken so many casualties that you had asked one of the officers for reinforcements. You said, where are the reinforcements?

Mr. DAUGHERTY: Right.

RAZ: What did he say to you?

Mr. DAUGHERTY: He said, here we are. But it was about 25 of them. They were supposed to be a whole company of 250 men.

RAZ: They never arrived?

Mr. DAUGHERTY: They never arrived.

RAZ: Why?

Mr. DAUGHERTY: They had been killed, really, or injured, and - but this was all that was left of the company. They were sending us a company, but only 25 men were still alive in the particular company that they sent as to being reinforcements.

RAZ: Was that because you were a black unit?

Mr. DAUGHERTY: Yes, that's what I think it was, because they didn't have trained replacements.

RAZ: So they wouldn't have sent�

Mr. DAUGHERTY: They weren't training any black soldiers to be in the infantry.

RAZ: So they wouldn't send white soldiers?

Mr. DAUGHERTY: No.

RAZ: Why not?

Mr. DAUGHERTY: Well, that was the policy of segregation, that you didn't have white soldiers in an all-black unit.

RAZ: The 92nd Infantry Division didn't begin to receive true recognition until 1997, when two of its soldiers were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Bill Clinton. When James Daugherty returned to Washington, D.C., in 1945, there was no hero's welcome. He went back to the Bureau of Engraving, to the same job he had before the war, but he used money from the G.I. Bill to go to college, and eventually, he became the first African American to serve on the board of the Montgomery Country Public School District in Maryland.

As a young soldier in a segregated unit, could you ever have imagined that now, at your age now, looking back, more than 60 years later, we would have our first African-American president?

Mr. DAUGHERTY: No. No, I couldn't imagine that. I was surprised and shocked that it happened.

RAZ: When you look at the U.S. Armed Forces today, and you see how many African Americans are part of our military, are you proud?

Mr. DAUGHERTY: Definitely I'm proud, because it's an institution, not that it's the Army. I don't want war to be the end to anybody making progress and making their life's work, that's - and I say that in the book, that war's not the answer. It's never the answer. It's a holding position, as I see it. And a lot of times, what they say they're fighting for is not what they're fighting for.

RAZ: That's James Daugherty. He was a Buffalo Soldier who fought in Italy during the Second World War. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his service. His new memoir is called "The Buffalo Saga."

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