Benjamin G. Davis, retired Professor of Law, University of Toledo College of Law and Alessio Parisi, historian at Ligurian Institute for the History of Resistance and the Contemporary Age of Genoa, remember the lost and overlooked voices of Buffalo Soldiers, who fought in the Second World War...
The Photo That Haunts All of the United States
In a recent JURIST post commemorating Memorial Day, May 31, 2021, one of us wrote about a photo that haunts us. Thanks to the kindness of Alessio Parisi, we are now able to share that photo with you.
It is above in black and white and dates from May 2, 1945 in the Piazza della Vittoria, Genova (Genoa), Italy and shows the Buffalo Soldiers – the African-American soldiers – stationed there in World War II marching in a celebration parade. As you see, nearly all of them march with the American flag – the Stars and Stripes – unfurled and blowing in the wind.
They are the representation of the wind of freedom finally blowing in Genova with the end of the fascist and totalitarian oppression under which the Italians had suffered and against which those Buffalo soldiers had fought, been wounded, and many died.
This photo haunts us because today in the United States, there are efforts again to hide the history or whitewash the history. These form part of an effort to put in place a kind of democracy based on a false consciousness of history: paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 Three Evils speech synthesis democracy for one group dominated by whites, and dictatorship for the remaining Americans in a form of fascism and totalitarianism that we have seen before in America.
As we see the relentless efforts to de-legitimize the 2020 election, conduct fraudits such as in Arizona which are patent election interference, and the proliferation of state laws being sought to be passed or already passed which are NOT about voter integrity but ARE about voter suppression of black voters and others, we are haunted by this picture.
When we see the kind of crazy, ignorant animation of people who truly believe the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Trump, who try to re-frame the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol as being something minor and that the insurrectionists should be seen as heroes and not betrayers of the Constitution, we are haunted by this picture.
This kind of sick thinking that was birthed with the idea of white supremacy in 1478 was aptly described in a magazine called American Greatness cited in a Jonathan Chait NY Magazine article where the ignorant of history and/or manipulative of history wrote:
THEY have attacked, on a relentless and increasingly hysterical basis, white Americans, who as the overwhelming majority population, were the primary developers of America’s cultural, intellectual, and political heritage, with all its successes as well as its shortcomings. In doing so, they attack the traditions, history, and values developed by those generations of Americans that historically bound together Americans of all races, religions, and backgrounds.
Our response to this insanity: Memory
Just as relentless as those Buffalo Soldiers were in their time, but without any of the hysteria that is being projected by the kind of people who write from a false consciousness due to the sanitized history that they think they know but that did not teach them well, we write this piece to break through that nonsense.
For those of you who have a sanitized vision of the D-Day Normandy Invasion in 1944 – whether through your classroom teaching on it or from the movies like the Longest Day in the mid-1960’s or Saving Private Ryan, let us take the scales from your eyes and let you know that Buffalo Soldiers were at D-Day in Normandy. In those pictures of that period, you will see barrage balloons that were put up to block the Nazi planes from coming down low on the troops on the ground. Buffalo Soldiers were responsible for those barrage balloons and were there.
It is the height of irony that Tom Hanks has been reported to say movies and TV shows must ‘portray the burden of racism’, given the absence of any Buffalo Soldiers in his 1998 Oscar winning movie Saving Private Ryan. Both the Longest Day in 1963 with its Oscars and Stephen Spielberg in 1999 winning his Best Director Oscar, whitewashed the history and betrayed the memory of these Buffalo Soldiers.
I have visited the Normandy beaches and toured the numerous grave sites of the Americans, the English, the Canadians and even the very somber German cemetery at La Cambe. It is a most sobering experience and one that deeply respects the heroism of all who fought for the Allies (I cannot show respect for Nazis). I was stirred by one story in particular, which is that glider pilots were flown in the night before with the task of holding the Pegasus Bridge – the one way through which the mechanized Nazi forces could reach the Eastern part of the D-Day invasion and wreak havoc. A few soldiers landed in the glider, took the lightly guarded bridge from the Nazi soldiers. As the Nazi response intensified, they fought them off for hours holding the bridge. As the Nazi reinforcements built up and attacked, all of a sudden, those soldiers heard something – the sound of bagpipes. Down on the beaches only a few miles away, the Allied troops were landing and the Scottish bagpipes sent a message of hope to that small group of Allied soldiers holding that Pegasus Bridge and a message of fear to the Nazi soldiers that the D-Day invasion was coming to destroy their horror.
We remember the heroism, but our problem is that the heroism at Normandy and across the theaters of operation have been presented for so many years as a white American heroism spewing a false consciousness that the history books in k-12, college, and/or graduate studies reinforced because you did not learn this memory as the teachers did not teach you the memory.
The false consciousness that sickens your brains: The case of Hudson, Ohio, Memorial Day 2021
On Memorial Day, let us look at the false consciousness that sickens these brains to a level of aggressive disrespect for the uniform as happened in Hudson, Ohio this past Memorial Day.
For your reference, in terms of racial demographics, Hudson, Ohio is: 92.89% White, 3.74% Asian, 1.70% two or more races, 1.29% Black or African American, 0.28% other races, 0.10% Native American, and 0.0 Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.
To put this in perspective, and just for the state of Ohio, it’s racial demographics are White: 82.00 %, Asian: 1.00 %, two or more races: 2.00%, Black or African American: 12.00%, Hispanic or Latino: 3.00%, other races: 1.00%, Native American: Below 1.00%, three or more races: Below 1%, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander: Below 1%.
Put another way, Hudson, Ohio has one tenth of the African-American population of the average of Ohio. It is essentially lily-white, with no doubt lily-white public and private schools, whether elementary, junior high, or high school, with no doubt nearly lily-white teachers and principals and administrators. The chances of interacting with an African-American in that town seem to be extremely remote.
And, for Memorial Day, Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Barnard Kemter was invited to give a speech in his uniform. And in his speech in his Army uniform, this white American veteran discussed how former slaves and freed Black men after the Civil War exhumed the remains of more than 200 Union soldiers who died in the battle at Charleston and gave them a proper burial.
The organizer of the event – we cannot bring ourselves to use their name in respect for those African-American soldiers in that picture that haunt us – reviewed Lt. Col. Kemter’s speech and asked him to remove certain portions. He refused.
So when he made his speech and reached the portion of the speech about the former slaves and freed Black men shortly after the Civil War exhuming the bodies of more than 200 Union soldiers who died in battle in Charleston and gave them “a proper burial”, this organizer of this Memorial Day event disrespected Army Lt. Col Kemter, disrespected his uniform, and disrespected that history by turning off his microphone in that period when he discussed that moment of our history.
This little vignette exemplifies the kind of history that is being sought to be reinstituted in all our schools – a history with false consciousness that seeks to simply turn off the microphone, silences the teacher who through academic freedom wants to provide a richer education to their students, and suppresses the vote of those people of color in order to restore a form of white supremacist vision that they think they are entitled to as if ordained by God. As I have noted in other places, that idea of white supremacy is not ordained by God but is a sick man-made creation from the 15th century.
While I can understand that someone who was raised in this false consciousness will believe it is true – what else would they know but what they have imbibed in a sanitized history – that does not mean that it can ever be tolerated if one is to keep the faith with the Buffalo Soldiers in that picture. The limitations of these retrograde thinkers are not the limitations of America.
The breadth of the American version of the warrior spirit exemplified by Retired Army Lt. Col Kemter encompasses all the warriors who have fought to defend the Constitution from enemies, foreign or domestic. The failure of that breadth of spirit to be demonstrated by the organizers of that particular Memorial Day event – and we wonder how much of that narrowness of the organizers was exemplified in other Memorial Day commemorations around this country – shows the sickness and arrogance of those who dare deny that history and that blood.
And just in case someone here thinks that we are overreacting, please note that all the American Legion officials involved in muting Lt. Col. Kemter’s microphone during his Memorial Day remarks have stepped down (hat/tip Charles Crumpton). That People article contains the video of the moment when Lt. Col. Kemter’s microphone is cut. And it is moving as he recites the story of the 3000 black children at the end of the Civil War carrying flowers and singing the Union Army anthem “John Brown” as a part of a parade of 10 000 in Charleston to place those flowers on those Union soldier graves. The American Legion Department of Ohio resigned the miscreants who in their arrogance disrespected Lt. Col. Kemter, the uniform, and all that history. We must be relentless in protecting the memory from the idiocy.
Fighting Three Wars: We Remember
1. The First War: The War Against the Axis Powers
As the 92nd Division (Motto: “Deeds, not Words”) (Buffalo Soldiers Division) arrived in Italy, in early autumn 1944, the Buffalo Soldiers were immediately confronted by a battle hardened enemy, well-armed and strongly set into the fortifications and bunkers of the western Gothic Line.
The employ of black people in combat operations was considered, at the time, as a social and military experiment (Bibran D. K., The 92nd Infantry Division and the Italian Campaign in World War II, North Carolina and London, McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers Jefferson, 2001, page 5.). The Buffalo Soldiers fought heavily during the 7 months spent on the front, suffering thousands of casualties and made huge efforts to blow up the Gothic line. A huge gap of confidence between the black troops and white officers and a lack of experience led to some unit weakness and the defeat in the battle for Garfagnana during the German operation “Wintergewitter” between December 26th and 28th, 1944 (Holland J., L’anno Terribile. Maggio 1944 – Aprile 1945, la campagna d’Italia, la guerra partigiana, il dramma dei civili , la fine del fascismo, Milano, Longanesi, 2009, Page 498).
The Buffalo Soldiers had to fight the Germans and the fascist troops of the Italian Republica Sociale first, then they had to break down the prejudice that they were too “mediocre and sluggish” to contribute to the Allies war against the Axis. Once the Division had been re-organized and switched to a quieter sector, the Buffalo Soldiers gave a better proof of their mettle during the fights in the Spring 1945.
Despite the fact that segregation in the U.S. Army ended in 1948, with executive order 9981 signed by President Harry S. Truman, a long time passed before full integration. The Army never again fielded a segregated division.
Let us take a Nisei moment here of memory like Retired Lt. Col. Kemter did in Hudson, Ohio this past Memorial Day with his respect for the warrior spirit by defending the memory of those that others are too eager to forget.
During Jan-Feb 1945, two out of three black infantry regiments of the 92nd Division were substituted by other regiments due to the fact they were basically destroyed (means killed or wounded) during the fights on the Gothic Line. So the 442nd Infantry Regiment (Motto: “Go for broke”) (Nisei) and the 473rd Regimental Combat Team (formed from anti-aircraft units) (white) were attached to the 92nd. The 442nd Infantry Regiment reached Genoa but was sent to Turin at the end of April (that is why we believe there are no pictures of the Nisei soldiers during the Parade).
And this history is the reason that the late Senator Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) was quoted as saying he was a Buffalo Soldier. It is well worth your time to listen to the interview linked below of the late Senator Inouye describing that World War II experience.
Some of the moments that struck us were:
- when he described his being rejected to volunteer because he had an essential job there in Hawaii; so he resigned that job and ran to the recruitment center to enlist, delaying his enlistment so making him one of the last enlistees in this all-voluntary Japanese-American unit,
- how these Japanese-Americans, still untrained in ill-fitting uniforms, were made to walk with all their gear the last mile to the troop ship leaving Hawaii with armed Military Police guarding the way on both sides of the street on which they walked. How friends, neighbors, families rushed to the scene as they walked and some broke passed the MP’s to hug their son or husband. How the Military Police pulled them back. So such a moment of great honor of your kin going off to war to defend the country was marred by the repression of that patriotic enthusiasm.
- how when the Hawaiian Japanese-Americans arrived in Oakland they learned that they were being sent to Mississippi for training and all they knew about Mississippi was that they lynched people.
- that the troop train only stopped at night to let them stretch their legs on the route out of fear that these Japanese-Americans would be lynched if seen in daylight.
- That the Hawaiian Japanese-Americans and the Mainland Japanese-Americans fought each other in the unit to the point that there was serious consideration of disbanding the unit. Counseling was done etc. But the turning point was when the Hawaiian Japanese-Americans were driven from Mississippi to rural Arkansas to meet Japanese-Americans. The soldiers got all gussied up bringing ukuleles and the such, looking forward to meeting some women, and being boisterous on the trucks. They arrived at a Japanese-American internment camp surrounded by barbed wire and machine gun turrets. They were let in and were assigned some barracks in which to stay that the Japanese-American internees had set aside, doubling up for the soldiers. The soldiers declined the barracks and asked the families to return to them as the soldiers would sleep in the trucks or outside. After that visit, on the ride back to Mississippi, the once boisterous group were silent. They understood that the Mainland Japanese-Americans who had been in these camps had still volunteered to fight for a country that interned their families. When back in Mississippi, the Hawaiian and Mainland Japanese-Americans ended their infighting as they had seen why they fight.
Senator Inouye said, as a Hawaiian Japanese-American having volunteered in Hawaii, he wondered whether if he had been a Mainland Japanese-American, he would have been willing to volunteer from one of those camps knowing that his family was being interned in that camp by the country for whom he was to fight.
One little known fact (learned in Seattle several years ago in support of Lieutenant Sawada who was being court-martialed (ultimately unsuccessfully) for refusing a troop movement to Iraq because he considered it an illegal order that he was not to obey), is that there were Japanese-Americans who did say that they would volunteer only if their families were removed out of the internment camps.
These stories form part of the Buffalo Soldier story because they are the memory that is trying to be erased by idiots. And the ambient racism in which all of this happened is demonstrated in such apocryphal stories such as the Governor of Mississippi writing a letter that the commander (deeply angered and wearing sunglasses to hide it) was ordered to read out to the assembled Nisei in which they were welcomed to the State of Mississippi and they were informed – to their complete confusion – that they would be treated as white in Mississippi. So they could go to USO events as some kind of “honorary whites.”
Or that back in Hawaii, the balcony section he preferred at the movie theater was commonly called Nigger Heaven and that he had understood that was because it was darker than the ground floor. The language of segregation migrated from the American South to Hawaii in a way the local kids did not understand but imbibed: that gives one an inkling of how deep is this swamp from which we rise. Or how his mother lost her US nationality after the 1922 and 1924 acts that specifically targeted naturalized Japanese-Americans of his parents’ generation.
This too is part of the Buffalo Soldier history that haunts us in that picture of those black soldiers marching in the Piazza della Vittoria.
2. The Second War: The War Against the Internal Enemy
The 92nd Division GIs fought a “double war” as the Buffalo veteran Ivan J. Houston, who was 19 in 1944, said:
We were not only fighting against the Nazi enemy, but also against an internal enemy: the racism of high-ranking white officers.
Or as was noted:
Segregation played a major role in the overall performance of the 92nd during World War II. But there were other contributing factors, such as unrealistic and deficient training, the inability of the United States Active Army of World War II to deal with the social handicaps of its minority groups, especially blacks […]. But the real tragedy, which caused the needless loss of hundreds of black lives, was some white army leaders who were blinded by racial prejudices and used black deficiencies –instead of examining and improving army institutional deficiencies- to prove their point to the black public that blacks were incapable of combat service (R. W. Kesting, Conspiracy to discredit the black buffaloes: the 92nd infantry in World War II, Journal of negro history. Vol. 72 n1/2 winter-spring 1987, pp. 1-19, the University of Chicago).
3. The Third War: The War For Memory
We believe there is a third war to consider: the war for memory. Despite black soldiers fighting in the European Theater of Operations, the Mediterranean Theater of Operations and the Pacific Theater of Operations, hardly any movie, book or public speech mentions their participation in the conflict and the Buffalo Soldiers are most of the times described as merely support troops, cooks, warehouse workers or non-combatant soldiers.
History, memories and personal accounts remind us that the Buffalo Soldiers really were ready for sacrifice, struggle and redemption. In 2013, the documentary about the 92nd Division entitled “Inside Buffalo” by the Italian-Ghanaian film maker Fred Kudjo Kuwornu, was included in the collection of the United States Library of Congress and President Barack Obama sent a congratulation letter to the director, with these words:
Despite the many obstacles, the Buffalo Soldiers served the homeland with courage, preparing the way for future generations. In World War II, they exemplified their heroism by collaborating in the liberation of a continent from tyranny, changing the course of an entire century.
A Warning to the Internal Enemy Bathed in False Consciousness
So for all those people who are maybe organizing some kind of putsch this summer to do violence in the name of that false consciousness, for all the financiers of these pernicious efforts to restore a democracy for them and a dictatorship for those who are not of their color, for the descendants of slave-owners like Senator Mitch McConnell who rather than being humbled before that history show an arrogant contempt for the votes of people of color, let them take a moment to gaze at that picture that haunts us.
Let them gaze at that picture of those Buffalo Soldiers proudly displaying and walking under so many American flags back in 1945, and think of both their sacrifice in the war and the sacrifice they faced when they came home. The GI Bill was segregated. They came back to segregation and massive resistance. And, they, like my father Griffith J. Davis, pushed on through the swamp of this sickness that is not ordained by God, but is merely a man-made lie from the 15th century that has been reinforced by generation after generation by people who benefit from the lie.
And let them realize that these Buffalo Soldiers from beyond the grave continue to fight that Third War: the war for memory to make sure that the pernicious evil that whitewashes and sanitizes the past will not prevail now here, as they made sure it did not prevail with their relentless struggle in two wars as they battled the Nazis in World War II and their internal enemy.
Let these miscreants look upon those black soldiers and know the shame their arrogance today brings upon the United States.
Benjamin G. Davis is a retired Professor of Law at the University of Toledo College of Law.
Alessio Parisi is a historian at Ligurian Institute for the History of Resistance and the Contemporary Age of Genoa, and a Footsteps Battlefield tours team member and researcher.
Suggested citation: Benjamin G. Davis and Alessio Parisi, Memorial Day 2021 Redux: The Fighting Three Wars Photo That Haunts All of the US, JURIST – Academic Commentary, June 17, 2021, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2021/06/davis-parisi-memorial-day-2021-redux/.
This article was prepared for publication by Khushali Mahajan, a JURIST staff editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at email@example.com
Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.