'Buffalo soldier' recalls World War II Veteran returned to racial conflict


The boyish face that peered from beneath the garrison cap of a U.S. Army uniform was missing the wrinkles and experience of the man whose fingertips caressed the cream-colored photo album, which was faded and somewhat battered with age.

But the excitement in the eyes hadn't changed in more than 50 years.

"January 2, 1941. I'll never forget it," William Josephus "Joe" Brown said, pointing to the induction papers secured behind a plastic cover in the album. "How am I going to forget those days? If I live to be 100, I'll never forget."

Mr. Brown obviously doesn't need a national holiday to remind him of the four years he served his country.

But maybe, he said, the day will help the rest of country remember that black soldiers fought and died alongside the white soldiers whose faces were displayed prominently throughout the War Department's World War II propaganda.

"We were one of the first ones overseas, and we stayed until the end of the war, but you don't hear about that," said Mr. Brown, 75, who fought with the 92nd Division of the Fifth Army, an all-black regiment. "We fought in four campaigns, and I'll show you, not tell you, that we were everywhere the fighting was the thickest."

Mr. Brown sat on a couch in his Union Bridge home and gently turned the pages of his book, his eyes darting over scenes a half-century old.

He proudly fingered the black buffalo insignia of his division, which was attached to the right sleeve of the uniform in a picture.

"The big black buffalo for the black soldiers," Mr. Brown said, smiling and rocking his head back and forth. "Solid soul, we used to say."

The "solid soul" outfit saw a lot of action during Mr. Brown's four-year stint, which he ended with the rank of corporal.

The soldiers fought in Africa, Italy and Germany, Mr. Brown said, and he has the pictures, newspaper clippings and memories to prove it.

A black arrow in one photo points to one of the soldiers crossing the Volturno River into Italy in 1944. "Joe" is printed above the mark.

"I was definitely one of these three men," said Mr. Brown, donning his glasses and peering closely at the three tiny figures near the center of the photo. "At least I think that's me, anyway."

Other pictures show scenes from the pages of U.S. history: men crawling to avoid sniper fire in the remains of an Italian woods blasted by artillery; the first black female soldiers who served overseas in England; black soldiers lining up for morning inspection as the flag is raised on a military base in North Africa.

"I enjoyed it all, really. We had some good times and we had some bad times," Mr. Brown said. "I made a lot of lasting friendships there."

When the faces of friends whose first names are lost to Mr. Brown's memory stare back at him from the pages, stories about them flood into his head.

"Oh, yeah, Sergeant Finney," Mr. Brown said, pointing to a letter he'd written to a fellow soldier. "He was a tall, lanky man, and we used these pup tents to sleep in. His feet would stick out the end."

Mr. Brown wrote to occupy his mind as he sat waiting in woods or trenches for orders.

To Sergeant Finney, Mr. Brown wrote: "The bombs will drop, the tent will shake, and if you are asleep you will soon be awake."

"There you are in a foreign country and you'd just sit there and try to think of something," Mr. Brown said. "I often thought about home, and what I'd be doing if I were there."

But Mr. Brown said he returned to Union Bridge in 1945 and found he had fought on several fronts over seas only to face another conflict at home -- over race.

It was nearly 30 years later, when he applied in 1974 for membership in the Union Bridge branch of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, that he realized the depth of the conflict. His application -- along with those of several other black veterans -- was turned down without explanation.

"I fought in four campaigns. I risked my life, and they wouldn't let Joe Brown be a member of the VFW," Mr. Brown said, still astonished nearly two decades later.

"My name was on the monument for veterans that's in front of the building, but they wouldn't let me in."

Mr. Brown said he knows some of his stories may be painful for others to hear.

But he believes it is necessary for people to know and, more

importantly, to remember.

"I show you this so you know this all really happened," said Mr. Brown, nodding his head as if to emphasize the truth of his statement. "I could be an old man telling you a whole bunch of stories, now couldn't I?"

A member now of the VFW in Westminster, Mr. Brown said he remembers that even with his Good Conduct Medal, an American Defense Service Medal, European, African and Middle Eastern Service ribbons, and an honorable discharge, some people refused to recognize his service to his country.

Now, they do.

Memorial Day will come and go with its parades and ceremonies, and Mr. Brown and his wife, Lillian, 69, will attend a few cookouts and put flowers on family graves.

But in his own way, Mr. Brown will be remembering the past.

How could he forget?

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