2014 is a year redolent of World War, not least because anniversaries have been observed marking 100 years since the start of WW1 and 70 years since WW2’s D-Day on 6 June 1944. Another 70th anniversary passed almost un-noticed in 2013: on September 3rd 1943, 9 months before the more widely celebrated Normandy landings, the liberation of mainland Europe really began with the invasion of Italy. The Italian Campaign, initially seen by America as a “sideshow” of the cross-channel invasion, became one of the bloodiest and most protracted anywhere, with fighting continuing until 29th April 1945, the day before Hitler’s suicide.
With experienced and capable commanders, German and Italian troops fought fiercely, falling back to well prepared defensive lines then counter-attacking to regain ground already won at the cost of tens of thousands of allied casualties. For many months in 1943 and1944 there was stalemate while bad weather and mountainous terrain prevented either side from gaining advantage, except by skirmishes from hilltop to hilltop. One such fight, in the Tuscan village of Sommocolonia, deserves to be remembered on its 70th anniversary – 26th December 2014.
Unlike the multi-ethnic British and Commonwealth Army, the American military was almost exclusively white but, pressed for manpower, had re-activated an all-black infantry division disbanded after WW1: the 92nd.
Known as The Buffalo Soldiers, the 92nd was segregated and came from a deeply segregated homeland. Most of its soldiers were conscripts; ill-educated, poorly trained, badly equipped and their senior commanders were, for the most part, white southern officers whose attitude to them, their safety and success, was at best ambivalent. At worst they regarded them as a liberal experiment which they wanted to fail. Consequently their use in combat was resisted up the chain of command and they were initially deployed in menial roles like stretcher bearing or cooking. However, ever mounting casualties forced a change: the 92nd division committed four combat regiments, including the 366th, in August 1944.
The inexperienced soldiers were out-gunned and spread thinly against opposing forces, their own commanders refusing to reinforce them, or even give their wounded blood transfusions, except from other black soldiers. Results were poor and morale understandably low, providing evidence for those desperate to criticise their ability. The Buffalo Soldiers were fighting fascists whose attitudes to them were almost indistinguishable from those of their own commanders: they were considered less than men.
On 26th December 1944 a young, black, officer in the 366th regiment found his hilltop position being over-run by vastly superior forces. Having first ensured that his surviving comrades withdrew to safety, Lt. John R. Fox deliberately, and suicidally, called artillery fire onto his own position. When Sommocolonia was retaken the next day his body was found among 100 enemy dead.
Though posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross it took 38 years for it to be actually presented. 15 years later still a Presidential review of racial bias in the award of WW2 honours gave him America’s highest military decoration: the Congressional Medal of Honour.
23 October 2014