By Paul Cobb
While the Black Tuskegee airmen were shooting down planes and patrolling the skies with their red tails in the European Theater of Operations, the all-Black US Army Buffalo Soldier Division, trained to fight from the backs of war horses, arrived in Africa in 1943, at two locations, Casablanca, Morocco and Oran, Algiers in North Africa, to defeat the Nazi forces during World War II.
The all-Negro Second Cavalry Division was the last all-horse cavalrymen to ride in the United States Army.
John E. Collins, now in his 90th year, was born in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1924, at a time when the glorious epic stories of the Buffalo Soldiers were synonymous with the historic folklore of the Black Cowboys who helped tame the American West.
In 1943, Collins was drafted in Phoenix, Arizona and sent to Fort Clark, in Brackenville, Texas.
“I was in the last all-horse Division in the U.S. Army which included the Buffalo Soldiers and its four horse cavalry regiments,” said Collins.
“I was proud to be a part of the Buffalo soldiers because our troopers were considered to have a high degree of esprit de corps (morale) and courage.”
He was a horse cavalryman, private first class, who served in the 9th and 27th Cavalry regiments in Texas.
The Buffalo Soldiers arrived overseas at two locations, the 9th and 27th regiments at Assi Ben Okba, near Oran, Algeria, aboard the troopship USS Gen. Anderson; and the 10th and 28th regiments arrived in Casablanca aboard the troopship USS Billy Mitchell.
“After arriving in North Africa, the four regiments reassembled at a staging area. We received the bad news that our entire division was to be dismantled while on foreign soil,” Collins said.
“Our units were transformed overnight into hard labor units, port battalion stevedores, truck quartermasters, engineers, hard labor services units and replacements for the 751st tank battalion, 92nd Infantry Division and other all-Negro hard labor units, though the Division was combat trained.”
Realizing that the morale and the storied courage of the disappointed Buffalo Soldiers could be undermined, the War Department summoned NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White to Oran to calm the restless spirit of the thousands of colored troopers who were righteously indignant and to persuade them not to riot.
White’s Harlem Renaissance writings and activist credentials, earned from fighting Ku Klux Klan lynchings, helped to make him palatable to the group of proud African American war horsemen on African soil.
“We were hurt, and the scar from this regret forever remains,” said Collins.
“I stood just a foot from Walter White as he spoke to the many thousands of Negro troopers. He warned us that anything could happen, and unpleasant events could happen to us. We got his point.”
Referring to White’s book “A Rising Wind,” (1945), which chronicles the consternation of the Buffalo Soldiers in Africa, Collins credited White for using his masterful literary and journalistic skills to persuade them to remain calm.
Collins remained calm, but he never forgot how – with a stroke of a pen – people could be written out of history and forgotten.
He reflected back to the simpler times when he, as a teenager, rode horses and donkeys, kept his esprit de corps and returned home to attend college under the GI Bill to become a color printing pressman and later an ordained minister in the Seventh-day Adventist church. He printed the first business cards for Thomas L. Berkley, founder of the Post News Group.
As a Christian soldier and minister, he has quietly continued his search for ways to get African Americans recognized and included in the historical records.
A numismatist historian, he is knowledgeable about Negro signatures on currency, coins and medals in American history and has samples of each.
Collins’ book is expected to be released on or before the end of the year, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves. The book details what happened to the money of the freed slaves who deposited their earnings in the Freedman’s Bank.
Bank deposit records, which have been digitized by the Mormon Church Research Family History Library, are some of the first recordings of the names of former slaves.
By telling their life histories through their bank depositories, they wrote themselves into history. His book will be published by the Post News Group.
Collins will be honored next week in Fresno, where he once pastored, for his contributions and calmness in the face of military and societal storms.
Next: Collins and Blacks on the Money.