On his dining room table James “Pat” Daugherty had arranged some old faded photographs from his Army days, his Bronze Star, a copy of his recently published World War II memoir, The Buffalo Saga, and his olive-drab steel helmet, marred near the visor by a chunk of now-rusted iron.
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“If you feel the inside of the helmet, you can see how close it was,” he says of the shrapnel from a German mortar that struck the young private in Italy in the fall of 1944. A few more millimeters, and he might never have lived to write his memoir, which is what I went to his home in Silver Spring, Maryland, to learn about.
Daugherty, 85, served in the Army’s storied 92nd Infantry Division, which was made up almost entirely of African-Americans and was the last racially segregated unit in the U.S. armed forces. Known as the Buffalo Soldiers—a name that Native Americans had bestowed on a black cavalry unit after the Civil War—men of the 92nd division were among the only African-Americans to see combat in Europe, battling German troops in Italy. In 1948, President Truman issued an executive order that ended racial segregation in the military.
Daugherty, drafted at age 19, was so deeply affected by his two years in the division that he wrote an account of the experience soon after he returned home in 1947. He self-published the story this year, virtually unchanged from the manuscript he had scribbled in longhand. The Buffalo Saga promises to be a significant addition to the history of African-American troops in World War II because it was written by a participant almost immediately following the events in question, rather than recollected or reconstructed years later.
Daugherty says he put pen to paper because friends and family members were always asking, “ ‘What did you do when you were over there?’ ”
Years ago he tried once to find a publisher, with no success. “I think the content was too caustic,” says Dorothy, his wife of 59 years.
The Buffalo Saga is indeed a raw, unvarnished, often angry account of a decorated young soldier’s encounter with institutionalized racial prejudice. Once, while fighting in Italy in 1945, another soldier in the 92nd Infantry Division said his company had lost too many men to continue fighting. Daugherty asked why the officers couldn’t just call up replacements. “Look, bud, they don’t train colored soldiers to fight,” the soldier told Daugherty. “They train them to load ships, and you don’t expect them to put white boys in a Negro outfit, do you? What do you think this is, a democracy or something?”
Daugherty’s memoir also recalls the time a black soldier got shipped out to the front lines in Italy after confronting a white officer. Word was the officer had threatened to send him where he’d get his “smart Negro brains” blown out. “I merely wondered how many men were here to be punished because they had dared to express a desire to be treated like men,” Daugherty writes.
But the book isn’t a screed. It’s an honest, even poignant account of a young man fighting in a war.
One night in late December 1944, Daugherty’s platoon got orders to patrol a mountain and not come back until it had a prisoner. He and the rest of his company ducked under friendly fire, and Daugherty advanced ahead of the troops. “The first thing I knew I had stumbled upon a barrier constructed of wooden plank and heavy-cut branches,” he wrote. “I was about to try to cross this when I caught the movement of a form in the darkness. I looked up, and it was a Jerry.” He and another private captured him and returned to camp. For this, Daugherty earned his Bronze Star.