IVAN HOUSTON “Buffalo Soldiers of WWII” at WVRC on Sept 30
DWIGHT HEIKKILA provided a thought for the day he quoted the Governor of Kansas, Edward Hoch, 100 years ago, who said, “There’s so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, it hardly behooves any of us to talk about the rest of us.” It’s hard to disagree with those thoughts thanks, DWIGHT.
I was to lead the Pledge, and before doing so, I recalled that in the middle of WWII, we eliminated our outstretched hand in giving the Pledge people thought it was too similar to the Nazi salute. Personally, I liked it. Anyway, we then got through the Four Way Test. President GORDON stepped in for LENNY, and led us in God Bless America.
We had no Visiting Rotarians, but there were several guests. SUNNY was of course with LENNY, and PP STEVE SCHERER brought his daughter, Rachel. DON NELSON had two guests, Uly Griggs and Jim Agee both of whom recognized fellow members of the Westwood Mafia. Athena Jackson came in late. Meanwhile, GORDON and DON provided some names we have missed, including SUSAN ALLEN, SHERRY DEWANE, SUSAN KLEIN, HENRIETTA LIAN, STEVE LOHR, KEVIN KOMATSU, ANN SAMSON and BOB THOM. We miss you guys!
Update of Ava Peplow:
Ava has moved, and is now at 5457 Woodman Ave, Sherman Oaks, 91401. Mail to her at that address, and her phone number is (818)994-3289. She will apparently be there for awhile but do call, she would love to hear from you.
PP RON LYSTER reported on his recent trip to the Orient. They spent some time in Beijing and Shanghai, and ended up in Hong Kong, which is always special. However, the downside to this report is that it cost RON fifty big ones! And this got President GORDON so excited that he nicked TERRY M. WHITE for twenty bucks for some alleged crime. Looking ahead, we are challenged by the Manhattan Beach Rotary Club to a Golf Tournament, which will take place on November 22nd. There was an unconfirmed report that who else but ELLIOTT TURNER will, for a fee, provide sure-fire tips on how to cheat. Note I stress that this notice has not been checked with Snopes or anyone else, so proceed with some caution.
ALY SHOJI reported on the forthcoming District Humanitarian Trip, visiting the Dominican Republic from Feb 17th to the 21st. This is an annual event, and details will follow. President GORDON provided a short series of stories: Jim Benson and Jessie Carter were married recently, thus ending a friendship begun in High School. The Low Self Esteem Study Group will meet at 8 pm. Please use the rear door. And, Weightwatchers are reminded of their forthcoming meeting and cautioned to use the double doors to enter. There was one more, but I lost it, somehow.
President GORDON provided some insight into the meeting in Munich, which ended on Sept 30th 1938 72 years ago today. Germany, France, Italy and Britain signed an agreement which was supposed to end all wars. Neville Chamberlain reported this to the British Parliament as his triumph. The lesson to be learned here is that you have to know the history and track record of those you are dealing with.
MARGIE DOWNIE provided me with the sad news that Carol Pennell died on the 23rd of September. Carol had been ill for some time, and there is no further word as to Memorial plans.
PP CHRIS BRADFORD introduced our Speaker, Ivan J. Houston. Mr. Houston is the author of Black Warriors: The Buffalo Soldiers of WWII. This book chronicles his experiences with the first all-black combat infantry regiment, the 370th of the segregated 92nd Infantry Division. He tells of his journey in war-torn Italy as a young black infantryman and the odyssey of his regimental combat team of four thousand men, whose mission was to break through the Nazis’ infamous “Gothic Line”. Mr. Houston graduated from UC Berkeley in 1948, and began an over four decade successful business career, retiring in 1990 as Chairman/CEO of the historically black-owned Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife of 64 years, Philippe. They have three children, two grandsons, and two great-grandchildren.
Mr. Huston began by reminding us that WWII actually started on Sept 1st, 1939 when the Germans invaded Poland. During its course, perhaps fifty million people were killed the greatest tragedy of all time. The U.S. had twelve million men under arms, of whom one million were negroes. At this point, he digressed by noting that in that time, the people we now call blacks or African-Americans, were called negroes. As a group, they were 2nd class citizens, and their treatment all over the U.S. was very uneven. In the west, and the north, their access to education was OK (his term). However, in the deep south, there was real segregation.
The leaders of the black population postulated that by fighting, they could become recognized as first class citizens. Yet only 5% of those in the service actually participated in combatsome 50,000, total. The rest were in service units handling cargo for ships, as truck drivers, building airfields, etc. (Speaking personally, a man I knew who headed the University Religious Conference after the war was a Captain, in charge of an entirely black transportation unit.) Mr. Houston’s book is based on the Operations Journal of the 3rd battalion, 370th Infantry Regiment, and had 400 pages. It was maintained by Mr. Huston and several other enlisted men. By the end of the War, Huston had become the Sergeant Major of the Battalion, and thus was able to bring the Journal back to the U.S. Thus it sat in his closet for over sixty years.
Before the Army, Houston attended UC Berkeley in 1942, and enlisted in the Army the day before his 18th birthday, in June 1943 this not so much out of patriotism but because it gave him a six-month deferral. So he began his active duty on 3 January 1944. reporting to Ft. MacArthur. This was his first experience with Army segregation, with whites and blacks kept completely separate. There was an established rule that no negro should ever command a white soldier. Huston was unusual, since he had some college, while almost all the other recruits were just off the streets. He had done some boxing, and one of the other recruits challenged him to a fight. Huston won handily, and thereafter never had any challenges.
He wanted to go to the Air Force, but with his college, was chosen for the Army Specialized Training Program ASTP. He was a member until March 1944, when the Army decided they were losing too many men and transferred the entire ASTP to the Infantry. His unit had 200 whites and six blacks, by the way. The Division was led by senior officers from the deep south chosen because they knew how to handle blacks. Some of the junior officers were black, but they never commanded any whites. The Division was trained at Fort Wytucka (sp?) in northern Arizona the high desert. They took training marches of 5 miles in one hour, nine miles in two hours, and 25 miles in eight hours (note that a normal walking pace is perhaps three miles per hour.) All this was in 100 degree temperature.
In July 1944 they were sent overseas, aboard the USS Mariposa. Their CO was Colonel Sherman, and they called themselves Sherman’s Raiders. They landed in Oran in North Africa, changed ships and sailed for Italy. The first thing Huston remembers is seeing a smoking mountain - Vesuvius was acting up. They landed at Civitavecchia, the port of Rome, which was badly bombed. On August 23rd, they went into the line just south of the Arno River. They were greeted by Axis Sally, an American who broadcast discouraging lies. She also provided them with the Password for the Fifth Army which of course was supposed to be known only to our troops. That first night, one of his close friends was killed while returning from patrol. On Sept 1st they crossed the Arno and began moving north freeing people who had been under German control, and they were joyously welcomed. They kept hearing, “Viva Americani”. It made us all feel like conquering heroes. If you think about it, here were white Italians greeting black Americans as liberators. His particular unit was hit 137 times by artillery fire. One of the results of artillery fire is that the shrapnel which is released comes back down and Houston was hit in the shoulder by shrapnel.
He reported to the aid station, they removed the shrapnel, bandaged him and sent him back into the line! At one point, their unit was relieved by a Brazilian unit, since they had soldiers on the line also. Nobody spoke Portuguese, but Houston’s record showed he had studied Spanish one semester while at Cal! Another time their unit was relieving a British unit the Coldstream Guards. Even while under artillery attack, it was 4 pm and thus, tea time. One night they were under attack, and it was pouring rain. Each man was to grab the belt of the man ahead of him, who was thus supposed to know where he wanted to go. He got behind Sweeny, who was widely known as a screw-up! Sure enough, they got lost, but eventually found their way to their unit. They sometimes suffered tremendous casualties -70 men, once.
He told of Jake McGinnis, a BAR (Browning Automatic Repeater) operator, killed a lot of Germans, but eventually was killed himself by a concussion grenade. In November, two of the five men who played cards together on the way over were killed - thus three of the five were killed in four months. Late in the campaign, they were put under the command of a South African unit. They were in heavy snow, were given white uniforms, and here were these black men, in white. They discovered the Italian liquor, grappa, and on the way to dinner on January 1st, Houston remembers throwing grenades off the back of their truck! They were assigned to an Italian family, who were given a turkey, and they had an excellent dinner. In February, they were under attack, and lost both their commanding Captains. In March they were completely reorganized one battalion was black, another was white, and the third was from the Japanese American 552 Infantry, the most decorated regiment in the entire U. S. Army.
They were visited by the Commanding General of the entire Army, General George C. Marshall.
Finally, on May 2nd, 1945, they learned that the Germans in Italy had all surrendered. The Italians were so excited that they started shooting, and the American Colonel was asked to come out on the balcony to take a bow but he was afraid, of the rambunctious Italians! Later, their unit returned what they thought were the ashes of Christopher Columbus to Genoa, his birthplace!
A brief Q&A Where did the term Buffalo Soldiers come from? During the Civil War, some of the blacks came from the west to fight the Indians, and this was a term of respect since Buffalos were brave and so were the blacks. Mr Houston’s father was an officer in the first World War, and the black soldiers then inherited the title of Buffalo Soldiers. Have you ever returned to Italy? Yes, seven times, and I’ll go anytime just ask me! Uly Griggs asked to have the family fighting history recalled. They fought in both the Civil War and even the Revolutionary War.
Ivan Houston, we thank you for an excellent history of a fighting unit during WWII.