February 5, 1945 - Black History Month: Battle of the Serchio River
Updated: Jun 1, 2021
Black History Month Post: February 5, 1945. The 92nd Infantry Division, the segregated "Buffalo Soldier" division, attacks German forces in Italy along the Serchio River. The failure of this attack, despite previous and later excellent performance of black soldiers, is held up for many years as "evidence" of the poor combat ability of African-American troops. The 92nd Division never gets the credit it deserves for its combat record.
Despite entering World War II to rid the world of a racially based tyranny of monstrous proportions, the United States entered World War II with segregated armed forces. African-American soldiers were typically restricted to menial labor and construction jobs, and only rarely formed into combat units. Where black and white soldiers served together, they were assigned separate barracks, separate facilities and even served chow in the field in separate lines. The excellent performance of black "Buffalo Soldiers" in the Civil War, the Indian Wars and World War I was handwaved or forgotten. The real issue, of course, was that Southern segregationists did not want self-confident black men trained in weaponry at large in the South.
When World War II began, several black combat units were formed, but for the most part they were intentionally kept away from the front line, restricted to rear duties and often farmed out as labor or service units. Racism was prevalent among many high-ranking American officers, and they had a generally low opinion of black soldiers.
The 92nd Infantry Division was the only black division to serve in the European Theater. It was formed in the United States in 1942, but only sent overseas in 1944 due to the lack of infantry on the Italian Front - the campaign in France and Germany had sucked away most American reinforcements, and the 92nd Division was the last resort. It arrived in Italy in October 1944 and was immediately sent north to fight the Germans and Italians in the Apennine Mountains.
The 92nd's commander was General Edward M. Almond, a VMI graduate and native Southerner. Army brass picked Almond to lead the division because, in the worst twisting of logic possibly ever used in a high command assignment, they felt that Southern whites "understood" black people in a way Northern officers never could. This was a grave mistake. Almond considered black soldiers inferior, and treated them like it.
The 92nd was moved into line on the Serchio River in December 1944, the first time a large African-American unit had been tested against Axis forces. On December 26, the Germans attacked. Though they initially made some gains, the Buffalo Soldiers held their own, and ground the Nazis to a halt in the river valley. The 92nd had not performed like an elite unit - but it had fought, and fought hard. They got no credit for this. Every gain was discounted as the achievement of white officers; every loss was blamed on black soldiers.
Their greatest scapegoating was still to come. On February 5, 1945, the 92nd Division was sent in against German lines. They were tasked with crossing the Cinquale Canal and attacking a German position. Their poor morale and discipline, suffering under the low expectations of their officers and the Army's segregationist policies, broke the division. Bogged down in the canal, the 92nd disintegrated. By February 8, the attack had ended.
Almond, who had made no secret of his contempt for his soldiers, blamed them for the failed attack. His words: "No white man wants to be accused of leaving the battle line. The Negro doesn't care.... people think being from the South we don't like Negroes. Not at all, but we understand his capabilities. And we don't want to sit at the table with them."
In truth, the failure of the 92nd at the Serchio was disproved earlier with the December attack, and later in April 1945 when they cracked through German lines and helped end the war in Italy. It received no credit for these triumphs, though - the high command and Almond, as well as the American press, focused on the failures.
Multiple soldiers of the 92nd committed feats of bravery equal to any in the European Theater, but no medals were recommended for their actions. Lieutenant John Fox, a black officer in a white man's Army, would be awarded the Medal of Honor for the Serchio, but not until 1997 - long after his death manning his artillery in 1945.
Nevertheless, the 92nd's service in Italy was the last time a segregated division would be fielded by the United States Army. When it was disbanded in November 1945, the Buffalo Soldiers faded into memory. President Truman's desgregation of the armed forces in 1948 met heavy resistance, especially from the likes of Edward Almond, who during his service in the Korean War would resegregate already integrated units and deny black soldiers any medals.
Nevertheless, the tide had turned. The day that African-Americans could not only serve with distinction, but even reach the rank of general, was not far off. And the 92nd helped make that possible, one bitter winter's day on the Serchio in 1945.
For a good overview of the Black experience in World War II, check out Mary Motley's The Invisible Soldier: The Experience of the Black Soldier, World War II (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1975). For the Black American military experience in general, there is the always excellent Bernard Nalty's Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986).