Buffalo Soldiers Taught Him About Soldiering and History
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 14, 1999 John E. Wright, 83, thought he knew how to soldier until he met the "old troopers" of the 9th Cavalry "Buffalo Soldiers" Regiment in 1938. They showed him a thing or two about soldiering and threw in a history lesson about the saga of African Americans on the battlefield.
The retired Army 1st sergeant, a resident of the Soldiers' and Airmen's Home here since 1969, said his more than 31 years of military experience, including World War II and the Korean War, can't touch what Buffalo Soldiers endured and accomplished on the Western frontier.
Unable to get a job after graduating from high school in 1934 during the Great Depression, Wright was "just running around, doing nothing." In 1937, one of his former schoolmates suggested joining the Army, but in those days, African Americans were not readily welcomed into the armed forces. Another friend suggested writing to the predominantly all-black 25th Infantry Regiment. Wright did so and was accepted.
After completing basic training at Fort Bragg, N.C., Wright went to Fort Huachuca, Ariz., for infantry training. While on field maneuvers in Louisiana, Wright received orders to report to the 2nd Cavalry Division at Fort Clark near Brackettville, Texas.
"That's when I joined the 9th Cavalry Regiment - the 'Buffalo Soldiers,' as a member of the weapons troop," said Wright, the son of a Chattanooga, Tenn., bricklayer. "I was a buck sergeant and thought I could really soldier, but those old Buffalo Soldiers taught me much. They were the cream of the crop. Their fathers and grandfathers were in the old 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments when those units were formed in 1866. They not only taught me how to ride, they taught me how to really soldier.
"And they taught me the history of Buffalo Soldiers that was handed down from mouth-to-mouth," said Wright, who joined the Army on March 8, 1937. The old troopers told him that in 1866 Congress created six all-black units, the 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st Infantry regiments, and the 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments - - led by white officers.
"Those units were made up of former slaves, freemen and black Civil War veterans," said Wright, who shares his military experiences with audiences at military installations, elementary schools, high schools and colleges in the Washington metropolitan area. "The westward movement had begun and their responsibilities were to maintain law and order and protect the westward-bound settlers, cattle herds, railroad crews and stagecoaches from outlaws, bandits and hostile Indians."
After the outbreak of World War II, Wright was among a group of cavalrymen selected to train troops. The 9th Cavalry was sent to North Africa in 1944 and was deactivated shortly after arriving. Wright was assigned to the 92nd Infantry Division's 365th Regimental Combat Team and fought in Italy.
"Some guys were assigned to the quartermasters and others to the engineers. I went to the infantry," Wright said. "My first combat action occurred after my outfit crossed the Arno River. I can't describe the fear, but you get over it. After your first battle, the fear goes away, but you still can be killed."
"I came near getting killed in the 365th Regimental Combat Team," said Wright. "A friend of mine was yelling, 'Look out John, there's a German behind you!' A German was coming up behind me with a bayonet to hit me in the back. But when I looked back, I saw the German falling backward. A sergeant had shot him in the back and saved my life.
"It took me a long time to get over that," Wright said.
In another incident, most of his unit was killed en route to a rendezvous with a general and some news reporters. The highest- ranking man, a staff sergeant, suffered a leg wound and told Wright to take over and get the remaining troops to the rendezvous point.
Still reeling from the fierce battle, Wright told the reporters to "go to hell" when they started firing questions at him. The general intervened to calm him down. He told Wright, "I know what you went through, but these people are not here to hurt you. They're here to help you by showing how well African American soldiers can fight."
"He then asked me, 'What's your name, sergeant?' " Wright said.
"I said, 'I'm Sgt. Wright,' " he answered.
"You're Lt. Wright now," the general said.
The division fought throughout Italy until the war ended in Europe. Wright was on a troop ship headed for the Pacific when the Japanese surrendered.
To keep his lieutenant's rank after the war, Wright had to graduate from the Officers' Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga. Unfortunately, all his fighting skills did not prepare him for the challenges he would face in the classroom. "Most of the training was nothing but basic training-type stuff I'd been teaching all along," Wright said. "But sweat jumped out of me when the lieutenant passed out pencils for us to take an examination. I didn't understand all of those words."
After congratulating the other students for completing the course, a colonel said, "Sgt. Wright, front and center."
Wright said the colonel "sort of laughed" and said: "Sergeant, the Army regrets that you flunked the test. You're a good field man, but you're not officer material. But the Army hasn't forgotten you. Congratulations, 1st Sgt. Wright.'"
"The Army tried to send me back to Officers' Candidate School three times, but I wouldn't go," he said. "I didn't want to go through that again."
One of his worse memories is from the Korean War when he was a 1st sergeant of a 2nd Infantry Division company. Two days after sending some men into battle, Wright received a call telling him he needed to go out and see what happened to his men.
"That was the most horrible thing to see -- all those young men sprawled out dead with playing cards scattered around them," Wright said. "They must have been playing cards and the Koreans creeped up and killed them. I'll never forget that because I told them not to take those cards to the field."
Wright said, as an African American, he went through "many nasty experiences" he doesn't like to think about, including officers, noncommissioned officer and troops using the "N" word. But, he said, "Everybody is not like that. I met some mean people, but there were a lot of good people, too."
Some of the demons of war followed him into retirement in 1968. "It took me a long time to get over that German trying to kill me and those troops killed in Korea," Wright said. "I'd wake up in cold sweats, and my wife, God bless her and rest her precious soul in heaven, said you must go to the hospital. They didn't give me any medicine. The doctor gave my wife a whistle and told her, 'When he starts having nightmares, stand over him and blow this whistle as loud as you can.' She did a few times, and you know, that healed me."
Wright learned to play the oboe and clarinet in high school and practiced on the instruments throughout his military career. In 1959, he was assistant conductor and clarinet player in the 4th Army Band in Texas and was sent on special assignment to the 8th Army Band in Germany.
"I joined the infantry when I came in the Army, but I played clarinet with several Army bands," Wright said. He used his musical talents to earn a living after retiring from the Army in 1968.
He traveled around playing at clubs and with symphony orchestras. "The last concert I conducted was Beethoven's 5th Symphony at Georgetown University here in Washington," he said. "Conducting is hard on your heart."
There's a passage in Mozart's concerto that Wright could never master, but he kept trying. "I kept dreaming I could play it, so one day I grabbed my clarinet and when I started to play that passage, I can't describe the pain," Wright said. "I just went down to the ground. Luckily, I had a pill and put it under my tongue and revived myself. My doctor told him to stop playing the clarinet."
Wright said he was devastated when his wife died at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 1968. "When I lost my wife, I almost went crazy and started drinking and not taking care of myself," he said. "One of my friends said: 'you're nothing but skin and bones. Why don't you go to the Soldier's Home and straighten yourself out?' I had one foot in the grave and the other almost in.
"I came here in 1969 and I've gotten on my feet since then," said Wright, who still accepts occasionally speaking engagements, mainly to talk to young people -- military and civilians.
When he wears his old Buffalo Soldier cavalry uniform on speaking engagements at schools. The students try to draw pictures of him, he said with a chuckle. "The kids asked me all kinds of questions," Wright said. "One of them asked me, 'Have you ever killed a man?' I told him it's not good to kill anybody. But in a war, it's like self defense -- nobody knows who they kill -- and you fight to keep from being killed."
He treasures a large Christmas card signed by an elementary school class with comments like, "You're a brave soldier."
"President Clinton must have heard about me sharing my experiences with different groups and invited me to the White House for breakfast on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 1997," Wright said. "When I shook his hand, the president said, 'You're looking good.' I said, 'You're looking good, too.'"
Visit the DoD "Home for Heroes" web site at www.defenselink.mil/specials/heroes/.