Remembrance: 92nd Infantry vanished without honor
Two platoons of Black soldiers fought gallantly on Christmas Eve, 1944, in the face of overwhelming German forces, before paying the ultimate sacrifice
Major General Edward Almond, Commanding General of the 92nd Infantry Division, inspects his troops during a decoration ceremony, March 1945. Photo: Public Domain, Wikimedia
What happened to two platoons of the all-Black 92nd Infantry Division of WW II after the battle at Sommocolonia, Italy on Christmas Eve 1944?
The all-Black 92nd Infantry Division of World War II, specifically two platoons numbering less than 100 men, fought with uncommon valor in the bloody, bruising campaign in and around the mountainous village of Sommocolonia, Italy.
The focus is the little-known heart-rending saga of two platoons of Black soldiers that fought gallantly on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1944, in the face of overwhelming German forces, before paying the ultimate sacrifice for an ungrateful nation, whose majority White government largely dismissed them as inferior.
The rise of Black soldiers in combat
Racially segregated combat Black units had something to prove in World War II. White Americans tended to forget the contribution made by Black servicemen in previous conflicts, going back to the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican–American War.
Of the 909,000 Black Americans selected for duty in the U.S. Army during World War II, only one Black division saw infantry combat in Europe – the 92nd Infantry Division. The vast majority of African-Americans in uniform were assigned to segregated construction or supply units or placed in units that performed unpleasant duties such as graves registration. The government’s view was that Blacks were not motivated or aggressive enough to fight.
While the 92nd Infantry was referred to as a Black unit, and its enlisted men and most of its junior officers were Black, its higher officers were White. The 92nd, which had fought in France during World War I, was re-activated in 1942. Under the command of Maj. Gen. Edward M. Almond, the 92nd began combat training in October 1942 and went into action in Italy in the summer of 1944.
Nicknamed “Buffalo Soldier,” which dates back to Black volunteers during the U.S. Calvary’s “Indian Campaigns” in the 1860s, Native Americans coined the term out of respect for a worthy enemy. According to information of the time, Native Americans likened Black soldiers with dark skin and curly hair to buffaloes, and the nickname just stuck.
Following years of refusal following the Indian campaigns by the U.S. to include Blacks in the infantry as fighting men, in the spring of 1944, after unrelenting pressure from the Black community – namely Black newspapers and Black politicians – the U.S. government grudgingly rescinded its policy excluding African-American soldiers from combat. On July 30, 1944, the first wave of Buffalo Soldiers – the 370th Regimental Combat Team – disembarked at Naples, Italy, where they were greeted by a jubilant crowd of Black American soldiers from other service units. The rest of the division would arrive a few months later.
According to HistoryNet, “African American 92nd Infantry Division Fought in Italy During World War II,” by Robert Hodges, Jr., the following lays the groundwork to the 92nd Infantry Division’s waning battle campaigns in Italy on the German front in World War II:
Hodges wrote, “American troops were facing an uphill battle in Italy, and at that point the Allies were desperately short of infantry troops. After months of hard fighting, the Allies had managed to push German forces under Field Marshal Albert Kesselring almost 500 bloody miles up the Italian peninsula. But even after the fall of Rome on June 4, 1944, the Germans had simply retreated in an orderly fashion from one line of defense to another rather than acknowledge defeat.
The 92nd was expected to launch a major offensive on Dec. 1 in support of the II Corps’ renewed attack on Bologna. The attack was rescheduled for Christmas Day due to a predicted German counterattack. When intelligence reports indicated a large German build-up in the northern region of the Serchio Valley, the men of the 371st were transferred to the coastal sector, and elements of the 366th were sent to the valley to support the 370th. Although the Fifth Army never launched its early December assault, it was not a quiet month in the Serchio Valley. The Buffalo Soldiers continued to advance, town by town, against German artillery, mortar and small-arms fire. American engineers at first repaired bridges and roads for the advance, but soon shifted to defensive work, laying minefields, rigging bridges for demolition, and helping to evacuate civilians in anticipation of the German counterattack.
On Christmas Eve the Fifth Army called off its Christmas Day assault, but the Buffalo Soldiers, who were deployed on both sides of the Serchio River, continued to advance, facing German mortar and artillery rounds as they moved through more of northern Italy’s mountain towns. The 366th’s 2nd Battalion held the town of Barga on the American right flank, while the 370th held Gallicano, west of the Serchio River.
On Christmas Eve, the 370th sent its 2nd Battalion east of the river into the little village of Sommocolonia, the northernmost edge of the American line. Light artillery and mortar rounds hit Sommocolonia but there seemed to be little enemy activity, so most of the 2nd Battalion moved out for duty elsewhere, leaving behind only two platoons. On the extreme right, just east of Sommocolonia, lay the villages of Bebbio and Scarpello, occupied by two platoons of the 92nd Division Reconnaissance Troop.
Before sunrise on the day after Christmas, the Germans attacked the villages just north and east of Gallicano. Although the primary German assault seemed to come from west of the river, toward Gallicano, partisans were also battling enemy soldiers north of Sommocolonia later in the morning. Within two hours, Sommocolonia and the two American platoons there were surrounded. A third platoon moved up to reinforce the embattled Sommocolonia troops.
Lt. John Fox, an artillery forward observer for the 366th, exemplified the impressive fighting spirit of the Black soldiers. When enemy troops surrounded the lieutenant’s position inside a house and were about to overrun him, he ordered artillery fire directly on his own position, sacrificing his life. Fox’s heroic action bought valuable time that helped save other troops, and he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, later commuted to the Medal of Honor by President Bill Clinton in 1997.
The two platoons of the 370th, along with a group of partisans, engaged in house-to-house fighting with the enemy during that battle. Many of the Germans were dressed as partisans, making the situation even more confusing and dangerous. Just before noon, the platoons were ordered to evacuate the village, but they were trapped. They managed to hold out until nightfall, but of the 70 Americans involved, only one officer and 17 men managed to fight their way out of the village that night as ordered.”
The ill-fated platoons
German forces ran over and eviscerated the two platoons of Black soldiers that had tried vainly to hold the village. Practically out of ammunition with no support from the U.S. Fifth Army in the rear, the platoons were slaughtered by the Nazis. Of the 102 American and Italian Partisan defenders of Sommocolonia, 77 were killed – 69 Blacks and 8 Italians. Only 18 Black GIs made it alive to U.S. Army lines.
The bodies of their fallen brothers lay behind in the soggy mire of the battle zone. They fought heroically, but the U.S. Army dismissed their valor as unworthy of official recognition and erased the military records of their sacrifice at Sommocolonia — no burial, gravestones, or honor for their valor.
Deeds of Solace Wells
The Italian newspaper, Sommocolia Chronicle, in 1997, published a story by Frank Viviano chronicling the story of Americans Solace Wales and her husband, Bill Sheets, two artists from Kentfield in Marin County near San Francisco, who bought a house in Sommocolonia in 1973 on the edge of a cliff at 2,200 feet above sea level. Little did they know the move would forever link them to a tragic episode of WW II history.
“From her kitchen window,” Viviano wrote, “Wales [views] craggy granite peaks that frame the 35-mile-long Serchio Valley, where the 92nd Infantry fought its way north 74 years ago. Cutting sharply through two precipitous mountain ranges, the valley was a key stretch of the ‘Gothic Line,’ the principal German defensive bulwark in Italy.
“Wandering around on a hilltop above her home one day, Wales happened onto a stone marker that read in Italian: ‘John Fox, U.S. Army Lieutenant, Dec. 26, 1944.’ The marker had been erected by the village authorities and stood next to the graves of anti-Fascist Italian Partisans who died in Sommocolonia.
“Curious, Wales asked a neighbor about Fox. ‘He was one of the Black Americans who died here back in the war,’ came the reply. ‘They almost all died, you know.’
“Why, wondered Wales, was there no American monument to Fox and his comrades? What had happened to them?”
The short conversation set Solace Wells on a two-decade search for answers. She started with the other villagers, gradually interviewing anyone who was old enough to remember the war and tape-recording their accounts.
According to Viviano, for a dozen years, Wales had no idea that anyone had survived the battle. Back in the U.S., she had tried to broaden her research in U.S. Army archives but found nothing in the official records, not even a list of the men who had died at Sommocolonia. The Italians remembered them, but as far as the army was concerned, two platoons had simply vanished with the withering smoke of battle. They didn’t care.
The 92nd infantry’s own commanding officers had considered Blacks in combat as an experiment and fully expected them to throw down their guns and run. They were held in contempt by the Nazis as well as their own American commanding officers.
The German 14th Army had been instructed not to take prisoners from the 92nd Division because its soldiers were Black – and, by official Nazi standards, not fully human, Viviano wrote.
The American Fifth Army, encamped six miles to the south of the Black soldiers dug in deep in Sommocolonia, refused to provide either reinforcements for the besieged troops or blood transfusions for their wounded. They were Black, and by official U.S. Army standards in World War II, not fully soldiers.
U.S. Army fully integrated today
Today, the U.S. Army is among America’s most successfully integrated institutions, with Black officers at the highest level. But in 1944, racism in the Army was astonishingly crude, government-sanctioned policy.
“The military had become an extension of the Southern political system because of its close ties to Southern congressmen who controlled military appropriations, and because a large number of the senior White officers in the Army were Southerners,” former 92nd Infantry Capt. Dennette A. Harrod Sr. recalled in a 1992 speech at the U.S. Army War College.
If Black soldiers were wounded in action and required emergency blood transfusions, only the plasma of other Black soldiers could be used to save their lives, and the bold, audacious declaration of a White Army general to officers of the Black 92nd at their landing in Italy were harbingers of terrible things to come.
“I did not send for you,” Gen. Edmund Almond, commandant of the 92nd Division told his African-American junior officers after their disembarkation in Italy. “Your Negro newspapers, Negro politicians and White friends have insisted on your seeing combat, and I shall see that you get combat and your share of casualties.”
Horrific battlefield policy did manifest.
If a Black unit became undermanned, White GIs could not be sent to reinforce it. When the 92nd Division was so depleted by losses that it could no longer be sent into combat, it was combined with the all- Japanese American 442nd Infantry Regiment in what was dismissively referred to as “the Rainbow Division.” The families of Japanese-American GIs at home in the states were confined to Japanese Internment camps such as Manzanar, Poston, Tule Lake, and Gila River, among others.
The Black combatants truly were caught between a rock and a hard place.
But for 20 critical hours, the tiny complement of soldiers held out against the German offensive juggernaut. On the day after Christmas 1944, the Black GIs in Sommocolonia were determined to prove that official assumptions, German and American alike, were wrong. Most of them were dead within 24 hours and all but forgotten by their own country within a year.
There were other 92nd vets, widows, and children haunted by the story and couldn’t let it rest. For 50 years they pounded at the Pentagon‘s and their legislators’ doors to set the historical record straight.
Solace Wales kept digging. She felt sadness that the Black soldiers of the two platoons had been disregarded so casually. Wales had learned from the people of Sommocolonia how they had virtually nothing except chestnuts to eat in the bitter winter of 1944 until the Black GIs arrived and shared their rations.
The tireless work over five decades by the battle’s few survivors, and 20 years of research by Wales, who accidentally stumbled onto their tale, was not in vain to fill in the empty page in that history.
In 1997 the heroes at Sommocolonia alas were vindicated. A peace park northwest of Florence, Italy, was dedicated to their memory and in their honor in the presence of U.S. diplomats and Italian dignitaries.
The park is also a monument to American racial bigotry at a moment when the U.S. Army was waging war against Adolf Hitler‘s racist ideology and dreams of world domination.
On Jan. 13, 1997, 53 years after they died, the Black soldiers who defended Sommocolonia, Italy, were finally accorded a symbolic honorable interment.
HistoryNet, “African American 92nd Infantry Division Fought in Italy During World War II,” by Robert Hodges, Jr., and Sommocolonia Chronicle writer Frank Viviano contributed to this feature.