By Yamiche Alcindor | Washington Post Staff Writer | Monday, October 12, 2009
Joseph Hairston enlisted in the Army in 1940 as an 18-year-old and still remembers the cold stares and disgusted gazes of his white commanding officers.
Hairston, 87, served in the 599th Field Artillery Battalion and became one of the Army's first black commissioned officers. He deployed to Italy in 1944 and, like other black soldiers, ate, slept and trained separately from white soldiers. Even so, Hairston remained in the Army and went on to serve in Korea. He retired after 20 years. "I believe in my country," Hairston said. "As bad as the past has been, there's nowhere else I want to be."
Hairston is a Buffalo soldier, one of thousands of African Americans who served in a segregated U.S. Army during World War II. This past weekend in Silver Spring, Hairston joined dozens of other Buffalo soldiers at the annual reunion hosted by the Washington-based 92nd Infantry Division (Buffalo) Association, founded in 1982 as a means of preserving the division's history.
The 92nd was formed with African American soldiers during World War I and reactivated during World War II. The nickname traces to the one given black soldiers who fought in the 19th-century wars on the western frontier. Historians say the nickname of Buffalo soldier was given by the Indians to their African American adversaries because of their curly hair and as a sign of respect for their valor and prowess.
Some of the veterans at the Silver Spring reunion slowly walked around the room, canes in hand, greeting their old friends.
Others sat in their wheelchairs, telling stories. The men, some of whom traveled from Ohio, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, are well into their 80s and 90s. An 84-year-old, in this group, ranks as a "youngster.