Trooper David J. Allen, veteran of the 10th Cavalry Regiment, gets a fond, faraway look in his eye as he tells the one about the old-timers in the regiment who all smoked Bull Durham. "They got so expert we used to say they could roll one while riding a horse at full gallop in a rainstorm."
Such is the stuff of reunions, and the 122nd anniversary reunion of the 9th and 10th (Horse) Cavalry Assn., which ended this weekend, was no exception. About 200 veterans of the two black regiments, formed by an act of Congress in 1866 for "colored" men and inactivated in 1944 during World War II, came together with wives and family from around the country. They met at the Westin Bonaventure for four days, to remember the role they played, according to the reunion chairman, Col. Frank J. Henderson (Ret.), "in the settlement of the West and defense of our nation."
Past Deeds Live Again
They are better known as the Buffalo Soldiers, a name given them by the Plains Indians, their adversaries, for reasons lost to history. The Buffalo Soldiers fought in the Indian campaigns that extended from Montana to Texas in the late 19th Century. They were there along with the Rough Riders for the charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. And they went over the border into Mexico with Gen. John J. Pershing in pursuit of Pancho Villa in 1916.
All of those past deeds were alive last week, so much so that there were moments when it seemed some of the men at the Bonaventure had personally known Geronimo or been at Little Big Horn, this in spite of the fact that the oldest Buffalo soldier at the reunion, William Harrington, 93, signed up in 1913 and that most joined in the '30s. The esprit de corps was still that high among the men, most of whom showed up with their motto "We can; We will!" emblazoned on their caps.
Trooper Thomas H. Allsup III of Compton came laden with lovingly kept scrapbooks and memorabilia of his grandfather and namesake who had served from 1867 to 1895. Allsup himself was not a Buffalo Soldier, although he was functioning that day as one of several unofficial historians. His grandfather died in 1922, a few years before Allsup was born, but his father had passed the heritage down to the grandsons.
Leaning on his knees, walking a stranger through the albums, he spoke with reverence and fondness of his grandfather and the regiment: "Black Jack Pershing was his commanding officer for his last two years. My grandfather had 17 children. He talked to Geronimo." He went on to talk of the regiment: "Isaiah Dorman was killed in the Battle of Little Big Horn with Custer. He was a scout. Custer had requested him. He was married to an Indian woman and he knew Sitting Bull. On his grave it just says Isaiah. Dorman was his slave name."
If there is a romance about the regiments now, there seems to have been none when the Buffalo Soldiers signed up.
"Because I didn't have nuthin' else to do," Harrington said of signing up in 1913 when he was 18, laughing and slapping his knee at what sounded like some hard memories. "My mother and father were gone. I wanted to be where those horses was and ride and eat and sleep. Back in those days you didn't have so much to eat."
Nor was it much different a generation later. When he was 20, Trooper Presley W. Burroughs Jr. of Los Angeles joined the 9th in 1938: "It was the tail end of the Depression. I should have gone into the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). It was a purely economic decision."
At Fort Riley, he said, he rode almost every day, but he worked as a blacksmith.
"It's an exacting job," he said of shoeing horses. He did not continue it in civilian life. "I walked away from it. And I haven't been on a horse since."
A Former Blacksmith
The former blacksmith, now 71, retired from work as a computer operator. If that sounds like a leap over centuries to some, to him they're related: "If you're able to learn one trade, you can always learn something else."
David Allen's mother tried to get him into the CCC too, he said, in 1936 in Wichita, Kan. "Only you needed influence at City Hall for that, so I enlisted in the Army," he said. "I went to the Navy first, but Negroes were only allowed for mess duty, so I went across the street to the Army recruiter and signed up for the 10th Cavalry. I remained with the regiment until 1944 when we were inactivated in North Africa."
He stayed in the service and eventually transferred to the Air Force, leaving in 1960, "and I've missed it ever since."
The high points were the years with the Buffalo Soldiers, years that had some hard moments but that he remembers as fun: "I wouldn't have missed it for the world."
Allen is regarded by the others as the historian of the association and regularly puts out a newsletter. A man of quiet personal modesty, he does not hide his pride in the regiment and moves easily from telling funny stories of horses that would not get up on a cold morning or tried to fake a limp to tales of glory.