Military Service: U.S. Army 1943–1946
Co-op affiliation: Pee Dee Electric Cooperative
Of the 909,000 black Americans selected for duty in the Army during World War II, only one black division saw combat action in Europe–the 92nd Infantry Division. Hartsville native Heyward Cuffie was a member of the segregated unit nicknamed “Buffalo Soldiers,” a moniker given to African-American cavalrymen by Native Americans in the 19th century.
In the summer of 1944, after two years of intensive training at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., Cuffie recalls his commander saying “a whole division was wiped out by the Germans in Italy.” Desperately short of infantry troops, the Army rescinded its policy excluding black soldiers from combat and Cuffie, a private first class, was on his way to the frontlines in the mountains of Italy. The terrain gave German soldiers a tremendous tactical advantage.
“We’re down there in the Po Valley and have the Germans looking right down on us,” says Cuffie. “Some of those shells that blew up would leave a hole big enough to swallow four cars.”
The unit was subjected to unrelenting attacks as it fortified its position in the valley and waited for reinforcements to help drive the Germans off the mountaintops. “We were pinned down in a foxhole for seven days,” Cuffie recalls. “There was no food, no water. I had to drink my own urine to survive.”
His two best friends in the Army were not so fortunate. “I watched both of them get shot right in front of me,” says Cuffie. “For days, all I could do was look at them and pray. There was nowhere to go.”
Cuffie has no recollection of leaving the foxhole. He awoke in a military hospital to sobering news: A doctor told him a mortar attack had left his left arm hanging by a thread. “I said, ‘Please don’t take my arm, doc. Please don’t do it.’”
Surgeons repaired his injuries as best they could, and Cuffie was sent home on a hospital ship, just as Allied forces began a successful assault on the Germans that would drive them out of Italy. “I didn’t leave the hospital for six months,” Cuffie says, “but I got to keep my arm.”
Honorably discharged in early 1946, Cuffie recovered much of the use of his arm and began a 40-year career as a union representative for steelworkers at Bethlehem Steel in Maryland. When it was time to retire, he moved back to Darlington County in 1984, just miles from where he was born on a small family farm.
Today, Cuffie is keenly aware of the role his division played in military history. He still has his division patch that bears the outline of a buffalo and proudly wears his World War II Veteran cap whenever he leaves home.
“They [people] see the cap and always want to shake my hand and say ‘thank you’ for what I did,” says Cuffie. “I’m just thankful to shake their hand because some of my buddies never got that chance.”