“His eye roved over the bare mesa and out to where quivering heat waves distorted the outlines of the distant hills, huge, angular masses of scarified rock, the slag and clinkers of some ancient volcanic blaze uprearing tortured pinnacles and twisted turrets to the pitiless sky.” This portrayal of Fort Bliss by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s alter ego character Major Davies appeared in a story “Beelzebub the Bane,” Adventure, July 1927. Although the bare mesa is now an urban environment the angular masses of scarified rock are immediately recognizable from the cinematic description.
Wheeler-Nicholson, in his first posting as a young 2nd lieutenant arrived at Fort Bliss, El Paso, Texas on June 22, 1912. He was there for about a year and a half and would return again 6 years later as a Major in late December 1918 for another 6 months.
The Major’s real life experiences with bandits on the Mexican border, frequent patrols out into the desert, skirmishes with outlaws in Sierra Blanca, Texas and the desert country surrounding Fort Bliss would all make their appearance time and again in many of his pulp adventure stories.
Of the characters who appeared often in his stories about Fort Bliss and the Mexican border there were a number of memorable African-American soldiers. One of my favorite stories, a 2nd place winner in the O’Henry Short Story Awards for 1932, is “The Sable Phalanx,” Adventure, March 1, 1932. Similar to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern two unnamed African-American soldiers begin the tale peeling potatoes and discussing the situation they are in out in a desert encampment near Fort Bliss. They are acutely aware of the dangerous situation of being surrounded by hostile Mexicans and worry that the white officers in charge seem pretty clueless. Although the two speak in vernacular, which might be off-putting for readers today, they are not the usual stereotype but are well-drawn, well-rounded and sympathetic characters.
So how did the Major come to write frequently and with sympathy and awareness about African-American soldiers in the Army? After graduating from St. John’s Military School, one of four feeder schools for the United States Army, Wheeler-Nicholson took the competitive exam for a commission as an officer in September 1911 and passed with a B+ and not surprisingly with a grade of 99 in English. When asked for his preference of posting he requested a commission in the 9th or 10th Cavalry. This was such an unusual request that it was noted in his records, for in 1911, the 9th and 10th Cavalry were African-American Buffalo Soldiers. The officers assigned to these troops were white and most considered it somewhat of a punishment. That Wheeler-Nicholson would request this assignment naturally raised eyebrows.
It’s possible that Wheeler-Nicholson surmised that he could follow in the footsteps of General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing. Black Jack being a softer version of a racist slur due to Pershing’s commanding the African-American Buffalo Soldiers. In a time when promotion was by seniority rather than merit Pershing bypassed those with more seniority with the help of Teddy Roosevelt for Pershing’s leadership of the 10th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers during The Spanish-American War. Nick, with his knowledge of the politics of the day and his family’s connection with the Roosevelts could easily conjecture that he would be able to benefit from a posting with the Buffalo Soldiers as well. There was also a natural affinity for the love of horses. Buffalo Soldiers were known to be excellent riders and were often assigned to instructing newly commissioned white officers in horsemanship at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas where Nick was sent for his initial training.
The young 2nd Lieutenant did well in his training and exams and it would seem that his superiors decided he was destined for better things than an assignment with the Buffalo Soldiers. Finally in November of 1915, he got his wish and was transferred to the 9th Cavalry commanding a troop of African-American Buffalo Soldiers from San Francisco to a posting at Camp Stotsenburg in the Philippines.
In an article for Pic Magazine written in October 1943 the Major describes his first encounter with his Buffalo soldiers. “Like most young shavetails (2nd lieutenants) I was full of more energy than tact. My first task with my men was to unload our freight at our new Philippine station in a driving tropical downpour. Anxious to speed matters up, without knowing how, I buzzed around like a gadfly, striving to hurry the leisurely motions of the soldiers. The more I fussed the slower they grew. Finally one gray-haired Negro private, evidently annoyed past all endurance, stood up from his labors, wiped his brow and addressed me.
He abjured me gravely, “Shush your fussin’!”
For a moment I was thunderstruck. Then I saw the light—saw myself as the pestering young gadfly that I must have appeared in his eyes.
“All right,” I replied, “if you think you can get this job done more quickly than I can—go to it!”
“Yes sir,” agreed the old soldier imperturbably.” …The task finished itself in short order.”
Whatever his personal feelings or prejudices might have been in the beginning, it is clear that through his experience with his troops he came to a strong sense of the necessity for equality in the Army and was far ahead of his time.
While commanding his troop of Buffalo Soldiers in the Philippines he saw first hand the treatment they received by white officers. His troops were singled out time and again for the slightest infraction, often in the guardhouse and threatened with court martial. “The newly organized machine gun troop was a sad outfit, made up of the undesirables, cast out as unwanted by the other troops in the regiment. Its morale at a low ebb.”
Determined to prove the necessity to modernize the cavalry with the firepower of machine gun troops and the desire to uplift his troops he set about to train these discards of the regiment through his own methods and within a short time his troop’s morale and efficiency was raised. His superior, a Colonel, organized a competition smugly expecting to put Wheeler-Nicholson and his upstart troops in their place. That racism played a part in the desire to shame the young lieutenant and his troops cannot be ignored. Not only did his men perform beautifully but they broke all records for machine gun readiness. It was such a success that it was written in the military journals of the day and published in a text, Machine Guns. This did not endear him to the Colonel and the seeds of Nick’s later troubles with the army were sown and would follow him through the rest of his career.
I don’t see my grandfather as a pioneer for the cause of racial equality but more as an idealist who believed that every man deserved an equal chance and that those who showed promise should be encouraged. “I’ve seen a near mutiny precipitated among Negro soldiers by the abysmally poor handling of a white officer, and I’ve seen and heard them wrangling, and refusing to carry out the orders of equally incapable Negro Leaders. The fault in both cases was the same, the infliction on the soldiers of inept leaders who reached their rank by routine methods instead of on real leadership ability.”
The Major continued to view the importance of equality even after he was forced out of the Army in late 1922. During World War II he wrote several books on military history and strategy and numerous articles in “slick” magazines of the day—Look, Harpers and others. The article, “Are Negroes Good Soldiers?” written for Pic Magazine and later condensed in Negro Digest appears to be a response to official Army policy to segregate troops.
“Maybe this is a pretty fair formula for us in any case, here in America, since we are stepping out of insular isolation to mix ourselves in the destinies of all sorts of people with different colored skins, different religions, different habits, dress and customs, in all parts of the world. Our destinies are already inextricably entwined with many diverse elements in our own country. The fusing of them should come on the firing line, amongst fighting men, made realistic by the ordeal by battle to the point of realization that enemy bullets are not earmarked for any individual race or creed.”
Special thanks to Robert Wettemann, Professor USAF Academy, Colorado Springs, Co. for his research and support. Check out the various sites noted on photos. There is a wealth of interesting information about the Buffalo Soldiers.