CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Benjamin Vernon Stewart was born in Memphis, Tennessee in March, 1923. Following his graduation from high school in South Bend, Indiana, he studied mechanical machine operation and earned a certificate in that skill. Stewart was hired by Oliver Farm Equipment Co. which, at the time, was under contract with the United States Navy. Unfortunately, he was assigned to dangerous machine work for which he was not trained and left shortly thereafter for a job with the Studebaker automobile manufacturing company in Ohio.
On February 12, 1942, six months after beginning work at Studebaker, Stewart was notified to report to the Toledo, Ohio draft board for induction into the army. His first military assignment was shoveling snow for the white soldiers’ barracks in sub-zero temperatures. Shortly thereafter, he and other African-American recruits were assigned to the 28th Cavalry Regiment, a newly created segregated army unit, and were sent to Camp Lockett in Campo, California. Stewart and his fellow soldiers traveled Pullman cars on the long journey across the country. Along the way their train was joined by white Marines traveling in coach cars. Some of the Marines stole food, cigarettes, money and many other personal items from the black soldiers.
After joining the 28th Cavalry, the last horse mounted unit created by the United States army, at Camp Lockett, Stewart and his fellow recruits were taught how to break in their horses and ride together as a tactical cavalry unit in combat. Their commanders noticed that Stewart had a keen ear for pitch and tone, due to his early musical training on the violin, so he was selected to become a radio operator. When the 28th was transferred to Fort Riley, Kansas for additional training, Stewart entered radio school. He quickly picked up the required skills in code interpretation and was soon able to write 35 words a minute in longhand with a pencil while receiving messages. Interestingly, the radio school class was integrated.
During Stewart’s tenure at Fort Riley, where his regiment was assigned to the Second Cavalry Division, he became friendly with a Sergeant Simmons, a long-time veteran of the Regular Army’s black cavalry units. The African-American horsemen of the 28th encountered continuing difficulty and discrimination at Fort Riley. Stewart and the other black soldiers were not allowed to purchase anything at the PX, their latrines were located far from their segregated barracks, and they were always the last to be fed. Stewart did recall, however, that, “Since the cooks were all black, they took good care of us. We ate well.”
Stewart stressed that the 28th Cavalry Regiment was part of a long and significant history and tradition in the American army. At the end of the Civil War, many black men who were former slaves no longer had homes, and others, veterans of the Union army’s United States Colored Troops regiments, were now unemployed. In response, Congress established the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and the 25th Infantry regiments as segregated black units with white officers in the regular army. These regiments served with honor and efficiency on the frontier throughout the rest of the century.
Although Stewart was theoretically a cavalryman, as a radio operator he traveled in a jeep, while the rest of his unit rode horseback. The 28th soon received orders to ship out; and, on March 3, 1944, boarded the troop transport Captain Billy Mitchell in Hampton Roads, Virginia, bound for Casablanca. After landing in North Africa, Stewart’s unit was attached to an African Senegalese unit for additional training. After several weeks, however, the whole 2nd Cavalry Division was inactivated, and its soldiers transferred to other units.
Stewart’s talent as a musician had become well known in his unit. Following the inactivation of the 28th he and some of his fellow soldiers formed a small band, with Stewart playing the bass fiddle. The band was attached to a Special Services Company and performed often at officers’ clubs and social events, on hospital ships and other special occasions on outlying bases in North Africa.
Stewart wanted to see action, however, and be part of making history, so he volunteered for deployment to Piombino, Italy. There he trained as an operations non-commissioned officer, carrying maps and other important information for officers, in the Headquarters Company of the 370th Infantry Regiment. As a radio operator, Stewart was not issued a rifle; but, he carried a captured German Luger pistol as a sidearm. He recalled that, at that time he deployed to Italy, “there were no blacks on the front line.” That would change dramatically when his new unit, a component of the 92nd Division “Buffalo Soldiers,” was soon in the thick of the fight.
In August 1944, the 92nd was part of the force that attacked and broke through the “Gothic Line,” and went on to capture several towns and cities under German control. Stewart recalled that: “We cleared Italy of the Germans in Chiavari, Termoli and in Barga, and we left as heroes. We had stopped the German troops from advancing.” He remembered that the Germans often used churches as places to hide mortars and light artillery, and that the priests would ring the church bells to warn the townspeople when the Germans were going to fire. The 370th was driving up the Ligurian coast when the enemy surrendered on May 2, 1945.
Stewart was granted a short “R & R” leave in Montecatini, north of Florence, and had an opportunity to visit Rome and Pompeii. Looking back, he summed up his recollections by saying: “War is an awful thing. It is not like the movies.” The many tragedies Stewart saw and experienced alongside his fellow soldiers, the Italian townspeople, young children and animals stay with him forever.
After the war, Benjamin Vernon Stewart lived and worked in various capacities in Puerto Rico and St. Croix. He married his wife Mary and then worked for the Prudential Insurance Company in Newark, New Jersey, until his retirement. In 2006, Stewart and his wife returned to Italy to visit many of the locations where he had served and fought. He described the trip fondly, having enjoyed the beautiful countryside and the warm welcome received from the local people everywhere they went.
Benjamin Vernon Stewart passed away on December 21, 2019 at the age of 96.