TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) – Topeka, Kan. resident Louis Cruse was one of the men who kept the Army moving during World War II.
As a motor sergeant in the all-black 9th Cavalry Regiment of the 2nd Cavalry Division, Cruse was in charge of a fleet of up to 105 trucks and Jeeps being used by troops as they fought in Oran, Africa, and Naples, Italy. He also oversaw six mechanics and their assistants.
“We had to work hard to keep them running and keep them on the road,” he said.
Cruse, 94, is one of the nation’s surviving Buffalo Soldiers, a nickname given to the African-American cavalry in the mid-1800s by the American Indian tribes they fought, The Topeka Capital-Journal (http://bit.ly/1bbNfrM) reports.
One theory is the nickname came from the thick coats made of buffalo hide the soldiers wore to keep warm during the winter. Another theory is the name referred to the fierce, brave nature of the soldiers, which reminded the Indians of the way buffaloes fought.
Eventually, the term “Buffalo Soldier” became synonymous with all African-American regiments formed in the 1860s: the 9th, 10th, 24th and 25th infantry regiments.
Cruse, who was born July 4, 1919, grew up on a farm in Sparks in northeast Kansas. The oldest of 11 children, he left high school after his freshman year to help his father plant and harvest tobacco.
In 1937, Cruse signed up for the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public work relief program where he learned to be a truck mechanic. After about 3½ years at the camp, he decided to enlist in the U.S. Army.
In March 1941, Cruse found himself at Fort Riley, where he received his basic training and became part of the 9th Cavalry. He worked with horses for about four weeks before being assigned to mechanics school.
Cruse was happy with the new assignment. “When I was a kid on the farm, all I did was work with horses,” he said. “I wanted to do something
After mechanics school, Cruse returned to Fort Riley and in late 1942 was transferred to Fort Clark in Texas. It was during his time in Texas that the Army decided to “mechanize” the cavalry and phase out its use of horses.
In 1943, Cruse boarded the ship Queen Elizabeth for Casablanca, Morocco. The ship veered its course every seven minutes to avoid being a target for enemy submarines. Once there, he and other troops boarded a train to Oran.
“They handed us a mattress cover and told us to put straw in it,” he said, describing how the black troops slept on the mattresses on the ground or in tents.
Cruse worked in a garage maintaining and repairing a fleet of about 65 vehicles. The mechanics were on call round-the-clock.
“About 35 trucks (and Jeeps) would go out every day on detail,” he said. “If they broke down, we had to get it and haul it in. We had to hurry to get it back on the road.”
The trucks were used to haul supplies to the rear of the battle lines.
“We had to be alert,” he said. “We had ammunition and guns, but we never had to use them.”
After about eight months in Oran, Cruse was assigned to the motor pool in Naples, where he continued to maintain and repair vehicles until his discharge in November 1945.
Cruse’s medals and mementos from his military service were
destroyed in a house fire in 1947. The only item he has left is a worn 9th Cavalry Regiment/2nd Cavalry Division yearbook. Cruse’s photo, as a private, is at the top of the regiment’s roster.
Cruse said he saw only three African-American officers during his military service – an officer in charge of the band, a chaplain and a medical worker. However, he didn’t experience much discrimination – that is, until he returned home from serving overseas.
Cruse wanted to continue his career as a mechanic but couldn’t get hired.
“When I came back, no black man could get a job working on trucks,” he said. “You could get a job cleaning there or get a job as what they call a grease monkey, but not as a mechanic. That didn’t make me feel too good.”
Cruse said he tried farming in the Sparks area but found it difficult to buy a tractor, even though a bank had approved a loan for the equipment. A number of farmers wanted to purchase tractors, and Cruse said he continually found himself at the bottom of the waiting list behind white farmers.
Without a tractor, he couldn’t make a living farming on his own, so he ended up working for area farmers for low pay.
In the early 1950s, Cruse began working at a foundry in St. Joseph, Mo., and after 2½ years took a job with General Motors, where he worked for about three years.
In 1956, he was hired as a nursing assistant for the Veterans Administration health care system in Leavenworth, where he worked until his retirement in 1982. From 1968 until the mid-2000s, he worked part-time as a custodian and then a courier for a Leavenworth bank.
Cruse moved to Topeka about three years ago to be closer to his church, Emmanuel Temple Church of God in Christ, where he serves as a deacon. His son, Nolan Cruse, of Highland, served in the Marines, while his daughter, Frances Coffee, of Manhattan, served in the Army.