Sunday, February 24, 2013

Buffalo Soldiers and Italian Freedom Fighters: Heroes of WWII

History is replete with instances in which the suffering of human wars brings together disparate people for the greater good, even in the face of overwhelming cultural and social forces prohibiting social contact and cooperation.  While this significant historical phenomenon has occurred many times in human history, the facts and intimate details are often overlooked in favor of more “traditional” stories of heroic deeds surrounding wars.   It is a rare gift to be given a glimpse inside the hearts and minds of people who have acted together with courage during times of war despite their cultural, racial, and social differences. 
The recent showing at the San Diego Italian Film Festival of Inside Buffalo Soldiers by Italian documentary filmmaker Fred Kuwornu is such a gift.

Wartime “integration” of separate races and classes  has been known to unleash powerful forces of social change throughout history.  During World War II, a group of African-American soldiers and their Italian comrades forged such an unlikely alliance.  Fighting side-by-side with the sole focus of survival and the defeat of German forces occupying Italy, African-American and Italian soldiers had no conception of the impact that their camaraderie would have in the United States, eventually leading to some of the great civil rights gains of the late 1950s and early 1960s.   
Inside Buffalo Soldiers captures this dramatic set of events.  The facts surrounding African-American soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division deployed to fight Nazi forces in Italy, are well documented. But until Kuwornu’s insightful work, no one had attempted to delve deeper into their personal stories through the medium of documentary filmmaking.

The term Buffalo Soldier originated in 1866 with the formation of the US 10th Calvary, an all black volunteer regiment that fought in the Indian Wars. It is believed the term may have been coined by Cheyenne warriors who viewed those black soldiers as embodying qualities of strength and perseverance inspired by the buffalo.  The term became synonymous with African-American soldiers.

The Buffalo Soldiers  of the 92nd Division came to Italy during WWII from an America steeped in racial discrimination, where African Americans were treated as outsiders in their own country. Similarly, Italy’s poverty, displacement by fascist invaders and wartime devastation left a mark on the Italian people. Kuwornu’s film hints of an unspoken solidarity on this account between black soldiers and war-torn Italians.  Whatever forces may have drawn them together, in 1944, two vastly different cultures, Italian partisans and Black American soldiers, united in a heroic struggle against the Nazis. Each was changed by the events that transpired and, one could argue, each made whole by the experience—Italians by the heroic support and solidarity of the soldiers of the 92nd and Back American soldiers by the gratitude and admiration of the Italian people. In sharp contrast to the experience that awaited them at home, what these soldiers found in Italy was grateful recognition for their deeds without discrimination.

 Lieutenant Vernon Baker
The untold acts of heroism by soldiers of the 92nd Division, which cost many their lives, have never been forgotten by the Italian people.  Italy was the first in the world to raise a monument  to the 92nd, commemorating the men who fought so bravely alongside Italian freedom fighters. In turn, those brave Americans have never forgotten the hero’s welcome given to them by Italians and the deep friendships that were forged as a result of that wartime experience. Sadly, it would take America another 40 years to acknowledge their contributions. In 1997, the Clinton Administration bestowed on them the Congressional Medal of Honor, the county’s highest honor.  Of those honored,Vernon Baker was the only surviving member to receive the award.

Kuwornu’s documentary intertwines, historical footage, interviews and life-like re-enactments of important battles. Kuwornu himself conducted the interviews, often surprised to be spoken to in perfect Italian by the former soldiers who went on to live successful lives as respected statesmen, professionals, businessmen and public servants.

Documentary filmmaker Fred Kuwornu
With his soft-spoken Italian accent and impeccable English, Fred Kuwornu first identified the importance of the story of the Buffalo Soldiers when working in Spike Lee’s movie Miracle at Santa Anna in Italy.

Kuwornu himself is Italian-born-and-educated of Ghanian and Italian parentage. Following university, Kuwornu worked  as a writer at RAI 1 TV before forming his own production company FKK FILMZ. His current project "Paisà Soldiers" is a documentary about the contributions by Italian-American Veterans in World War II. Kuwornu is an Italian voice that I predict we will be hearing much more of in the future.

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To viewVernon Baker NYTimes obit visit:

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