Old soldier rides with history on his side
- Jason Vondersmith
- Portland Tribune - Features
'Buffalo Soldier' Morehouse comforted by early rugged Army life for black troops
Veterans Day is a time to remember the men and women who served in battle, like during World War II, Korea and Vietnam. But, Bill Morehouse's commemoration goes back even further, to the days when young black men served in the U.S. Army and fought Indians on horseback.
They were the Buffalo Soldiers, an element of the Army disbanded during and after World War II as the government worked to desegregate the military as well as go mechanized. In fact, Morehouse, 87, wanted to join the Buffalo Soldiers, coming from Arkansas and growing up riding horses. But, it was too late for him.
Retired from the Army and National Guard, Morehouse joined the military-sanctionedBuffalo Soldiers 9th and 10th Cavalry, a local chapter of the larger organization encompassing all 50 states. Members make appearances and ride in parades.
On Wednesday, Nov. 11, Morehouse, the outfit's director, and his comrades will ride in the Hollywood Veterans Day Parade. Morehouse rides a spotted horse named 'Jack.'
Morehouse loves dressing in his 1870s cavalry regalia and talking about the role of the black man in the military. It's a rich history of servicemen, going back to the Civil War, when the North wanted to find ways to use black soldiers in the Southern conflict; some fought in the war, under white officers, others went West after the war.
'They said, 'We know what (blacks) can do,' except you know what they called us,' says Morehouse, who has done extensive reading and researching of the Buffalo Soldiers.
The all-black units were sent West to protect citizens from renegades and laytelegraph and railroad line. 'They didn't send them out to fight Indians, but that's what they did,' he adds.
Morehouse has his own history with the U.S. Army. So, Veterans Day is a big deal to him, as it is for anybody who served in the military and wore the uniform at the time of the great conflict, World War II.
Morehouse says he wanted to fight in World War II, and he thought his name had been called three times to go overseas. He was drafted into the Army in Texas in 1942. From Fort Bliss, Texas, he was sent to Camp Ellis in Illinois for basic training, after which the Army wanted him to be in bakery.
'I said, 'I'm not going to bake bread,' ' he recalls. 'I had taken infantry training, but (the Army) said the infantry didn't want me.'
Something about the color of his skin, he says. Blacks were largely support staff during World War II, after which President Harry S. Truman began integration of the military.
TRIBUNE PHOTO: L.E. BASKOW • Bill Morehouse sports a leather vest honoring the NW Chapter 9th and 10th Cavalry Association of the Buffalo Soldiers commemorative calvary of Portland-Vancouver.
Lands in Vancouver
Morehouse was stationed in Arizona, working as a truck driver, and, while leaving via convoy to get ready to go overseas, Morehouse says a car ran his truck off the road. His truck tumbled off a cliff, causing Morehouse to break his leg.
He ended up in a Veteran's Administration hospital in California. Later, he went to another camp in Texas, where Morehouse thought he had worked his way into being on an anti-aircraft unit. Again, he thought he would go overseas, but officers, Morehouse says, didn't want to integrate units with black soldiers.
The Army sent him to Fort Vancouver Barracks in 1944 presumably for shipment to the Pacific Theater. Upon his arrival, he discovered that the Army stopped sending soldiers overseas from Vancouver about six months earlier.
He settled into a job as a truck driver, and eventually took on more responsibilities than an ordinary private first class - without being given higher rank, he says. He got more rations and a better place to live.
During his time in Vancouver, Morehouse had the unique opportunity to supervise, or sponsor, prisoners of war. The government sent about 5,000 Italian/German POWs to Vancouver during the war, he recalls, and he had about 17 Italians working under him, part of the time loading ships.
'And, Italians took over the kitchen,' he says. 'They could speak English. They got paid - they were treated better than I was (being black). I never got equal rights. But, I had a good relationship with them.'
After the war, living in Vancouver, Morehouse married Eure Slider in 1946. She passed away in 2004.
During his time in the Army, Morehouse says he wanted to re-enlist, but his wife became pregnant and she wanted nothing to do with more years of Army life. Morehouse was discharged, and later moved to Portland and went on to work for the city in street cleaning and sewer, retiring in 1985. He had tried to join the Teamsters Union at one point before his city work, but union leaders told him they didn't hire blacks.
All the while, he served in the Oregon National Guard. In 1968, at 46 years old, he says the Guard wanted to send him to Vietnam as part of a medics team. But, citing his broken leg and being on disability, Morehouse was excused.
Even then, Morehouse says, he still felt the wrath of racism within the military. He remembers attending a function at the American Legion and an older gentleman who he had known in the Army harassed him with epithets. 'You still ain't got that (stuff) out of you, yet?' he remembers telling the man.
Morehouse regrets not being able to serve his country overseas.
'I wanted to go. I coulda made it, because I drove truck and would have been in charge,' he says.
But, his race held him back. It's part of the reason he likes to commemorate the Buffalo Soldiers, black men who fought and died for their country. Morehouse joined the commemorative Buffalo Soldiers in the early 1970s and has been active ever since in the chapter named after the famed Moses Williams.
Morehouse says he has met three original Buffalo Soldiers. Unfortunately, the oral history is starting go away.
'They are in their 90s,' he says, 'and they don't know what they're talking about.'