Early in 2021, Spike Lee, acclaimed director of movies like “BlackKkKlansman,” “Malcolm X,” and “Do The Right Thing,” received a letter from the United States Army. He was a little confused, because, as far as he knew, no one in his family had ever been in the Army. Curious, he opened the letter to learn his first cousin once removed, Maceo A. Walker, was a private first class in the 92nd Inf. Div., the only African American infantry division in Europe during World War II, and has been missing since 1945. First cousin once removed means Maceo’s mother was Spike’s grandfather’s sister.
“I didn’t know what to think,” said Spike. “Is this a joke, or what? Because I want to really emphasize, my grandmother, my mother, my grandfather, no one ever talked about my grandfather having siblings.”
It turns out Spike is Maceo’s primary next of kin, his eldest still-living relative.
“We get this all the time where family members are like, ‘We never knew of the service member! Our parents never talked about them.’” said Laurie Jones, Spike’s casualty case management specialist with the Army’s Past Conflict Repatriation Branch. “We have to try to show the family member how they are related to the service member, and that’s what I had to do with Spike, walk him through the genealogy reports so he could understand how he was related, because he didn’t believe he was related to the service member.”
“I had no idea till I got the letter!” Spike said.
In what could be called serendipity, Spike learning about Maceo was not his first connection with the 92nd Inf. Div., called the “Buffalo Soldiers.” He made the movie “Miracle at St. Anna” in 2008 based on the real-life massacre by the Nazis at Sant'Anna Di Stazzema, a small village in Tuscany, and the experiences of the 92nd in Italy during World War II.
“The 92nd was… should be the most fabled black unit in World War II,” said James McBride. “It’s been overlooked by historians for years.”
James is the author of “Miracle at St. Anna,” the novel on which the movie was based. He also wrote the movie’s screenplay.
“I started researching black Soldiers in Europe during World War II,” James said. “Of course, I came across the Tuskegee Airmen, but if you look a little bit deeper, I kept running into these stories about the men in the Serchio Valley who had done this and that and the other, and so I moved to Italy for six months and researched the book and that’s how I found out about the 92nd Division. It’s just an extraordinary story.”
The segregated division, made up of primarily white senior officers and African American junior officers and enlisted, was sent in the summer of 1944 to the Gothic Line in the northern Apennine Mountains, Germany’s last major line of defense against the Allied forces pushing north up the Italian peninsula. They remained there throughout the winter with their one major operation – Operation FOURTH TERM – taking place in February 1945. Maceo was killed on Feb. 10 during a battle near the Cinquale Canal.
“To be in Italy, to do this film, to honor the 92nd Division and be in the area where this battle took place and my cousin, Pfc. Maceo A. Walker, died at 20 years old, that’s the spirits there,” Spike said. “I can’t explain it any other way. It’s not just my cousin, but all of those brothers in 92nd Division, ‘Buffalo Soldiers,’ who fought for this country, who believed in this country, and came home to the United States and were still not full-class citizens.”
Despite countless contributions to military conflicts going back to the American Revolution, African Americans still struggled for the same treatment as their white counterparts.
“It should be mentioned the 92nd was treated very poorly by the press,” James added. “In part because the daily battle reports were written by the commanders of the different companies, and they were mostly white, mostly southerners, who didn’t like commanding a lot of the 1st and 2nd lieutenants, who basically ran everything and who were young, educated black men from New York and Washington, D.C. and went to Howard and so forth. It created a lot of problems, mostly because of Ned Almond, who was a very good general, but he was a southerner, and he reflected the beliefs of that time.”
James continued saying we, as a nation, will be lost if we don’t pay attention to our history.
“There’s a lot about the 92nd that was very good that people didn’t know, and there was a lot about it that wasn’t so good that people don’t know. The fact that we’re having this conversation means that we are trying to ferret our way out of the maze of racial problems that exist in this country,” the best-selling author concluded.
Trying to Bring These Soldiers Home
Approximately 700 92nd Inf. Div. Soldiers were killed in Italy during the war. When the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency started its 92nd Inf. Div. project in 2014 to account for the Buffalo Soldiers still missing, 53 were unaccounted for. Only three have been identified since then. Six more sets of remains are at DPAA’s Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska laboratory waiting to be identified. Most of the rest are thought to still be buried as Unknowns at one of the American Battle Monuments Commission’s cemeteries in Italy. Pfc. Maceo A. Walker is possibly one of those.
“There are seven Unknowns that Graves Registration personnel recovered from directly around the Cinquale Canal area where Pfc. Walker was lost,” said Dr. Sarah Barksdale, DPAA’s 92nd Inf. Div. Project lead historian. “So, when I made a short-list of individuals that I think historically could be associated with any one of those Unknowns, Pfc. Walker is on that short list, as well as 17 other individuals who were killed directly around the canal. From a historical perspective, that’s my indication that he could certainly be associated with any one of those seven individuals.”
It can be difficult to get permission to disinter these Unknowns, because DPAA must be relatively certain they will be able to make an identification. The best way to do that is to have DNA samples from service members’ families.
“When we started the project, the project lead put in the request with the Army for all 53 missing service members, asking them to try to find a next of kin to collect DNA,” Sarah said. “Fortunately, we got enough to actually start disinterring, because the requirement is that you have to have 50% of the people on any given short-list for a proposal. However, more family DNA samples potentially means more missing get accounted for.”
Spike had the chance to talk with Sarah, to get an update on the search for Maceo. He asked, “Is it true you’re having trouble from African American families to get DNA?”
“About half of the families we don’t have DNA from right now, Army Casualty wasn’t able to locate them,” Sarah answered. “We’re thinking it’s maybe because of migrations, that sort of thing. They’re just difficult to locate genealogically it seems. And then secondly, about half of the families the Service Casualty Office has contacted have declined to participate.”
James was there when Spike met with the DPAA historian to discuss his cousin’s case and wasn’t surprised by what she had to say.
“That’s understandable, because a great number of Soldiers in the 92nd Division were from the South and they were sharecroppers and they had no trust of the Army,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that this sort of social problem, social, cultural, racial problem, pings forward 50 or 60 years after the war. I can imagine that for some of the families who are probably struggling now, who likely didn’t leave the cycle of poverty, they see no reason to go back. There has to be some way of getting these families and these people more involved.”
It’s also possible some families just don’t know about their family member’s service because no one ever talked about it, like with Spike not knowing about his cousin.
“I interviewed 25, maybe more, members of the 92nd themselves, not their families,” said James. “It was difficult business to talk about. Most of them didn’t want to talk about it at all.”
Spike said he encountered the same when making his movie “Da 5 Bloods,” which is about black Soldiers in Vietnam.
“I talked to a lot of Vietnam vets, black and white, and doing other research,” he said. “It’s very rare, no matter black, white, whatever, that people want to talk about the war when they get home, so that’s not just a black thing. It’s just like horrific things and it’s hard for them to speak about it. I think that’s universal.”
Both Spike and James said DPAA’s mission brings them some hope that these men can be brought home and honored and for the future.
“What this program I think is trying to do is it’s trying to show the families and show the country that we care about our own and that we want to unravel this stuff and that we’re willing to put the time and expense and money and expertise in it,” James said. “Anything that brings this kind of history to the American public is good news, because we need to know our history so we can talk to each other now. While I wasn’t the originator of the story, I’m all in favor of it because it’s not really about just black Soldiers. It’s about Americans not knowing their history. And if we can’t know our history, we won’t move forward.”
Lee elaborated on how DPAA’s work on the 92nd became even more personal to him nearly 15 years after completing a movie on the unit.
“This has nothing to do with politics,” said Spike. “This is about American families who, through this department, find some pride. And families, like myself, I’m a prime example, being told that you have a relative that you didn’t even know about, who existed and died fighting for the United States of America. My cousin, Pfc. Maceo A. Walker reached out to me and said, ‘Spike, I want you to know I existed, and I want you to spread the word and let the world know that I existed. I was 20 years old, enlisted, and died in Italy, World War II, fighting for democracy. The red, white, and blue.’”
If you have a family member or suspect you have a family member who went missing or was killed but never accounted for in World War II, the Korean War, or the Vietnam War, DPAA and our partners want and need you to be involved in the search for your service member. Contact information for your service member’s appropriate Service Casualty Officer can be found at: https://www.dpaa.mil/Families/Contact-Information/. Reach out and they’ll help you find out more about your family’s specific case and help arrange for you and your family to donate DNA family reference samples, a key piece of evidence that will greatly assist in bringing your service member home.