Their numbers are dwindling, those men who were known as Buffalo Soldiers.
Thomas Watkins, a son of black Virginian farmworkers who was born in Aquebogue and lived in Huntington, had been one of them.
When the War Department ended its World War II ban on black infantry troops, Watkins was among the first sent into ground combat. The Buffalo Soldiers helped liberate Italy in 1944.
"We didn't know he was a Buffalo Soldier until about 10 years ago, when a friend suggested that the two of them go to a reunion in Baltimore," said Watkins' stepson, Ron Alston. "He didn't talk about the war. He wasn't that way."
Watkins, who died Jan. 31 at the age of 94, carried a quiet pride in his service with the storied all-black infantry units, his friends and family said. They say Watkins may be the last Buffalo Soldier veteran on Long Island.
"After growing up on Long Island with few other black people around, this was the first organization of its kind they had ever been in that was all black," said Paul Johnson, of Huntington, whose brother Earl, another Buffalo Soldier, had asked Watkins to attend the Baltimore reunion.
"They saw black people from all over the country -- the sons of preachers and business owners and teachers -- who were talented and got things done," he said. "It made them proud."
Combat in Italy
The Buffalo Soldiers began with the 10th Cavalry Regiment, which was organized in 1866 at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Its members included former slaves seeking to escape post-Civil War poverty and abuse. Plains Indians are said to have given them their nickname because of their curly black hair and their resolute fighting spirit.
For much of World War II, black troops were not trusted with combat roles, and were relegated to segregated units, including the 92nd and 93rd infantry divisions.
But when the 92nd, "The Buffalo Division," was finally given a chance, Watkins fought in the Arno River crossing in Italy in the spring of 1944. The New York Times wrote of the battle: "Negro troops of the Ninety Second United States Division, making their first appearance in the battle line, stormed up the southeast slopes of Mount Pisano, from whose frowning heights the enemy has lobbed shells into the American line."
The 92nd took heavy casualties and was judged by some to have fought poorly. The unit's commanding officer, a white Virginian, attributed the unit's performance to the predominance of black troops. Many military historians instead say the unit's performance suffered under the indifferent leadership of white commanding officers.
"These were men who were standing up for their country," Johnson, whose brother died in 2000, said of the black soldiers.
Working on Long Island
Watkins grew up in Aquebogue on the North Fork as one of nine children. His father worked on local farms, like so many other black men from the South.
Financial troubles and racial discrimination ended Watkins' quest to follow graduation from Riverhead High School with college, his family says.
Instead, he found work at the now-shuttered Hotel Henry Perkins in Main Street in Riverhead, and also caddying at Shinnecock Hills Country Club in Southampton, where many of the caddies and greens keepers were Shinnecock Indians.
After his honorable discharge from the Army, with the rank of Tec-4, in 1946, Watkins got a job at what is now the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, in Northport, and moved to Huntington in 1948.
After retiring from the VA in the late 1960s, he helped set up the FAA Eastern Region Federal Credit Union, in Melville, where he worked as a loan officer. Later, he took a job with the general services department of the Town of Huntington, where he worked for 22 years before retiring in the early 1990s.
An old-school gentleman
In 1993, Watkins married Emma Alston, whom he had met in church some 20 years earlier.
"He was a gentleman from the old school," she recalled. "My hubby would always hold the door for me, and hold my hand wherever we went."
In addition to Ron Alston of Huntington, survivors include two children from a prior relationship, Jesse and Karen Klatterbuck, of Baltimore; and two other stepsons, Norman Alston of Brentwood and Robert Alston of Sherman Oaks, Calif.
His funeral was Feb. 6, at Bethel AME Church in Huntington, where he was said to have been its oldest member. He was buried in Calverton National Cemetery.