One of the last 'buffalo soldiers' lives in Bradenton area

MANATEE -- Recognition for his service as a "buffalo soldier" came late in life to Steve Lewis.

The World War II veteran, now 92, never sought attention and rarely talked about his wartime experiences, says his daughter, Jennifer Lewis, a teacher at Palmetto High School.

"He is a God-fearing man," she said.

Yet, thanks in large part to his friend, Henry Blyden, belated attention has come to Steve Lewis this year. He was honored by the Woods and Wanton Chapter of the 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry Association - Buffalo Soldiers. He was also honored in June by the Manatee County NAACP, and was among a group of black veterans who addressed Visible Men Academy in January.

Steve Lewis was born in Dade City, and raised in Palmetto.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, drawing the United States into World War II, Lewis was a senior at the all-black Memorial High School in Palmetto.

"The principal, W. J. Anderson, had the students gather around a radio to listen to President Roosevelt," Lewis recalled. It was Roosevelt's famous "Day of Infamy" speech, which signaled the U.S. declaration of war on the Japanese empire.

Lewis spent most of 1942 in college at Florida A&M, and in 1943 entered the U.S. Army.

He was assigned to the 9th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Clark, Texas, one of the famed "buffalo soldier" units. After the Civil War, the 9th Cavalry Regiment was formed to escort settlers along the western frontier, and to fight in the late 19th Century Indian Wars.

It was the Cheyenne Indians who gave the black soldiers the nickname buffalo soldiers for their appearance and bravery.

"At Fort Clark, Lewis was told to go to the corral and get a horse. He was issued a saddle, bridle, horse blankets, stirrups" and more, according to his citation from the Buffalo Soldiers Association. "Lewis fed, watered, and took care of his horse before himself."

He learned how to ride a horse for the first time and to fire a .45 pistol from horseback.

Yet, in the age of the blitzkrieg, it became evident soldiers on horseback were no match for Panzer tanks.

The 9th Cavalry Regiment was deactivated, and Lewis was reassigned to the U.S. Army Transportation Corps. His unit boarded a ship and embarked for Casablanca. Before war's end, he would serve in the rear echelon, "getting the supplies ready to go" in Italy, France, and Germany.

While his role was noncombat, it was essential to supply American fighters on the frontline.

After the war, he returned to civilian life and earned a degree in agriculture from Florida A&M. He taught school for more than 30 years in the Palmetto area.

He is quietly proud of his wartime service, and wears his "buffalo soldier" baseball cap wherever he goes, noting he is one of the last survivors of the 9th Cavalry Regiment.

While buffalo soldiers are best known for their service on the western frontier, they also have a Tampa Bay connection. In 1898, they were stationed at Port Tampa and Picnic Island before being shipped to Cuba for the Spanish-American War.

"The man has a heart of gold. He goes out of his way even at his age to help his fellow man," Blyden said.

And he has a prayer at night that goes something like, "Lord, I'm not ready to come home tonight, but I have had a good life," Blyden said.

Like many of his generation, after World War II, her father lived his life honorably and quietly, said Jennifer Lewis.

"I'm proud of him and his service. My father never talks about it. But every now and then, he would say that he had been to this country or that," she said. "He didn't serve in the war for recognition. He's just living his life."

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.

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