The origin of the term “Buffalo Soldiers” has several versions. The term refers to the US Army’s African American cavalry units formed after the Civil War. More than likely, it originated with Native Americans who fought fierce battles against black cavalry units during the Plains Indian Wars.
What we do know for sure is that after 70 years of distinguished service, the last of the Buffalo Soldiers—the U.S. Army’s 4th cavalry Brigade—were stationed at Camp Lockett, near San Diego, during World War II.
As early as the 1870s, American cavalry units had camped for extended periods of time near the future location of Camp Lockett. A pass through the mountains along the U.S.-Mexico border, about 60 miles east of San Diego, made the area a favorite of rustlers and smugglers. By 1918, the Army had constructed the first permanent buildings and stationed cavalry units there due to the threat from civil war in Mexico.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, border security became critical and Camp Lockett was expanded. California’s border with Mexico was particularly sensitive, due to the many military installations and defense plants in Southern California.
Cavalry units were ideal for patrolling the rugged and remote terrain. At Camp Lockett early in 1942, the black 10th cavalry replaced the 11th cavalry, a white unit that traded in their horses for tanks. The 10th were soon joined by the black 28th cavalry, and formed the 4th Cavalry Brigade. These Buffalo Soldiers, about 2500 strong, patrolled the border with Mexico from San Diego to El Centro as the last mounted active-duty cavalry unit in the United States Army.
Beginning in late 1943, border security units at Camp Lockett were disbanded as the threat of invasion or saboteurs ended. Camp Lockett became a convalescent hospital and prisoner of war camp. The 4th Cavalry Brigade was dismounted and sent to the European theater. In the segregated army of World War II, few Buffalo Soldiers saw combat. Most were assigned to service units. Some of them became drivers in the famous “Red Ball Express,” while others built the first pontoon bridges over the Rhine.
But the days of cavalry on horseback were over.