Buffalo Soldiers Research Museum


Trooper John L. Burden, Sr.
9th U.S. Horse Cavalry

George Hicks, III
Carmon Weaver Hicks

John Burden came to the March 9, 2000 meeting of the Heartland Chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers meeting at Corryville Library. He said he did not know that the 9th and 10th (Horse) Cavalry had an organization until he read it in the newspaper in February. He contacted Trooper Linwood Greene, Jr. who invited him to come and join. He listened to the discussion for about a half hour then, asked about the membership application process. He immediately completed the paperwork and paid his dues. He wasted no time getting involved in the discussion and activities.

About a month after joining the group, John stopped by our home for a personal chat. He asked about my background and interest in the Buffalo Soldiers. He shared his thoughts about being part of the group and told me about his experiences. Burden not only served as a Buffalo Soldier but he was a businessman in Cincinnati. Here is his story.

John Burden was born on January 20, 1923 in the west end of Cincinnati, Ohio. His father, Irvin Burden was a laborer from Hawkinsville, Georgia and his mother, Marie Picket Burden, was from Grovaine, Georgia. He had two brothers and three sisters. He attended Washburn Elementary School as well as Bloom, Lafayette Jr. High and Woodward High School. At Woodward, white students could swim in the school pool on Mondays-Thursdays and black students could swim in the pool on Fridays. The pool was emptied and cleaned for the white students’ use on Mondays. In addition, there was only one black student on the football team.

John was drafted into the military on February 19, 1943. He told me his story:

My family was upset because the war was going on. What would happen to me? This was the first time I had been away from home for more than a few days. I was sent to Fort Thomas, Kentucky to be inducted into the military. I received my medical shots, completed many government forms, and was issued military uniforms. I was sent to Fort Clark, Texas for basic training. We spent half of each day learning how to ride horses. I learned how to shoot various kinds of weapons - a 45 caliber. pistol and an M-1 Springfield rifle. My pay as a private was $50 per month. I took out an allotment for my mother. They took $20 from my monthly pay and the government added $30 so my mother received $50 each month. Fort Clark was hard on me since it was my first time being away from my family and friends. We had separate and unequal sleeping quarters and eating facilities. All of the officers were white except for a few warrant and non-commissioned officers. All of the sergeants were black but they did not give us a break. I wanted to get out of the military but everything. I tried did not work. Basic training was two long, hard months, but I made it.

While stationed at Fort Clark, the Cincinnati-born boxer, Ezzard Charles, was there. Charles grew up in the west end and began boxing at Woodward High School where I attend. He turned professional in 1940 and served in the Army in 1944-45. Burden was proud to call him “homeboy.” Charles was assigned to special services with many other sports figures who entered the military. Their job was to entertain the soldiers and civilians who supported the military efforts. Later, in 1949-51 Ezzard Charles became the world heavyweight champion.

Trooper Burden said he had to work hard and with so much discrimination, black soldiers felt that the horses were treated better than the soldiers. He said:

I had to feed and clean my horse before I could go to breakfast each morning. Then, do the same thing each night before I could eat dinner. I even had to run my hand up the horse’s butt and clean it too. One day I fell off my horse while riding on rugged terrain. I went on sick call, which meant I visited the doctor and told him my back was hurting. I was in pain. They put me on light duty. It was funny because there was no such thing as light duty. You were either on duty or off duty.

I said to myself I will get out of this place. But after time passed, I was told that a medical board of doctors would review my records and give me an examination to determine whether or not I should be discharged or kept on active duty. They had the hearing and gave my First Sergeant the option. He knew I wanted to get out of the Army. The decision was made. John Burden would go to Cavalry Armorers School at Fort Riley, Kansas. I was glad to go to Fort Riley since there were more things to do. They had a service club and recreational activities for the troopers. People often told me how much better it was at Fort Riley than at Fort Clark. When I arrived there it was hot. The training lasted three months. While at Fort Riley, Jackie Robertson was there but word had gotten around that he was a troublemaker. We were told to stay clear of him.

When I completed my training at Riley, I returned to Fort Clark and received two weeks leave. I went to Cincinnati. When returning to Fort Clark, the train stopped in St. Louis. When I go on board and started looking for a seat, there were two empty seats so I took one. A white couple got on the train and the woman took the seat next to me while her husband took the seat across the aisle from me. I went to sleep. Suddenly someone tapped me on the shoulder. There were two big white Military Police (MPs) standing over me. They ordered me to go with them to the next car. They stopped between the train cars and looked at my leave papers. My papers indicated that my military rank was a private but I didn’t have my rank emblem sewn on my uniform. During war times, military police were routinely stationed on trains and buses and at transportation facilities looking for soldiers who had gone AWOL (absent without official leave). They ordered me to get my belongings and go to the front train car. The front cars were next to the train’s engine. The engine used coal that produced lots of soot. The front cars were the dirtiest, hottest place on the train. That’s where they forced blacks to ride. I am sure it was because I was sitting next to a white woman.

When I returned to Fort Clark, my unit was packing and cleaning equipment. They had been notified that we were being deployed for overseas duty in Europe. The unit loaded on board a military troop train headed to Newport News, Virginia. It took three days and two nights to get there. I had never seen so many soldiers in one place before. We loaded on the ship the same day we arrived. The ship could hold 5,000 men and the crew was Navy men. All of the Army guys were sick for the first two or three days. The food was bad and the ship smelled because so many men were nauseous. The trip across the Atlanta took 11 days. We left Newport News on February 27, 1944 and arrived in Oran, North Africa on March 9, 1944. We camped on one side of the road and on the other side was a prison camp with German POWs. Our unit was attached to the 82nd Airborne Unit from Georgia. They were paratroopers with separate camping areas who like to use the ‘N’ word. The next day, some of the soldiers with me had to dig latrines (outhouses) for the prison. Due to the Geneva Convention, POWs were not allowed to do hard labor. My friend, James Jackson from Cleveland, and I asked why did we have to do this work for them. After all, we came to fight, not dig toilets. The next day we were called to headquarters and assigned to another unit. This was the last time I would see troopers from my home unit.

When we arrived to the new unit, the sergeant told me my job was to drive a storm boat or a ‘ricky.’ (A Ricky was a motorcycle.) I learned to drive the motorcycle although I had never been on one. James got a job running a small boat that carried soldiers back and forth across a small river. The sergeant took me to the motor pool where there were four of five brand new Harley Davison motorcycles. He told me to pick one and go for a spin. I got on the motorcycle and took off. I didn’t know that the gas was located on the handlebars nor did I know which side was for the gas and which side was for the spark. I figured if I could learn how to ride a horse, I could learn how to ride this machine. My job was to deliver dispatches to various unit-sometimes through enemy lines. I also scouted roads and led convoys.

When the war ended, I was in Germany. The faces of Jewish people being freed from the concentration camps are still vivid to me. They had despair on their faces. All of their basic rights had been taken away and they were dirty with ragged clothes. Hopelessness surrounded them. It reminded me of my ancestors who were brought to this country on slave ships. I thought about the plight of black people and the black troopers who fought before me. I thought about the systems of discrimination and segregation that we face. So many feelings rushed in my head that day as I watched the Jewish people being freed.
I departed Europe on November 3, 1945 and arrived back in the U. S. on December 9, 1945. We were sent to Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania and processed for separation from the Army. My last day of active service was December 18, 1945.
Trooper Burden received an honor discharge. He received the American Campaign Medal, the European African Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with four Bronze Stars, the World War II Victory Medal and the Good Conduct Medal. John Burden, Sr. returned to Cincinnati and worked for the railroad for 30 years He retired in 1970 and earned a real estate license. His family owned one of the first realty businesses in Cincinnati (Hicks, 2000b).

When we met Trooper John Burden in 2000, he was living with a diagnosis of prostate cancer and was receiving treatments. He didn’t say much about his cancer but occasionally mentioned that he didn’t know how much time he had left. Burden enjoyed talking about his family and we could see him beam with pride when he talked educating his six children. He participated in the majority of the Buffalo Soldier presentations at schools, churches, and community centers. He gladly provided information about his military life, his life after the military, and his family. John Burden, Sr. died in 2003.

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