The oldest surviving member of the Army's legendary all-black cavalry, created after the Civil War, recalls it accomplishments.
This Thursday, Mark Matthews will be 109 years old. But it's not just his age that makes him remarkable. Matthews is the oldest surviving member of the original Buffalo Soldiers, the all-black cavalry regiments created after the Civil War. The legendary horsemen of the 9th and 10th Cavalry first served on the Western frontier, fighting the Indians. They then went on to distinguish themselves during the Spanish-American War, the border skirmishes with Mexico and both World Wars. The heroic achievements of this segregated group of soldiers were long overlooked. Only in recent years have they gained the recognition they deserve.
Though frail and partially blind from glaucoma, Mathews a former first sergeant in the 10th Cavalry is in amazingly good health for his age and can still share vivid memories from his historic career. Born in 1894 in Alabama, Matthews rode horses from early childhood, delivering the local newspapers on his pony. "I was 16 when I joined the Army to be a soldier," he recalled. "I had to wait awhile before I could get on duty. But then they shipped me to the West."
He was stationed at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., which still was using local Indians as guides. "I liked the Army," Matthews said. "I learned all the different rules, how to ride the different horses, how to jump and how to shoot. There couldn't hardly anybody beat me shooting. Every time I got in a contest where I shot at a target or something, I usually won."
Matthews served on the border patrol during the years the cavalry was on the trail of the notorious bandit Pancho Villa. "I never met him," Matthews said, "but I knew where he was at. I was on the border patrol for a good little while."
In the 30s, he helped to train younger cavalry members. "I had a whole troop of my own," he said. "I trained them how to ride the horses, what to do and what not to do." And during World War II, when he was already in his late 40s, Matthews saw action on Saipan in the South Pacific.
He remembers Tokyo Rose, the radio voice of anti-American Japanese propaganda, and the snipers who ringed the island. "A soldier I knew a lieutenant who had been in the Army six years, fighting in Europe got shot that first doggone day."
Matthews has passed on his stories of the Buffalo Soldiers to his extended family. "Growing up, I heard a lot about the Indian guides at Fort Huachuca and all about Pancho Villa, " said Mary Watson, the oldest of his four daughters. They were good stories, but at the time I didn't appreciate that this is really history. It wasn't until I learned about the Buffalo Soldiers at school that I realized how important my daddy was. That's when I started becoming really proud."
"What was most striking about my grandfather was his attitude," said Sheila Curry. "He never said a negative word about being in a segregated unit. He certainly encountered racial issues. Big time. But he never thought abut it that way. The military was his life, and he was just doing his job, and he was good at it."
Matthews retired in 1947 four years before the Buffalo Soldiers finally were phased out as a result of President Truman's 1948 Executive Order integrating America's armed forces. "Even after he left the Army, he spit-shined his shoes every day, " said his granddaughter Debra Grant. "I remember as a kid sneaking in his room and snooping around. His bed was always perfectly made."
Matthew's wife of 50 years, Genevieve, died in 1986 at age 73. He now lives with his daughter Mary in Washington, D.C. "Our home has an open-door policy," Mary explained. "We've lived in the same neighborhood for over 50 years, and my daddy knows everyone, from the youngest to the oldest. The teenagers come in, and my son's friends come in, and he tells them the same stories he told us. I think all the people he sees have contributed to his longevity. He remains very much in touch with the world. During the war in Iraq, he watched the news every night."
Matthews has received many honors over the years. He met with President Clinton at the White House, and last year he celebrated his birthday with a trip to the State Department. But this Aug. 7, when he becomes 109, the family plans to celebrate quietly.
"I m glad he's finally gotten recognition," said his daughter Barbara Young. "And that all the Buffalo Soldiers have finally been honored for their contributions to the country. There are so many who died and never received any glory."
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