Veterans Legacy Program: Sgt. William H. Thompkins, Buffalo Soldier, trailblazer, American hero


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Sgt. William H. Thompkins is an American hero. He showed extraordinary courage in the face of the enemy. At the time, he believed that he was just doing his duty as a soldier, but his actions saved the lives of his comrades and helped change the way that the country perceived African-American soldiers.  Thompkins was a Buffalo Soldier in the 10th U.S. Cavalry Regiment.

Historic black and white photograph, Picture of William H. Thompkins, wearing the Medal of Honor on he left breast,

Photograph of Sgt. William H. Thompkins wearing the Medal of Honor.

The Buffalo Soldiers were African-American soldiers from four cavalry regiments that the Army formed in 1866. The young men who served in these units sought a new life in the post-Civil War Era. These units offered young African-American men opportunity beyond the South during Reconstruction. The Buffalo Soldiers became pioneers of Westward expansion, and participated in every major conflict of the late nineteenth and early twentieth Centuries. They served in the American Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, the Mexican Border War, World War I, and World War II. In 1951, during the Korean War, the last remaining segregated Buffalo Soldier regiments integrated into other units.

During the Spanish-American War, a group of four brave Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th U.S. Cavalry Regiment was recognized. On June 30, 1898, heavy enemy fire stranded an American landing party on the shore near Trinidad, Cuba. They remained stranded there, with continuous enemy fire repulsing four rescue attempts. Later that night, five soldiers from the 10th U.S. Cavalry Regiment launched a fifth attempt to rescue the party. This time, the soldiers broke through the enemy fire and successfully rescued their comrades. For their actions that night, four African-American soldiers from the 10th U.S. Cavalry Regiment were awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military award for valor.

picture of period authentic the medal of honor

The original design of the Medal of Honor. Sgt. William H. Thompkins was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Thompkins was one of those soldiers. His Medal of Honor citation reads, “[he] voluntarily went ashore in the face of the enemy and aided in the rescue of his wounded comrades. This after several previous attempts at rescue had been frustrated.”

Thompkins’ story of selfless service is just one of many. The Buffalo Soldiers served with distinction for the 85 years of their history, bringing credit to themselves, their unit, and in the United States Army. However, despite their proven ability to serve with just as much honor and dedication as their white comrades, African-Americans remained in segregated units in the United States military until 1948, when President Truman ordered the end of segregation in the military. Nevertheless, the Buffalo Soldiers carried their unit’s name with pride no matter the difficulties that they faced due to racial tensions. Booker T. Washington referred to the Buffalo Soldiers as “ambassadors on the front lines of war and visibility of blackness in American culture.”

Sergeant William H. Thompkin's marker, white,

Thompkins’s marker located at the Presidio at the San Francisco National Cemetery.

Thompkins is interred in San Francisco National Cemetery, located in the Presidio where the Buffalo Soldiers were garrisoned. Please join us in recognizing the service, sacrifice, and Veterans Legacy of Thompkins and all Buffalo Soldiers.

Author

Kenneth Holliday

Ken Holliday is part of the Veterans Legacy Program at the National Cemetery Administration. He is a proud Army Veteran, having served in the Infantry with combat deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Comments

  1. Michael Moran    

    I am a 24 year Army Veteran. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting some of the remaining Buffalo Soldier’s back in the 80’s. I was stationed at West Point and we dedicated out Veterinary Clinic to them. Do you have this information? They were amazing having stayed in the stables and riding the Hudson River. I have some pictures I took of them as well as a picture of the plaque on the rock at the Vet Clinic.
    SFC Ret US Army Veterinary Corps

  2. Walter Bernard    

    I am very grateful for all of the brave and dedicated Buffalo Soldiers who served our country with honor, during very challenging times for them and our country. Our Lord honors your faithfulness, especially during stressful times. “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, And whose hope is the Lord.”- (Jeremiah 17:7)

  3. Walter Bernard    

    I was in the military during the early 1960s and my heart went out to those wonderful African American men who served w/me, because of the prejudice that they endured, especially by those white men from the south. I had a best friend and roommate, Larry Lawson, from Chicago who was African American. One of the reasons he was my roommate was because the leadership over us knew I wasn’t prejudice. Larry was a wonderful brother to me, more than anyone there, for which I’m eternally grateful.

    1. B Tucker    

      Walter,
      I served in the US Army (1st Cav Div) in Vietnam and I’m from the south. Just want to enlighten you that I have no idea where this idea of southern prejudice comes from other than from liberal fake news reports. It certainly didn’t exist in my, or my friends’ families.

  4. Wendy Godfrey    

    My Great Grandfather General Edward S. Godfrey had the honor to lead these men into battle. Even those battles of victory that they so deserved to be acredited and were not. IE rough riders valor

  5. Jimmy Harris    

    It was an amazing article, I wish I could meet Bofoloo Soldiers!!!!

  6. SSG Lem Genovese USA / Retired    

    Company commander of the 10th Can troop that assaulted San Juan Hill with the Rough Riders was “Black Jack” Pershing.

  7. Orie D. Perry    

    My senior uncles served in France during WWI, my father and uncles during WWII, my cousin during the Korean War and My self during Viet-Nam. My Afro-American heritage has been enlightened, after reading the deeds, while under Fire, which Sgt. Thompkins and his rescue squad attained. I applaud the V.A. for allowing veterans and their families, to read about the contributions which Veterans of all ethnic backgrounds have contributed to our Great Nation.

  8. C. L. Richard    

    If there ever was a time in history where a group of men who did so much, and received so little reconnection,this is one of those times. Fight on Buffalo Soldiers.

  9. allen meece    

    Buffalo Soldiers were used in the war against the Indians. Serving in that war is nothing to be proud of because it was a genocide and protected the settlers who stole Indian land.
    When good soldiers fight for a bad war, there is no honor. I know, I was in one.

    Signed: a Viet Nam vet.

  10. Leonardo    

    Four baffalo soldiers broke thru the enemy lines and received the Medal of Honor. So who were they and why were they ommited from this recognition, was their act lesser than William H Thomkins? Don’t you have better writers that pay attention to detail

  11. Demetrius Bean    

    As an African American, who served in the military for almost 27 years, I get upset, saddened, and at times resentful of the treatment of early African Americans who served and paved the way for those of us today. I am so humble, graceful, and committed to them. I pray that my time in service has been looked upon by their spirits and they feel proud to know their efforts have not been in vain, and their contributions continue to allow African Americans and all minorities to excel beyond the limitations that were set on them in their eras.
    Though words can never express my gratitude, and my arms too short to reach you…God Bless you all and Thank you so much…

    1. DODSON, Donald E.    

      Thank you for your important service, too! One good aspect of military service is the opportunity for people to live and work closely with “others,” not of their own people-group and socio-economic class. You may have contributed greatly to breaking down bias and ignorance. [U.S. Army, 1968-1971]

  12. DODSON, Donald E.    

    Growing up in San Diego (CA) in the 1950’s, and spending time at Lake Morena near Camp Lockett (Campo, CA), my father made sure we learned about the Buffalo Soldiers’ stories, racial discrimination and the many privileges we enjoyed. In junior high school, I learned that our Principal, Mr. Clark, had served as a Noncommissed Officer (NCO) at Camp Lockett in WWII. How I now regret that I did not spent time after school learning his story, and preserving his story.

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