Unit: The 2d Cavalry Division

By Roger Cunningham

Lieutenant General Ben Lear, commander of Second Army, speaks to troopers of the 10th Cavalry during a visit to Fort Riley, 28 May 1941.  (National Archives)

One of the least known U.S. Army formations of World War II was the 2d Cavalry Division, which enjoyed the dubious distinction of being inactivated twice.  Initially, it combined a black brigade with a white brigade, before it was reorganized as an all-black division in 1943.  Its short history offers an interesting look at the racial policies of the segregated Army during the early 1940s.

In World War I, cavalry had not played a decisive role in the static trench warfare on the Western Front, but postwar cavalry advocates pointed to its effectiveness in the mobile campaigns conducted in the Middle East to justify the horse’s continued relevance in modern warfare.  In 1921, the Army constituted two cavalry divisions, each one authorized about 7,500 men assigned to two cavalry brigades (each with two regiments), mounted engineer and horse field artillery battalions, and other smaller support units.  The 1st Cavalry Division was organized in the Southwest, with its headquarters and one brigade at Fort Bliss, Texas, and its other brigade at Douglas, Arizona, but the 2d Cavalry Division existed only on paper.

African Americans had served in the segregated Regular Army since 1866, and the four black regiments—9th and 10th Cavalry and 24th and 25th Infantry—had distinguished themselves in combat during the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American and Philippine Wars, and the Mexican Punitive Expedition.  The black regulars had not fought in World War I, however, and as the postwar Army was greatly reduced, “the prevalent racism made black units the obvious choice for cuts.”  The Army considered disbanding the black regiments, but since Congress had created them, The Judge Advocate General opined that only legislative action could inactivate them.  Nevertheless, enlistment of new black recruits ceased, and by 1924, African Americans comprised less than four percent of the Army’s strength, less than half their representation within the population.

The training of the under-strength black regiments was also neglected.  When the first squadron of the 10th Cavalry was stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1931, its personnel were used to perform housekeeping duties—messengers, painters, cooks, and grooms for the horses used by the officers assigned to the Command and General Staff College.  The black press criticized the fact that black troopers seemed to be doing everything but training for their wartime missions.  In 1935, the Chicago Defender published a story headlined “10th Cavalry is Curry-comb Boy for U.S.”  Even The Cavalry Journal published an epitaph for the regiment, noting that its “passing as a combat regiment is an event of note and will come as a shock to many distinguished officers and soldiers who have served with it.”

By 1940, as the Army responded to the war in Europe and Asia by expanding its active strength to 1.4 million men, African American leaders such as A. Philip Randolph and Walter White pushed for appropriate black representation in all branches of the armed forces, as well as an end to segregation.  Just before that year’s election, White also urged black voters to send telegrams to President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking that Colonel Benjamin O. Davis—one of only two black Regular Army officers—be promoted to brigadier general.  Davis’s name was among the twenty colonels on the brigadier general’s promotion list that was released in October.  The list’s appearance less than two weeks before the presidential election caused many to charge that Davis’s selection was Roosevelt’s attempt to win African American votes for reelection to an unprecedented third term.

Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., shown here in France in August 1944, commanded the 4th Cavalry Brigade, 2d Cavalry Division, from February to June 1942.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt promoted Davis to brigadier general on 25 October 1940, making him the Army’s first African American general officer.  (National Archives)

The 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments had just been assigned to the 4th Cavalry Brigade, and the War Department wanted Davis to command that formation at Fort Riley, Kansas.  The 3d Cavalry Brigade, a white formation, also had been activated at Fort Riley.  It comprised the 2d and 14th Cavalry Regiments and was commanded by Brigadier General Terry de la Mesa Allen, who was twenty-four days senior to Davis.  In January 1941, the Army and Navy Journal reported that the units at Fort Riley “and those ordered there” would compose the 2d Cavalry Division, “but when they will actually function as a division is unknown.”  Around the middle of that month, Davis was ordered to report to Fort Riley. 

Major General John K. Herr, the chief of cavalry, was opposed to combining black and white troops in one cavalry division.  In September 1940, he had written General George C. Marshall, the Chief of Staff, “The concentration of a large body of troops in one place, approximately half white and half black, involves the risk of bitter rivalries and racial clashes.  I consider this to be an unwise improvisation.”  Of course, Herr mentioned none of this in a mid-January 1941 letter to Davis, informing him that the 9th and 10th Cavalry had been performing service functions at Forts Riley and Leavenworth.  Herr also told Davis that both cavalry brigades would be quartered at Camp Funston, on Fort Riley’s military reservation.  He closed his letter by assuring Davis, “I want to do everything possible to help you develop a fine, efficient brigade, especially as the efficiency of the division as a whole will depend to no small degree on that of the 4th Cavalry Brigade.”

In mid-February, Brigadier General Davis and his wife arrived at Fort Riley, having driven from New York City in their green Cadillac sedan.  Their arrival on post was honored with an eleven-gun salute, and they were quartered at 5 Barry Avenue, near the other general officers.  The Kansas City Call reported that black soldiers were “joyous at the prospect of having General Davis as their commanding officer.”  Senator Arthur Capper wrote Davis to congratulate him on his promotion and to welcome him to the Sunflower State.

Brigadier General Davis’ aide was his son, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., an infantry officer who had graduated from West Point in 1936.  After only a few weeks at Fort Riley, however, the young captain left to attend the first black pilot training class at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama.  His departure left only three African American officers in the 4th Cavalry Brigade—Davis and the two regimental chaplains.  In April, three black medical officers also arrived at Fort Riley.  In keeping with the Army’s segregation policies, these black officers could not use the post officers’ club, and they had to join black soldiers in attending a segregated movie theater.

The 10th Cavalry joined the 9th Cavalry at Fort Riley in mid-March, and on 1 April, the 2d Cavalry Division was formally activated at Camp Funston, even though it still lacked about half of its authorized strength of 11,676 men.  About thirty percent of the division’s soldiers were African American.  Brigadier General Allen assumed command of the division until mid-June, when Brigadier General John Millikin arrived from Fort Bliss to assume command. 

Shoulder sleeve insignia of the 2d Cavalry Division.  (U.S. Army Center of Military History)

On 21 May, Davis wrote Herr to inform him that he would be retiring for age (sixty-four) at the end of July.  He noted: “All things considered…I think the Brigade is in good shape.  Its morale is very high.  My relations here are very pleasant. I am receiving generous cooperation and consideration from every one.”  Five days later, he requested retirement orders, and he turned over command of his brigade on 19 June.  The day after he retired, Davis was recalled to active duty, and he served as an advisor on Army race relations for the rest of the war.

After Davis’ departure, the division continued to train for war. It was assigned to the Second Army “Red Forces” that fought Third Army “Blue Forces” in the maneuvers staged in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas from August until the end of September—the largest maneuvers that the Army had ever conducted.  Both the 1st and 2d Cavalry Divisions performed effectively, but Herr later wrote that many felt that the maneuvers “were rigged to limit the activities of the cavalry, for the pressure was on from certain quarters to eliminate the mounted service.” 

After Japan’s 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and the immediate American declaration of war, the 2d Cavalry Division was ordered to send a brigade to Arizona in case there was a Japanese attack on the west coast of the United States.  By mid-December, the 3d Cavalry Brigade, reinforced with an artillery battalion and other combat support elements, was deployed in Phoenix and Tucson.  The brigade did not return to Fort Riley until June 1942.

In mid-July, the 2d Cavalry Division, now commanded by Brigadier General John B. Coulter, was inactivated to allow the 9th Armored Division to be organized from its manpower.  Only the white soldiers were assigned to the armored division, however, while the 4th Cavalry Brigade became a non-divisional unit.  Fort Riley soon became so crowded that the brigade’s headquarters and the 10th Cavalry were transferred to Camp Lockett, a small post near the Mexican border town of Campo, California, while the 9th Cavalry moved to Fort Clark, Texas.

Troopers of the 9th Cavalry stand at attention in their bivouac at Fort Riley, 28 May 1941. 

In February 1943, the Army reactivated the 2d Cavalry Division as a mounted all-black formation, commanded by Major General Harry H. Johnson.  It received horses from the 1st Cavalry Division, which had just been dismounted at Fort Bliss, and from the remount depot at Fort Robinson, Nebraska.  The 28th Cavalry regiment was activated at Camp Lockett to bring the 4th Cavalry Brigade back up to strength, and the 27th Cavalry Regiment was activated at Fort Clark to join the 9th Cavalry in forming the new 5th Cavalry Brigade.  The division’s headquarters, artillery, and other support elements also were activated at Fort Clark.

In February 1944, the new 2d Cavalry Division deployed to North Africa without its mounts, and a month later, the Army began to inactivate its units in Algeria.  The soldiers were reassigned to a variety of service units.  The 9th Cavalrymen transferred to provisional port companies, while the 10th Cavalrymen transferred to the 6486th Engineer Construction Battalion.  This brought the two black regiments’ histories to a close after almost eighty years of proud service.  The soldiers in the 27th and 28th Cavalry and other divisional elements met similar fates, and the division was officially inactivated in May.

In 1950, armor officially replaced cavalry as the Army’s mounted arm, but a few years later, units representing both the 9th and the 10th Cavalry reappeared in the active force structure.  They performed aerial reconnaissance and air cavalry functions in Vietnam, and armor battalions continuing the lineage and honors of both regiments still serve in active divisions today.

Fort Riley’s 2d Cavalry Division was unique in its combination of black and white brigades.  The formation trained hard, developed esprit, and performed well in the Louisiana Maneuvers before being inactivated in 1942.  The division that was re-organized in the Southwest in 1943 was also unique—its units were never brought together at one post.  This hampered development of divisional morale and efficiency and was a good indicator that the War Department had no serious purpose in store for the mounted formation.  In spite of its unique history, except in the hearts of its proud veterans, the 2d Cavalry Division is largely forgotten today.    

About the author:

Lieutenant Colonel Roger D. Cunningham, USA-Ret., resides in Fairfax County, Virginia and writes military history articles that have appeared in On Point, Army History, Kansas History, Southwestern Historical Quarterly, and The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. His article, “Shaking the Iron Fist: The Mexican Punitive Expedition of 1919” (Army History, Winter 2002) was the winner of a 2002 AHF Distinguished Writing Award.