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Not letting youth be an obstacle

At age 16, Russell A. Guthrie was impressed when his friend Vincent Hall returned home on leave from the Army in 1941.

Hall, a member of the all-black 10th Cavalry Regiment, looked sharp in his uniform. And when he told young Guthrie what an honor it was to serve, Guthrie decided he wanted to follow in his friend's footsteps.

There was just one problem.

"I wasn't old enough. Then I started thinking I could use my older brother's birth certificate. He was disabled, and he would not have made it in the military."

So with the birth certificate in hand, the Fosdick-Masten Park High School student headed to the old post office in downtown Buffalo and presented himself as a 21-year-old. Soon enough, he was on his way to basic training in Fort Dix, N.J.

Guthrie looked forward to his assignment in the 10th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Riley, Kan. The unit had an impressive history. Its members were known as the "Buffalo Soldiers," and they had participated in the famous charge up San Juan Hill near Santiago, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War.

But Guthrie hit a snag.

"At Fort Dix," he recalls, "some government men came up to me while I was doing KP duty. They asked how old I was. I said, '21,' and they said, 'No, how old are you for real?' I told them I'd just turned 17.

"They said they already knew that, and I wasn't old enough to be in the Army, and that I could get into serious trouble for falsifying records. I can remember that just as plain as day."

Rather than throw him out of the Army, Guthrie was allowed to remain, though he did not know what would happen to him, even after he arrived at Fort Riley.

"I was scared. Sometimes I didn't want to come out of my tent," he says. "The MPs were always patrolling. They called me 'Baby Boy' because I was so young. I thought 'Oh, boy, they are going to throw me in Leavenworth,' " he says of the federal prison also in Kansas.

But Guthrie's father understood his son's passion to serve and made things right by signing papers for early enlistment. Leon Guthrie was a World War I veteran who had served with the all-black 349th Field Artillery Group in France.

"My dad's lungs got burned from mustard gas," recalls Russell Guthrie, now 86. "But he lived to be one day short of 100 years old."

Like his father, he would serve in Europe.

After battling the Germans to take over Sicily, Guthrie's unit moved to England and finally France to follow the D-Day invasion at Normandy.

"I was with the 761st Tank Battalion," he says. "We were the only black group. Gen. George S. Patton picked us. He said we were the best. He loved cavalry men."

The 761st, Guthrie added, suffered limited casualties compared with other units.

"We were tough. We knew what to do and when to do it," he says. "They thought we couldn't fight, but they found out different. We turned them around."

Enemy soldiers would come to admire the unit's tenacity, as well.

"POWs told us they wished we were on their side," he recalls. "They called us the Black Panthers."

As the 761st moved across France, Guthrie earned a Purple Heart when he was struck by slivers of shrapnel in both legs. After receiving first aid, he continued on with the battalion.

"You just kept going. You couldn't stop," he says. "The Germans were shelling us night and day. They were sending shells and rockets like raindrops."

Pushing ahead toward Germany, the battalion received a sudden order calling it back to assist in the Battle of the Bulge.

"We made it back over snow and ice in about 18 hours. We rode all day and all night," he remembers. "They thought we would need 48 hours. We said 24 hours -- and made it in 18."

Guthrie's memories of the war remain vivid.

"You never get over it," he says. "I have medicine from the VA that I take so that I can sleep at night, but I catnap."

Although the war was painful, Guthrie says, he remains deeply proud of his service, especially in helping prove that black soldiers are among the best.

***

Russell A. Guthrie, 86

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Buffalo

Branch: Army

Rank: Sergeant first class

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1941-46

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Presidential Unit Citation, Meritorious Unit Citation

Specialty: Tank gunner

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