Freddie Thompson always wanted to be a part of something greater than himself. As a Black child growing up in segregated South Carolina in the 1930s and 1940s, opportunities to reach for that greatness were seldom available to him. A series of tragedies and hardships early in his life set him back even further. His mother died in childbirth and, with no father present to take care of him, he was raised by his stepmother alongside two stepbrothers and two stepsisters.
Freddie was part of the family, but never felt that he was seen that way. All he wanted was something he rarely received: recognition. So, in 1950 at the age of 18, he seized the opportunity to become more than his circumstances and enrolled in the Army at the start of the Korean War.
Finding Fraternity with the Buffalo Soldiers
The Army promised brotherhood, but bigotry was never far off. Once he arrived at Fort McPherson in Atlanta to start training, he was separated from the white men he rode with and sent to a segregated unit. That unit, though, was one steeped in a storied history dating back to the Western frontier following the Civil War.
As a new member of the 24th Infantry Regiment—one of only four all-black regiments created after the Civil War—Freddie became not just an Army “grunt.” He was a Buffalo Soldier, a name given by Native Americans to the all-Black 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments for their fierceness and courage.
“They had never seen Black people before, so they related the soldiers to buffalo…because buffalo are such dangerous fighters,” says Freddie. “We were one of the first fighter units that were sent to Korea when the war broke out.”
Fighting Through Injury to Secure a Place in History
Freddie had finally found the recognition he sought after, but it would soon come at a painful price. Before joining the Army, Freddie played shortstop on a semi-pro baseball team and earned the nickname “Toy Cannon” for his powerful arm. A few months into combat, a bullet ripped through that arm in battle and sent him to Japan to get patched up. It wasn’t long before he was back in action, but then he ended up right back in the hospital several months later after a second more serious injury. Still, Freddie wasn’t done fighting and was back on his feet in no time.
The war was unrelenting, and Freddie says he was “in combat every day” until his service was up. From the trenches of major battles like Pork Chop Hill and the Iron Triangle to historic moments like the retaking of Seoul (both times) and the victory in Pyeongyang in North Korea that turned the tide of the war, Freddie was there. At the time, he didn’t fully realize that he wasn’t just witnessing history, he was a part of it.
“It's hard to keep up with the history part when you're in it,” says Freddie. “While people were reading about it in the newspaper, I was getting up and living it every day.”
Keeping the Memories Alive
As a boy, Freddie dreamed of achieving something great. As man, he attained it, though not in the way anyone would wish. Freddie’s valor after being wounded twice in battle led to recognition from the highest authority in the land: two purple hearts awarded in the name of the President. One he pinned on his brother Joe who died in the Army, but not in combat. The other he keeps with him to this day, at age 90, in his cottage at Savannah Square, a Five Star Senior Living community in Savannah, GA.
Stepping into Freddie’s apartment is like stepping into history, with cabinets full of army memorabilia right next to photos of Freddie recovering in an Army hospital. Freddie is keeping that history alive. As one of the last surviving members of the 24th Buffalo Soldier Regiment, Freddie still says connected with those he fought alongside and their families through regular meetups. “It’s a brotherhood,” he says. “There’s not too many of us left, so these guys mean a whole lot.”
A Story That Lives On
When Freddie returned home following the war, he enrolled at Savannah State university to learn carpentry and worked as a cabinet maker for the civil service until he retired 27 years later. Though Freddie found greatness serving his country, he says the most important thing he’s achieved in life is raising a family. In the trenches, he prayed to return home so he could raise a son. With his late wife, Amy, he got two. One works in the Cardiology department at the VA Medical Center in Dublin, GA. The other, Freddie Thompson IV, is a Command Sergeant Major in the Army, carrying on his father’s legacy.
Looking back, Freddie says his life’s journey may have been painful at times, but light shines through when you put it in perspective. “I have lived a hard life in a sense, and then a good life in a sense,” he says. In Freddie’s story, you’ll find war, bigotry and heartbreak, but also triumph, unbreakable bonds, recognition and greatness. “There ain't too many guys who have been through as much as I’ve been and lived to be 90 years old,” he says. To Freddie and all the veterans who have served over the years, we thank you for your service. Your stories live on.
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