SUMTER, SC — Though not exactly one of their own, Jehovah Missionary Baptist Church will soon honor a World War II veteran.
Heyward Cuffie, a Bronze Star recipient, is receiving the Armed Forces Ministry Person of the Year Award next Sunday from the Sumter church.
"It's great. It's beautiful," said the 90-year-old from Darlington. "It's a pleasure to be here and be honored. You don't get that every day. A lot of men served our country, and if I had to do it over again, I would."
Cuffie will receive the award during the 7:45 a.m. services at the church next Sunday. After being recognized, this Buffalo Soldier will have a chance to share some of his reflections on being one of the first black Americans to fight Germans in Italy in 1944 as part of the U.S. Army 92nd Infantry Division.
"We learned to fight our fight instead of theirs," Cuffie said. "We'd fight at night when they couldn't see us."
This meant taking patrols in the dark, too.
Unfortunately, the night didn't always provide enough cover. One time, Cuffie said, he and his fellow infantrymen found themselves squeezed between enemy troops and a sheer-faced mountain, all while his squad had to navigate a minefield.
"The moon was as bright as sunshine," Cuffie said. "There were no clouds to cover it. We couldn't go but one way. I came through, but the rest didn't make it. When I came back and told them I was the only one to make it, they picked me up and carried me around like a baby. It was something."
Probably the most memorable experience, though, was when he and his fellow infantrymen were shelled for a week in Po Valley.
"They threw everything at us but the kitchen sink," he said.
Cuffie recalled a moment during the campaign that eventually led to the Allied forces capturing Italy where his buddy rose too high out of the foxhole. He tried to warn his friend, but it was too late. Cuffie spent the next seven days drinking his own urine to survive while his brother-in-arms' body deteriorated beside him.
He did not escape the war without injury, though. He lost nearly half his hearing and almost lost his left arm. "It was blown off and attached back," Cuffie said. "It's two inches shorter than the right."
When Walter McGowen's son, who attends Jehovah, told him about the church wanting to honor someone outside the membership, he immediately thought of his neighbor, Cuffie.
"Even in my church in Florence, they'll ask the military to stand up, and we nod, but it never goes as in depth as I've seen here," said McGowen, a veteran himself. "But it means a lot. It means you haven't used us and thrown us away."