Before the Army’s 25th Infantry Division, stationed at Schofield Barracks on Oʻahu (formed in 1941,) for a while during the time of World War I (1913 – 1918) Hawaiʻi had the Army’s 25th Infantry Regiment.
The Division is known as the “Tropic Lightning;” the Regiment was known as the “Buffalo Soldiers.”
In 1866, Congress created six segregated regiments which were soon consolidated into four black regiments. They were the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry.
“The officers say that the negroes make good soldiers and fight like fiends … the Indians call them ‘buffalo soldiers’ because their woolly heads are so much like the matted cushion that is between the horns of the buffalo.” (Roe, Army Letters from an Officer’s Wife, 1871-1888)
Although African Americans have fought in America’s wars since the Revolution, they weren’t allowed to enlist in the Regular Army until after the Civil War (and, from July 28, 1866 – February 3, 1946, America’s Army was segregated.)
While the Buffalo Soldiers fought in the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars at the turn of the century, they did not see combat in World War I (1914 – 1918.)
At the time, the National Park Service did not exist, however a few National parks had been created: Yellowstone (1872,) Sequoia (1890,) Yosemite (1890,) Mount Rainier (1899,) Crater Lake, 1902,) Wind Cave, (1903,) Mesa Verde (1906,) Glacier (101) and Rocky Mountain (1910.)
Rather than fight, the Buffalo Soldiers and other Army regiments were assigned to duties at some National Parks.
The US Army served as the official administrator of Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks between 1891 and 1913; Buffalo Soldiers, like their white counterparts in US Army regiments, were among the first Park Rangers, and created a model for park management as we know it today. (NPS)
In addition to bringing law and order to the mountain wilderness, their accomplishments included the completion of the first usable road into Giant Forest and the first trail to the top of Mt. Whitney (the tallest peak in the contiguous United States) in Sequoia National Park in 1903 …
… and the building of an arboretum in Yosemite National Park near the south fork of the Merced River in 1904. One scholar considered the latter area to contain the first marked nature trail in the national park system. (NPS)
Starting in 1906, George Lycurgus (operator of the Volcano House) and newspaperman Lorrin Andrews Thurston were working to have the Mauna Loa and Kilauea Volcanoes area made into a National Park. In 1912, geologist Thomas Augustus Jaggar arrived to investigate and joined their effort.
Jaggar had tried to lead several expeditions to the top of Mauna Loa in 1914 but was unsuccessful due to the elevation (13,678 feet) and the harsh conditions: rough lava, violent winds, noxious fumes, shifting weather, extreme temperatures and a lack of shelter, water and food. (Takara)
About 800 Buffalo Soldiers from the 25th Regiment had been assigned to garrison duty in Hawaiʻi at Schofield Barracks. Given their experience in Parks on the continent, some of the soldiers were called upon to assist at the volcanoes on the Island of Hawaiʻi.
In September 1915, Jaggar, Thurston and a US Army representative conducted a survey to determine a route for a trail up Mauna Loa.
The following month, a local paper noted, “Soldiers Building Mountain Trail. Negro soldiers of the Twenty-fifth Infantry to the number of 150 are at work constructing a trail from near the Volcano House to the summit of Mauna Loa. It is estimated that three or four weeks will be devoted to this work. The soldiers are doing the work as a part of their vacation exercises.” (Maui News, October 29, 1915)
The Buffalo Soldiers built the 18-mile trail to the summit of Mauna Loa.
On August 1, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the country’s 13th National Park into existence – Hawaiʻi National Park. At first, the park consisted of only the summits of Kīlauea and Mauna Loa on Hawaiʻi and Haleakalā on Maui.
Eventually, Kilauea Caldera was added to the park, followed by the forests of Mauna Loa, the Kaʻū Desert, the rain forest of Olaʻa and the Kalapana archaeological area of the Puna/Kaʻū Historic District.
The National Park Service, within the federal Department of Interior, was created on August 25, 1916 by Congress through the National Park Service Organic Act.
The experience of working with the Army did not end with the construction of the Mauna Loa Trail, and Thurston’s energy did not seem to wane. He continued to promote the Kīlauea area to the public and the military who he thought could benefit from, and would be a benefit to Kīlauea. (NPS)
In 1916, Thurston, recognizing the long tradition of soldiers and sailors who had visited the area, proposed the establishment of a military camp at Kīlauea. Thurston promoted his idea and was able to raise enough funds through public subscription for the construction of buildings and other improvements. By the fall of 1916 the first group of soldiers arrived at Kīlauea Military Camp (KMC.) (NPS)
Later, in the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built research offices, hiking trails and laid the foundations for much of the infrastructure and roads within the Hawaiʻi Volcanoes and other parks across the country.
On, July 1, 1961, Hawaiʻi National Park’s units were separated and re-designated as Haleakalā National Park and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Oh, one more thing … another lasting legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers to the National Parks is the Ranger Hat (popularly known as the Smokey the Bear Hat) – with it the Montana Peak (or pinch) at the top of the hat; a recrease of the Stetson hat to better shed water when it rains.