How Buffalo Soldiers Got Named

  • 02/04/2017

In Honor of Tank Crews Everywhere

A humorous and timeless window into how Soldiers live and think in the field.

It could be any Service Branch or Any War; but this time Vietnam.



Part 2 (Multi-Part Series):  How Buffalo Soldiers Got Named

Read Part 1: New Tank Crew Member for Buffalo Soldiers

18 Kilometers From Cambodia / Just Off HWY (DT)788 / West of Tay Ninh/ South Vietnam / September 1971 / 

G Troop – 2nd Squadron – 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment


 * Sarge (TC; Tank Commander)

+H Hazy (Gunner)

+B Bill (Driver)

= Loader


By late afternoon G Troop had formed a RON Site in Indian Territory and Buffalo Soldiers (an M551 Sheridan Light Tank) was tucked in behind its RPG Screen in near hull-down defilade; courtesy of one of our Rome Plows (D7E Caterpillars).  Think of a RON Site (Remain Over Night Site) as a defensive circle of armored vehicles with gun tubes facing out – similar to a wagon circle in The Old West.  A unit might stay in a RON Site one night or several as it reconnoiters the vicinity for enemy activity. 

To get armored vehicles emplaced on the circular perimeter a Rome Plow would cut a slot in the ground simultaneously pushing up an earth berm around it on three sides.  A Sheridan like Buffalo Soldiers would then drive into it, turret exposed above the berm, and put up an RPG Screen (Rocket Propelled Grenade protective screen) made of chain link fence suspended on engineer stakes.  An incoming RPG would detonate on the screen instead of on the armored vehicle, but outgoing main gun or Ma Deuce (.50 caliber machine gun) rounds could fire right through it – damaging or destroying it and requiring a replacement of course.

After a tank was situated, and if the crew bothered, two tank crew members would recon their 90 degree sector of fire to the front on foot; hand-signaling the tank gunner inside the turret about areas where Sir Charles (enemy) might hide or advance from.  Using the tank rangefinder, the gunner in the turret would lay the main gun and record azimuth and elevation information so the crew could fire at vulnerable places at night with increased accuracy.  One tank’s 90 degree sector of fire would overlap those of the tanks on either side – and so forth all around the circle.  Increased accurate firepower on multiple places.  Simple.  Effective.  Desirable.  Routine.

Once the recon on foot was completed the two crew members would emplace interconnected trip flares (closer in) and fragged Claymore Mines (closer in still) as they returned.

Trip flares are fixed low to the ground with wire attached and hidden that runs to an anchor point; a second stake, tree, bush, etc.  If Sir Charles disturbs the wire the flare goes off.  Because trip flare wires are usually interconnected Sir Charles would likely set off more than one.  Multiple flares burning at night would betray Sir Charles’ presence and get an immediate response from more than one tank nearby.

Setting up trip flares was mostly safe – but setting up Claymore Mines with fragmentary grenades underneath was anything but.  Claymores are remotely wire command-detonated anti-personnel devices that spray metal balls to the front like a shot gun, and have a 60 degree blast zone effective out to about 100 meters pending terrain.  Claymores are relatively small – a little larger than two hands held finger tip to finger tip, are slightly semi-circular in shape, and have the raised words “Front Toward Enemy” on the convex surface.  Though Soldiers think the words humorous they take special care when they deploy a Claymore; especially when they “frag” a Claymore. 

How to do that?  A fist-sized hole is dug, the Claymore’s emplacement legs are pushed partway into the ground around the hole, then – VERY CAREFULLY – a fragmentary grenade is placed in the hole – spoon up – and the Claymore is pushed the rest of the way down onto the spoon.  Once convinced the Claymore and frag are down tight and secure, the Soldier camouflages the grenade and Claymore and removes the pin from the spoon.  If Sir Charles tries to disable or reverse the Claymore, Sir Charles gets a surprise.  If Sir Charles could reverse the Claymore the tank crew could be showered with shrapnel instead.  Fragging Claymores helps prevent that. 

Not surprisingly, the Soldier who deploys fragged Claymores is also the “Keeper Of The Pins” and reverses the process to retrieve them if the Troop or unit leaves the RON Site.  Crew members take turns, and this goes on night and day.  Interestingly, I never saw or heard of anyone ever having a problem deploying or retrieving a fragged Claymore – a testament to the focused skill of the average Soldier.


As for the crew of Buffalo Soldiers, Bill is in the driver’s seat; idling the diesel engine to charge the batteries, and Hazy is up top behind the Ma Deuce.

Sarge and Loader have reconnoitered Buffalo Soldiers’ sector of fire on foot and already deployed trip flares.  Now its time for Loader to take his first turn fragging Claymores.

  • “The crew thinks you’re ready for this Loader, but I’ll deploy the first two fragged Claymores.”

=  “k” 

Loader is nervous but sees this as a “partial graduation” from FNG to Official Crew Member and is determined to get it right.

  • “We’ve got 6 Claymores to deploy.  We’ll rehearse first, then if all goes well you’ll watch me as I frag the first two – with no questions as I do – so I can concentrate.  Then we’ll pause to review.  Then you’ll do what I’ve done to frag the other four.  I’ll remain near and make sure you succeed.”  (If Loader fumbles, Sarge will quickly throw the frag away…)

=  ‘k” 

Loader trusts Sarge.

Sarge and Loader begin by running and hiding the six Det-Cords (Detonation Cords) out to the six places Sarge has picked to deploy the Claymores.  Then the Det-Cords are attached to the Claymores.  The Clackers (Claymore Triggers) are on Safe, and remain securly clustered in order within the TC’s cupola.  After deploying all six fragged Claymores, the last step will be to attach the other end of the Det-Cord to the Clackers.

It goes fast with no problems.  Sarge digs a hole, pushes the Claymore part way down over it, puts a frag in spoon up and pushes the Claymore the rest of the way down over it.  Then he carefully pulls the spoon pin out while holding the top of the Claymore, and lets go – repeating the process for the second fragged Claymore.

Loader was all eyes, they talk, and Sarge encourages Loader to go slow.

=  “k”

Loader does go slow and deliberate, Sarge remains silent, and the other four Claymores get deployed with no problems.

They finish by attaching the Det-Cords to the Clackers in the TC’s cupola.

+H  “Good Job Loader”

+B  “You learn quick.”


Long Pause…

They’re all sitting quietly atop the Sheridan – various weapons at the ready – as dusk approaches.

=  “Got a question.”

+B  “What?”

=  “How’d Buffalo Soldiers get its name?”

+H  “Sarge’s Fault – and Sarge’s Choice.”

=  “What?”

+H  “Sarge’s fault… …he had second guard one night, and had just relieved me when several trip flares went off to our front.  Following orders from the TC’s meeting that afternoon he immediately flipped off the main gun safety and KUH-WOOOOOM!!!”

+B  “Sarge had fired a Beehive round – and that caused everyone on the perimeter to open up with everything they had.  It was a sight to see and hear… …a whole Cav Troop emptying Main Guns, Ma Deuces, Claymores, M-16s, Grease Guns, .45s, etc., …EVERYTHING we had… …ground and overhead flares going off.”

+H  “It all died down fairly quick though – ‘cause there was NO incoming fire… …we all just sat tight for awhile though – watching the last flares burn out – and noticing how quiet it had gotten again.”

+B  “We couldn’t see anything in front of our Sheridan that might have set off the trip flares.”

  • “Next morning Hazy and I walked out into our sector of fire and discovered what had happened.”

Then Sarge paused for effect…

=  “Well?  What happened?”

  • “Felt kinda bad about it – but there were hooves, antlers, and carcass parts spread out all over the place.  A water buffalo had gotten loose from a nearby rice farm and had wandered directly into the middle of our sector of fire… …hence the name ‘Buffalo Soldiers’… …pretty fitting for a Sheridan in a Cav Unit, no?  We became instantly famous.”

They all grinned, but wondered what the rice farmer thought about it…

  • “Not the end of the story though… …that afternoon the resupply Chinook flew in and the Crew Chief sought me out to hand me a paper sack.  In the sack was a bottle of red paint and a brush with note that said ‘For the Buffalo Silhouette on turret.’  The Supply Sergeant had already heard about us.  We had enough paint to do the silhouette and letter ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ on both sides of the hull.”

Without saying anything, Bill retrieved Loader’s CVC Helmet and gave it to him.  Loader, though in country only a short time, had learned faster than normal – and was now considered an Official Buffalo Soldier Crew Member.

Sarge was smiling.

Even Vietnam had some good moments.



Part 1: New Tank Crew Member for Buffalo Soldiers