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Editor’s note: Various documents pertaining to Paskins’s death are inconsistent about whether his grade was private or private 1st class. The burial report and disinterment directive give the higher rank. However, the Adjutant General’s Office report of death gave the lower rank. His headstone describes him as a private. Curiously, the headstone inscription and interment record states: “RANK CHANGED FROM PFC BY [the Adjutant General].” I can only speculate about the reason. Perhaps Paskins had been recently promoted by company order, but the promotion had not been confirmed at higher levels prior to his death. Since the Adjutant General’s decision would seem to be authoritative, this article refers to him as Private Paskins.
Early Life & Family
William Edgar Paskins, Jr. was born on May 17, 1916, in Bridgeville, Delaware. He was the son of William E. Paskins, Sr. and Minnie Carey Paskins. William had four brothers: one older, Howard, and three younger, Millard, Leroy and Earl. According to the 1910 census, William Sr. worked as a farm laborer. An April 3, 1945, article in the Wilmington Morning News stated that William Jr. attended public school in Bridgeville until 1929.
By the time of the 1940 census, Paskins was living in Greenwood, Delaware, and working as a laborer on a ditching project. Following the death of his father, his mother, Minnie, had entered into a common-law relationship to Lenwood Dixon, who was a farmhand on a private farm. Lenwood had two children, Elsie and James, who resided in the household periodically.
According to his draft registration card, Paskins was living in Camden, Delaware, as of October 16, 1940. The registrar described him as standing about five feet, six inches tall and weighing 145 lbs., with black hair and eyes. His three younger brothers also served in World War II.
A March 26, 1941, article in the Wilmington Morning News stated that Paskins was one of 46 Delaware men who “received orders to report next week at the selective service induction station at Trenton, N. J., in the eighth requisition period.”
According to the Individual Military Service Record that his mother submitted to the State of Delaware Public Archives Commission, Paskins was first stationed at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, and later at Camp Atterbury, Indiana. Paskins was assigned to Company “A,” 366th Infantry Regiment. The 366th was a segregated all-African American unit. The unit served in WWI during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Inactive after World War I, the 366th was reactivated on February 10, 1941, at Fort Devens. The regiment was originally assigned to the Eastern Defense Command as of April 30, 1942. The unit’s motto was “Labor Conquers All Things.”
The 366th was unusual in that it had black officers, while most black units were headed by white officers. The plan to reactivate the 366th ran into problems, reported in the article published March 15, 1941, in The Pittsburgh Courier, “Lack of Officers Nearly Cost Race 366th Command.” The article stated that a
Lack of enough Negro Lieutenant Colonels to serve under him almost cost Col. West A. Hamilton command of the 366th Infantry, the Associated Negro Press learned this week. But pressure exerted on the War Department caused army officials to go through with their original plans of having an all-Negro Army staff.
The article explained that the War Department originally announced that the senior officers would be white, adding:
When pressure was brought to bear against this plan, the army decided to use Col. Hamilton along with those Negro Lieutenant Colonels available even though they might be insufficient in number. At the same time it was deemed advisable by the War Department to waive some of the rejected ones’ disqualifications such as over age or overweight.
The desire to have the 366th put into a division with other troops after training springs from the belief that a team, to be effective, should practice as such. In the event of actual war, colored units will be put into a division and expected to function expertly just as do white regiments which have had such practice as a team. In World War 1, Negro units met for the first time after they got on the battlefield but nevertheless were expected to work smoothly together.
Negro units would also like to meet in peace time the general who would command them in war, since in peace there is a chance of getting rid of a prejudiced commander while in war the possibility of changing divisional commanders is considered small.
Many Negro officers of 1917 remember that [Major General Charles C.] Ballou was their commander. Gen. Ballou was charged with berating and belittling colored officers and soldiers at every opportunity but he remained commander despite protests because the nation was at war.
Despite the pressure on the War Department to allow the 366th soldiers to train with other units, they were not permitted to participate in the war games that took place in the fall of 1941 in North Carolina. The article “Colored Troops Will Not Travel to No. Carolina” in the October 2, 1941, edition of the Fitchburg Sentinel stated that:
Col. William A. Smith, post commander, in an interview today, announced that the 366th (colored) infantry regiment will not leave Devens for the First army maneuvers in North Carolina.
The 366th is part of the Sixth army corps and participated in the war games in this section last month.
Col. Smith offered no explanation why the 366th will remain at this post.
The 366th controlled all critical installations from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to the Canadian Border. During their time training at Fort Devens the 366th performed guard duty of railroads and bridges throughout New England, guarding against sabotage. They also assisted local farmers in harvesting McIntosh apples. In January 1943 they received a new commanding officer, Colonel Howard Donavan Queen (1893–1978). Colonel Queen was a World War I veteran. On May 1, 1943, they were attached to the 1st Service Command. On September 1, 1943, they became attached to the XIII Corps.
Paskins spent two months at Camp Atterbury, Indiana, arriving on November 23, 1943, as part of the XX Corps. At Camp Atterbury the 366th faced challenges due to the color of their skin. They were only permitted to go to movies at local theaters at certain hours and restaurants refused to serve their officers. Colonel Queen brought this to the attention of the Inspector-General and the problems were resolved. In the book, The Invisible Soldier, Colonel Queen stated: “It was most interesting to note that German prisoners of war were granted privileges denied to colored soldiers… We survived such petty schemes but were happy when our stay at Atterbury ended with an overseas assignment.” The 366th staged at Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia, for six days until they departed from Hampton Roads aboard the transport U.S.S. General William Mitchell (AP-114) on March 28, 1944.
Paskins arrived in Oran, Algeria, on April 6, 1944. Upon arrival Colonel Queen received a copy of a letter which was sent to Washington, D.C. and the authorities of Hampton Roads from the commander of the transport ship, Joseph W. Sensing. The letter relayed the message that the 366th exemplified discipline and that the morale of the men was higher than any similar group observed by the commander.
The 366th was then attached to the 15th Air Force Command for airfield security from the Adriatic coast to Sardinia. The regiment was divided up protecting air bases throughout the Mediterranean for nearly five months.
On November 4, 1944, the 366th received orders to report to the battlefield at the Gothic Line in the Po Valley of northern Italy. The Gothic Line was the last major line of defense for the Germans in Italy devised by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring in the northern part of the Apennine Mountains. They were attached to the 92nd Infantry Division of the U.S. Fifth Army. The 92nd was an African American unit nicknamed “The Buffalo Soldiers.” Their motto was “Deeds, Not Words.” The 366th was put under the command of Major General Edward Almond. Paskins arrived in Livorno Italy on November 21, 1944. Upon his arrival in the Po Valley battle area on November 25, 1944, General Almond addressed the men. In the book The Invisible Soldier Colonel Queen recalled the message that General Almond greeted them with: “I did not send for you. Your Negro newspapers, Negro politicians, and white friends have insisted on your seeing combat and I shall see that you get combat and your share of the casualties.”
Colonel Queen felt that after such a long time of performing guard duty that the men needed time to be combat ready. He requested that they be given thirty days of intensive training to be ready for battle. General Almond promised fifteen days, but the unit was put into battle on November 30, 1944, just five days after arriving. The majority of the 366th was put under staff command and spread out as replacements in different battalions and companies of the 92nd. Feeling he had no other option, Colonel Queen asked to be relieved of command. He was replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Ferguson in December 1944.
The last major engagement of the 366th took place in the Serchio Valley. The Germans held Mount Faeto just west of the town of Gallicano in the Tuscany region of Italy. On February 23, 1945, Company “E” of the 366th caught the Germans by surprise and successfully took Mount Faeto. The following day near Gallicano, Italy, Private Paskins was killed in action by a land mine wound to his chest and leg. The 366th Infantry was detached from the 92nd Infantry Division one day later on February 25, 1945. According to the report of burial document obtained by his niece, Martha Alexander Paskins, Paskins was interred in what is now known as the Florence American Cemetery in Florence, Italy, in Plot G, Row 6, Grave 26. Private Paskins was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.
One year after his death, on Sunday February 24, 1946, the Adkins Cubbage Auxiliary and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 1207 conducted a Gold Star dedication at the Zion A.M.E. Church in Camden, Delaware. They placed a gold star over the blue star to honor Paskins, who had attended the church. His mother, Minnie, was presented gifts also. By 1946, the town of Bridgeville, Delaware, had also honored the memory of Private Paskins by naming their American Legion Post in his honor.
United States Senator Edward W. Brooke, who was present at Mount Faeto, wrote in his book, Bridging the Divide: My Life:
Our siege of Mount Faeto-and many similar incidents elsewhere-confirmed in my mind that our men had been used as cannon fodder by racist commanders who did not want Negroes under their command and were willing to send us to our deaths to teach us a lesson. In wartime, many men of all races die in battle, often pursuing dubious or desperate strategies, and what motivates their commanders cannot be proven. But at Mount Faeto, the persistent use of frontal attacks in the face of an entrenched enemy that could count on our regularly scheduled forays left no doubt in my mind that, at the very least, our commander did not place a high value on the lives of our men. It saddens me that there were so many Negro soldiers in that war whose bravery will never be known or recognized. Many died, many had their lives shattered, and they were all heroes. They fought and died for our country, and to free Europe, even though they had little hope that the discrimination they faced would at all lessen when the war was won and they went home. They, too, were part of “the greatest generation.”
“46 MORE CALLED FOR DRAFT TESTS.” Wilmington Morning News, March 26, 1941. Pg. 3. https://www.newspapers.com/image/160354224/?terms=william%20Paskins&match=1
“366th Infantry Regiment (United States) explained.” Everything Explained Today website. https://everything.explained.today/366th_Infantry_Regiment_(United_States)/
“366th Troops Guard Vital Bridge Heads.” The Pittsburgh Courier, December 20, 1941. Pg. 1. https://www.newspapers.com/image/40066747/?terms=366th%20regiment&match=1
Brooke, Edward W. Bridging the Divide: My Life. Rutgers University Press, 2007.
“Colored Troops From Fort Devens Help to Harvest Big McIntosh Crop; 200 Apple Pickers Are Still Needed.” Fitchburg Sentinel, September 10, 1943. Pg. 1 and 6. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/92830717/366th-pick-apples/, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/92831479/apples/
“Colored Troops Will Not Travel To No. Carolina.” Fitchburg Sentinel, October 2, 1941. Pg. 1 and 7. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/92823583/366th-not-travel/, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/92824554/troops-366th-dont-go/
Dickerson, Minnie B. William Paskins Individual Military Service Record, October 7. 1949. Record Group 1325-003-053, Record of Delawareans Who Died in World War II. Delaware Public Archives, Dover, Delaware. https://cdm16397.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15323coll6/id/20242/rec/1
“Five From State Killed in Service, Seven Wounded.” Wilmington Morning News, April 3, 1945. Pg. 1 and 2. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/94349811/paskins-article-the-morning-news/, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/102416709/paskins-kia/
“Gold Star Services.” Journal-Every Evening, February 26, 1946. Pg. 12. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/102417194/paskins-gold-star/
Hodges, Robert Jr. “How the ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ helped turn the tide in Italy during World War II.” Military Times, February 14, 2018. https://www.militarytimes.com/military-honor/black-military-history/2018/02/14/how-the-buffalo-soldiers-helped-turn-the-tide-in-italy-during-world-war-ii/
“Lack of Officers Nearly Cost Race 366th Command.” The Pittsburgh Courier, March 15, 1941. Pg. 5. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/92826247/366-lack-of-officers/
Motley, Mary Penick, and Howard Donovan Queen. The Invisible Soldier: The Experience of the Black Soldier, World War II. Wayne State University Press, 1987.
“Negro Awarded Coveted Badge.” Journal-Every Evening, November 25, 1946. Pg. 12. https://www.newspapers.com/image/154522403/?terms=william%20paskins%20bridgeville&match=1
William E. Paskins report of burial, February 27, 1945. Courtesy of Martha Alexander Paskins.
WWII Draft Registration Cards for Delaware, 10/16/1940–3/31/1947. Record Group 147, Records of the Selective Service System. National Archives at St. Louis, Missouri. https://www.fold3.com/image/539191075?terms=paskins,william,delaware
Pratt, James. “Remembering the ‘separate’ 366th of World War II.” Ithaca Journal, December 17, 2015. https://www.ithacajournal.com/story/news/local/2015/12/17/remembering-separate-366th-world-war-ii/77487532/
United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.genealogybank.com/doc/census/image/v2%3A16DABE9A383D710A%40GB3CENSUS-16DABD5E1C30F310%402418673-16F9C5A15DD10F42%40?sid=hjyibeoxgmcjwyuzthzggkbucbfiggsl_wma-gateway016_1644161915907&person=p_452590216
United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.genealogybank.com/doc/census/image/v2%3A16DABE9A383D710A%40GB3CENSUS-16DABD8CE71CF468%402429630-16EA33BC44ED0651%40/p_13738037450?sid=hjyibeoxgmcjwyuzthzggkbucbfiggsl_wma-gateway016_1644161915907
Wales, Solace. Braided in Fire: Black GIs and Tuscan Villagers on the Gothic Line. Knox Press, 2020.
Last updated on May 23, 2022
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