Little more than a year after graduating first in his class from Howard University College of Medicine in 1941, Walter Lester Henry Jr. donned an olive-green uniform with a buffalo insignia on the sleeve and headed to war.
The nation was engaged in its second worldwide conflict, and as a first lieutenant, the young medic was named commanding officer of the medical battalion for the 92nd division, the U.S. Army's all-black infantry unit, known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
They were the only black soldiers to see front-line combat in the war, battling Nazi Germans and Italian Fascists while pushing through the Serchio River valley along the horn of Italy. But within their own ranks, another battle was raging.
White commanding officers denigrated their black charges with complaints that the men were not up to the task. Henry dealt with the contempt the same way he had as a black boy attending mostly white schools during the 1920s and '30s in his segregated Philadelphia community: with a quiet and steadfast resolve to prove them wrong by excelling.
Henry finished at the top of his class at the old Central High School for Boys, then a predominantly white public school that attracted the city's best students. Likewise, in the hills of Italy, he moved his long, slender fingers with masterful precision, saving the lives of battle-weary black soldiers and helping to excise the disparaging notions about them.
"He did the best he could to take care of his troops," said Henry's nephew Col. Norvell V. Coots, a second-generation doctor and commander of the Walter Reed Health Care System. "He was able to effect some changes within limits."A calculated risk-taker, Henry never wore a weapon during combat, Coots said, because "he believed the medical officer's job was to heal the wounded and cure the ill and not to take lives."
Amid scattered enemy fire, Henry drove out every day to check on his battalion aid stations. The Germans came to know his routines so well that they often stopped firing their artillery to allow his jeep to pass through because they knew he wasn't a threat, Henry told family members. A deliberate man not given to hyperbole or ruminating about the past, Henry also told relatives that a German artillery commander even saluted him once as the U.S. military jeep drove past bearing a large red cross.
At the height of the bloody battle in the Serchio Valley, Henry led a team of medics that gathered up the casualties and performed triage and stabilization treatment. Timing was critical for saving lives, limbs and eyesight. Coots recalled his uncle telling him that he "processed more than a thousand casualties in a 24-hour period without a single loss."
By the war's end, Henry had earned the rank of major. The doctor then practiced briefly in Philadelphia and moved to Washington in 1949 to complete his residency in internal medicine at Freedman's Hospital, a community fixture for more than a century and Howard's teaching medical center. He also received training in endocrinology at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago and began rising to prominence in the field, which includes the treatment of diabetes and other glandular disorders.
Henry, second from left, as a World War II Army medic.
Henry returned to teach at Howard, helping to train many of the country's black physicians. "He was always prepared, and there was eloquence to his life," recalled America E. Nelson, a former student who graduated from Howard's medical college in 1961. "He brought a quality to Howard medicine that would not be here otherwise."
He was a quiet man with laser focus and a regimented reading schedule of at least four hours every evening. Colleagues and students called him "the walking Cecil" for his easy recitation of cases from a comprehensive medical textbook. He also relished the classics, from Greek philosophers to Tolstoy, politics and history.
Diabetes research was his passion, though, and with battlefield determination, he focused on educating patients about the life-threatening disease and on training generations of endocrinologists to treat it. In 1987, the American College of Physicians designated Henry a master physician, a high honor bestowed on an elite group of doctors who have achieved preeminence in the field -- then a rare acknowledgment for an African American.
Henry retired in 1990, as glaucoma began stealing his sight -- a cruel defeat to him, relatives said. But when the doctor could no longer read his medical books, Howard medical students came to his Northwest Washington home and read them aloud to him, said another nephew, Rod Palmer. With the help of a daytime health worker, Henry also tended to his wife of 66 years, Ada, who has advanced Alzheimer's, at their home. The old Buffalo soldier pressed on until one day in mid-April when he missed a step while walking downstairs in his house. The fall caused bleeding in his brain. He was 93 -- and still full of passion for medicine and mentoring -- when he died.
Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb is a former Washington Post editor and writer who freelances in Washington. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PHOTOS: Top photo courtesy Henry family. Army photograph from Buffalo (military publication)