Veteran African American Army regiment to be honored at Fort Benning

Veteran African American regiment, its band, among those to be honored at Fort Benning
Soldiers of the all-African American 24th Infantry Regiment and family members in 1941 outside the building here that housed the regiment's post exchange and snack bar. Photo credit  L. Albert Scipio/DVIDS

African American Soldiers who served at Fort Benning, including those of an all-Black Infantry regiment, its much-sought after band and band leader, as well as retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, will be honored here Feb. 24 in observance of African American History Month.

The observance will include a tour to several sites linked to those Soldiers, as well as the dedication and renaming of a building in honor of one of them.

Those to be honored include the 24th Infantry Regiment, its band and dynamic bandmaster, Chief Warrant Officer Robert B. Tresville Sr., as well as Powell. Powell received key early training here, and later lived here as a captain and major. He went on to became chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and, later, secretary of state.

The 24th Infantry Regiment was activated in 1869. It served in the American West, and saw action at the battle of San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War, assaulting and seizing the Spanish-held blockhouse and trench system on the hill.

The regiment also served in Mexico, the Philippines, in World War II and the Korean War. It was stationed at Fort Benning from 1922 to April 1942, and then deployed to the South Pacific during World War II, said Darrel Nash, regimental historian for the 24th Infantry Regimental Combat Team Association.

Tresville was a trombonist who served in the Army from 1912 to 1945. In 1920 he attended the Bandleader's Course at the U.S. Army School of Music at Fort Jay, on Governor's Island in New York Harbor, and was the school's first African American graduate.

He led the 24th Infantry Regiment Band beginning in 1922, and under his leadership it achieved wide popularity and distinction.

The observance is being organized by Fort Benning's U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence. MCoE trains Soldiers for service in the Infantry and Armor branches, and also trains those hoping to become paratroopers, Rangers, snipers, as well as those seeking certain other military skills.

The day's events are scheduled to start at the former site of the 24th Infantry Regiment Theater.

A video will be shown there highlighting the contributions of Black Soldiers to the Army and the nation's security. The building, now known as Nett Hall, was built in 1933.

It's currently an auditorium for the Officer Candidate School.

The observance continues at the regiment's former post exchange and snack bar, built in 1937. It's now houses the Officer Candidate School's Hall of Fame and conference room.

A commemorative plaque is to be unveiled there.

The observance then moves to the former Powell residence at 172A Arrowhead Road (Building 10382A), where he lived with his family from summer 1964 until 1967, years during which he was a captain, then a major.

During that period he attended Pathfinder School, finishing as honor graduate, and completed the Infantry Officer Advanced Course. He left Fort Benning in 1967. He served as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff from 1989 -1993, and as secretary of state from 2001-2005.

Powell was also at Fort Benning at the early stage of his career, attending the basic course for Infantry officers, as well as Ranger and Airborne schools.

In a ceremony that will be the observance's final event, the MCoE Band's headquarters, building 285 at 6960 Morrison Street, will be renamed Tresville Hall.

As part of the ceremony, a narrator will recount a brief history of the accomplishments of the regiment's band and Tresville's role as its leader, followed by formal remarks from the MCoE Band's commander, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Charles A. Doswell. That's to be followed by an unveiling of two plaques mounted on either side of the building's entrance.

One plaque is to be unveiled by Maj. Gen. Patrick J. Donahoe, commanding general of MCoE and Fort Benning, accompanied by MCoE's senior enlisted leader, Command Sgt. Maj. Derrick C. Garner, and Nash, representing the regimental association.

The other plaque is to be unveiled by members of the Tresville family.

Under Tresville's leadership, the band gained wide recognition as one of the finest in the Army, Doswell said. Besides their ability to perform ceremonial and concert music, they gained distinction for their skill at playing jazz.

Tresville moved to improve the band's musical standards, in part by recruiting the most talented musicians and ensuring they received training at the Armed Forces School of Music.

He further reinforced their training by teaching classes in music history, theory and composition at Fort Benning. And he maintained ties with the Tuskegee Institute and music educators there. In addition, he encouraged the band's musicians to compose their own music. Tresville himself composed the regiment's anthem, titled "Semper Paratus," which is the regiment's motto and is Latin for "Always Ready."

The band gained a reputation for superior musicianship and was called upon regularly to represent the U.S. Army at events of various kinds, including parades, local fairs, and veterans' reunions. They toured widely throughout Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, and were even asked to travel as far away as New York to perform.

Because of their adeptness playing jazz they were also especially in demand at dance halls at Fort Benning and in Columbus, Georgia. The dance halls were segregated by race under Jim Crow.

The number of requests for jazz performances grew so high that Tresville assembled numerous jazz orchestras to meet the demand, and the band's staffing surged to 75 Soldiers at one point, far beyond the normal number of 28, Doswell said.

Tresville was born in 1891 in Galveston, Texas, and entered the Army in 1912, according to his family.

In 1942, with the United States having entered World War II Tresville and the band were sent to the South Pacific.

In January 1943 he was assigned to an Army Air Forces band at MacDill Field, Florida.

That same year, Tresville's first son, Robert B. Tresville Jr., graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The younger Tresville had also completed pilot training, and after West Point was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group, also known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

The next year, 1944, the younger Tresville, then a captain commanding the 100th Fighter Squadron, was enroute to a combat mission over Italy and was killed when his plane crashed into the sea.

Some months later, in January 1945, the elder Tresville retired. He moved to California in 1946.

In 1964, Tresville and his wife Irma, an accomplished pianist, were interviewed for an article that appeared in the newspaper of Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland.

The couple, the article said, were then enjoying "memories of busier days," including those when Tresville was leader of an Army Air Forces band in Florida.

"Mr. Tresville," the article said, "had been sent there to organize the USAAF Band when Irma, the featured soloist, played Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue.'"

Her memories of that time in Florida reflected the racial segregation of the day, conditions that also prevailed throughout the Jim Crow South.

"'There was segregation then,'" the article quoted her as saying, "'and we performed first for the Negro audience, and later for the white. The applause was wonderful from both,' Mrs. Tresville recalled."

Tresville was asked what had been the highlight of his career.

"'Well," the article quoted him as saying, "'I believe it was in the South Pacific when we toured field hospitals playing for the wounded from Guadalcanal and other battle zones,' the retired Army warrant said.

"'We carried full packs and rifles because we never knew when we'd have to throw away our horns in favor of guns,'" according to the article.

Tresville died in November, 1965 at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital after a long illness.

Tresville's grandson, David Tresville, 61, of Eastvale, California, said his family welcomes the honors being accorded his grandfather.

Renaming the band hall for Tresville, said Doswell, honors his accomplishments, which were all the more remarkable because they were achieved in an era of racial discrimination.

"He managed to do amazing things at a time of – in the Jim Crow South – strict segregation," Doswell said.

"His band swelled to a huge size due to its constant demand," said Doswell, "and served as ambassadors not just for Fort Benning but the United States Army all over the nation.

"And," Doswell said, "it's due in no small part to Chief Warrant Officer Tresville's influence that this happened. That's why we are choosing to name this building after that man."