London, summer, 1948. All eyes were on the first Olympic Games held since 1936. After years of war, representatives from around the world met in venues like the track field stadium, the swimming pool and the boxing ring, instead of on the battlefield.
At Wembley Stadium, six runners crouched on the track for the finals of the 100-meter dash, hurling themselves forward at the sound of the gun. Just over 10 seconds after they began, it was over—and one of them was declared the “fastest man alive.” The race was so close that to discern who crossed the line first defied the naked eye, and for the first time in history, a photograph was used to declare the winner. The photo finish made it clear: William Harrison Dillard had won gold.
The speed of Dillard’s winning time is hard to fathom, particularly for those of us who might run just a little more slowly. But his feat is all the more mind-boggling because, just three years earlier, Dillard had been dodging mortar fire while in combat in Italy as part of the 92nd Infantry Division, a segregated unit known as the “Buffalo Soldiers.”
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Dillard attended East Technical High School—the same high school that, eight years before, the legendary Jesse Owens had attended. Graduating in 1941, Dillard went to Baldwin Wallace College on a track scholarship, and made it through most of his sophomore year before he was drafted. Following basic training at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, he was sent to the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia to attend the Advanced Specialized Training Program (ASTP), and then transferred to the 92nd Infantry Division, stationed at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.
For Dillard and his fellow soldiers in the 92nd, life as an African American in uniform brought challenges even before they reached combat overseas. In his oral history interview, Dillard discusses the harassment that he experienced traveling through the segregated south while on the train to Fort Huachuca. Luckily, he had comrades at his back, some of whom, like Dial Hewlitt and William Perry, were also from Cleveland.
By late 1944, Dillard and the rest of the 92nd had reached Italy, where they were put into combat at Viareggio. For the next six months, they slowly advanced north, liberating small Italian towns as they went. Dillard’s memories of his time in combat are of mortar fire, minefields, and the bravery of his comrades, including the Japanese American soldiers in the 92nd. He also recalls the Italian civilians they encountered: their villages and homes decimated, many had to beg the American servicemen for food. On the streets of Milan, a cluster of women approached Dillard, asking to touch his skin—clearly, it was the first time they had ever seen an African American.
With the end of the war, Dillard’s focus turned from sheer survival back to running. While stationed in Europe during the occupation, awaiting transfer home, he won four gold medals at the GI Olympics. At the 1948 Olympics in London, he failed to qualify for the high hurdles competition—though he had trained as hurdler—but wound up winning not only the 100-meter dash, but also the 4 x 100-relay. Four years later, at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, he won the 110-meter hurdles as well as another relay—making him a four-time Olympic gold medalist, just like his idol and schoolmate Jesse Owens.
Arguably, grit and resilience are defining characteristics of Olympic athletes. As modern press coverage makes clear, many Olympians have overcome formidable challenges to make it to the Games. But far fewer have survived the rigors and deprivation of combat only to arrive at the medals podium a mere three years later. Hats off to William Dillard for this feat of mental and physical strength—as well as to other American veteran Olympians, seven of whom are participating in this year’s Games, nearly all of them doing so through the Army’s World Class Athlete Program.
Go Team USA!
For more collections relating to the “Buffalo Soldiers” of the 92nd Infantry Division, visit our online web exhibit Experiencing War.