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In 2008, Spike Lee made a movie about American “Buffalo Soldiers” in Europe—Black troops of the 92nd Infantry Division involved in ferocious fighting on the Gothic Line in northern Italy’s Apennine mountains.

What the director (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X) didn’t know during the making of Miracle at St. Anna was that he had a family connection to the soldiers whose story he was telling. Private Maceo Walker—Lee’s first cousin once removed—was killed on February 10, 1945, in fighting near Cinquale Canal. His remains were never found.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) has been reaching out to relatives of missing soldiers in hopes of obtaining DNA and other evidence that would help identify the 50 Buffalo Soldiers (out of about 700 killed in the war) who are still unaccounted for. In early 2021, Lee received a letter from the army informing him about Walker, the son of Lee’s grandfather’s sister.  Lee was flabbergasted: no one had told him about his G.I. relative—or even that his grandfather had siblings. Lee turned out to be Walker’s oldest surviving relative. “I had no idea till I got the letter!” Lee said. The DPAA revealed the story in February.

Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division search for German mines in Italy in April 1945. (Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)

The 92nd comprised White senior officers and Black junior officers and enlisted men. When the Pentagon started trying to identify MIA Buffalo Soldiers in 2004, 53 were unaccounted for. Since then, only three cases have been closed. Six sets of remains are at a DPAA lab at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, awaiting identification. Most of the rest are likely buried as unknowns at American Battle Monuments Commission cemeteries in Italy. Walker may be one.

“To be in Italy, to do this film, to honor the 92nd Division and be in the area where this battle took place and my cousin, Maceo A. Walker, died at 20 years old, that’s the spirits there,” Lee said. Walker, he added, “reached out to me and said, ‘Spike, I want you to know I existed, and I want you to spread the word and let the world know that I existed. I was 20 years old, enlisted, and died in Italy, World War II, fighting for democracy. The red, white, and blue.’

this article first appeared in world war II magazine

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