Samuel Walton - Ft. Smith, Arkansas
My grandfather Samuel Walton served in World War I. He was drafted like other able bodied men of his age. He enlisted in the 809th Pioneer Infantry. He sailed on the USS President Grant and served in France during the War.
Not much is written about the experiences of black men in World War I, but like all men who served in the war, they formed friendships that lasted both during and after the war. But there are a few facts that have emerged about those men who served in the 809th Pioneer Infantry. While sailing to France many of the soldiers black and white on the ship became ill with influenza. And with so much illness around them, those who remained in good health became even closer. Upon arrival in France, many men of the 809th Pioneer Infantry at least75 men of the unit had the morbid task of pulling bodies of soldiers that had died of Spanish Inflenza. Afterwards their assignment was to work as a supply unit on the docks and to provide construction also when needed.
The unit was not allowed to engage in direct combat and they were assigned to a construction crew. At one point, according to an interview with Thomas Davis who served in the same unit, they ended up working for 10 days without a resupply of food. (http://www.worldwar1.com/sftdavis.htm ) The Pioneer units had some function of the infantry, some of those of engineers and some of those of labor units. (History of the American Negro in the Great World War p. 241)
In that same book it spoke of the Pioneer units and stated: "The Negro Service of Supply men acquired a great reputation in the various activities to which they were assigned, especially for efficiency and celerity in unloading shipes and supplies of every sort at the base ports. They were a marvel to the French and astonished not a few of the officers of our own army."
During the 14-day voyage aboard the troop ship President Grant, about half of the 5000 men on board fell ill with "Spanish flu". They were from many regiments being posted to Europe. So many men died en route that their bodies had to be buried at sea. (The best evidence indicates that this disaster began at Camp Funston, an army base in Kansas on March 8, 1918. An influenza virus mutated into a lethal strain. It arrived in Europe on American troop ships in early April 1918, and perhaps mutated again. The epidemic traveled fast in three waves of infection, reaching almost every corner of the world by the spring of 1919, when the virus played itself out. Influenza killed over 20 million people in the span of a year. This was more than twice the number of people who died in the horrific battles of World War. (Source: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/ship/ap.htm)
But for the most part--so much of the work of the Pioneer Infantry consisted of loading and unloading the supplies off of other ships coming into France and long hours of labor working essentially as stevedores When America's poet, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, traveled to France to entertain the US soldiers she noticed the work of the black men at the ports. They labored at the docks as stevedores and she wrote a poem dedicated to these black men:
The unit served honorably throughout the war. These men of the 809th returned with honor, having served their country.
Because of the high death rate on the way to France the men in the 809th became immediately close to each other and formed what would become life long relationships. Upon his return from France, my grandfather Sam maintained contact with some of his army buddies for some time. They exchanged photos of each other and these photos of his comrades remained with my grandfather till he died in 1940.
I have occasionally looked at them over the years, and this Carnival of Af. American Genealogy honoring those men and women who served our nation between 1915 and 1953, provides the perfect opportunity for me to share these photos.
My grandfather was Pvt. Samuel Walton of the 809th Pioneer Infantry, and this is an image of his headstone in Oak Cemetery in Ft. Smith, Arkansas.
His Army Buddies
These images reflect the men with whom he served and with whom he became close. Because he treasured them, I too, treasure them. Most of them are identified and so their names are also listed here, so that they too can be honored.
Lewis A. Brown, Indianapolis IN