Tuesday, April 27, 2010

They Served with Honor: The 809th Pioneer Infantry---"Quiet Heroes of the Brawny Arm"

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.

Seles Bates (His Bunk Mate) of New York, New York

Henry Steward, St. Louis MO

William E. Turner, Indianapolis IN

Cobe Sides, Allenville Missouri

Oliver W. Bragg, Macon MO

Lewis A. Brown, Indianapolis IN

E.W. Rogers Martin, Tenn

One Friend, No Name Provided

USS President Grant took 809th Pionner Infantry to France.

Although they were still treated as second class citizens upon their return, they served proudly and many of their own sons would later follow their father's footsteps and serve in the next World War.  (His son, my father Samuel Lewis Walton would serve in World War II.)

Thankfully Samuel Walton and his mates returned from the War safely 

He returned to Oklahoma where he married Sarah Ellen Bass of Horatio Arkansas.  To provide better educational opportunities for his sons, he eventually moved his family across the river into nearby Arkansas. He remained in Ft. Smith Arkansas till he died in 1940. He is buried at Oak Cemetery in the Walton family plot. 

I send a special thank you to Grandpa Sam and his army buddies and all of the men of the 809th Pioneer Infantry for their service to our nation during World War I. 

They are my heroes, and they were truly men who served with honor.



Luckie said...

Absolutely AMAZING! Thank you for educating me on the brave men of the 809th and for sharing the story of Mr. Samuel Walton.

They are to be honored and admired. I am inspired to now go & seek the military stories of my Ancestors!

Wish me luck!:-)


A. CAIN said...


Wow! You have inspired me, and many others I'm sure to dig further. This is a WONDERFUL tribute to Granddad Walton and I can see him smiling with his chest out at the acknowledgment of his Military Service and mention of his friends. Thank You for sharing and setting the bar so high!! (-:


Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

Thanks Luckie and Amy for your remarks. So little is said of the black soldiers in the first World War and though the army was segregated they served proundly nevertheless. I am just so happy that this theme allowed me to present my grandfather and his army buddies to the world. I have looked at these photos for years and years and wondered about them and their lives and who they were. I now have the opportunity to present them to the world, and you have given me occasion to share them. Thank you both!

Mavis said...

Angela, Thanks so much for providing information of some of the black soldiers, your grandfather being one of them, of WWI. We are all proud of the contribution he and other like him made to the cause.

Greta Koehl said...

It is so wonderful that your grandfather had these pictures of his comrades and that they had their names on them. The information about the influenza epidemic is also very interesting; I have read a good deal about the epidemic and its beginnings and early spread, especially among men at military installations. It is so sad that the war and the epidemic combined to take away so many young men. Great article!

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

Thanks Mavis and Greta. I am grateful that Grandpa Sam survived the War and made it home, but there were so many lives lost due to that influenza outbreak. I guess that is what was expected this year, but it did not happen. But thankfully in spite of it all, the young men that made it back home and they were men all of whom we can be proud.

Sherry - Family Tree Writer said...

What a wonderful story, Angela! There is so much history, both black and white, and just everyday history that would go un-noticed and un-recorded if it were not for family historians like you.

Thank you for sharing this!

Terrence Garnett said...

This is great Angela thank you for sharing the story of your grandfather.

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

Thank you Terrence! I appreciate having this platform to share his history and am delighted that others also enjoyed reading about the 809th Pioneer Infantry.

J said...


I salute you and the 809th Infantry. What an inspiring story and pictures of the experience they endured. Thank you for sharing and keeping their memory alive.

Carol said...

Wonderful post, I love that you had all those photos WITH names! Would be really neat if family of some of these other service men found your blog.

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

I hope that someday someone might crop up who is connected to one of those men. I have wondered for years what do do with those photos and once I started blogging---I finally had a platform to share them. Hopefully a descendant of one of those men might someday see an image that is familiar. Thanks for visiting the blog!

Craig Manson said...

This was a great piece--great photos, too. You point out that not much is written about blacks in World War I, which is the same as my observation. Why do you suppose that even African-American historians have overlooked this topic?

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

Hello Craig,

I am not sure why folks have overlooked what took place in WWI. There has been a small amount, but the books have never come forth, as they have for other veterans. I wonder if there was a scarcity of black historians who came into their element as scholars in the generation that followed, and thus never paid much attention to that War and it's effect. Note also that participation in the War was such a major issue among black scholars of the day--the goal was so strong to prove to America that black men were loyal and would serve--yet so little has been written about their story since that time.

Rosewood in Virginia said...

Dear Mr. Walton,
I am looking for stories or photos or information about anyone who may have known my great uncle, Elijah Edwards, also a member of the 809th who died in France on 18 October 1918. His draft registration card indicates he lived in Carthage TX and his name is engraved on a memorial there.
Ana Edwards
Richmond VA

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

Hello Ana,
Thanks for visiting the blog. Since World War I took place more than 95 years ago, it would be hard to find someone who would necessarily know of anyone who personally knew your ancestor.

It is possible anyone who was in the 809th knew him. My grandfather may have known him, as they were in France at the same time, traveled on the same ship and had similar experiences. Also my grandfather may have been drafted from the same place as they were from the same region of the county--he was from Oklahoma and your ancestor was from
Texas, so perhaps they went through training together.

However, unless one has an ancestor who left something in writing or photos, and specifically mentioned your ancestor, it would be very difficult to tell almost a century later who knew whom.

Perhaps cousins, aunts, uncles or others may have an image for you.

Best wishes as you continue your search.

Anonymous said...

Hello, I discovered this very interesting blog after searching for info about the 809th Pioneer infantry. My grandfather served with this unit in Europe during WWI. You might take a look at a book titled TWO COLORED WOMEN WITH THE AMERICAN EXPEDITIONARY FORCES (published 1920) by Addie W. Hunton and Kathryn M. Johnson.Their book shows photos of some memebers of the 809th, and also discusses some of them by name. You can read the entire book online at www.archive.org

Sheppard said...

I would like to add two other titles to the first book I mentioned. WILLING PATRIOTS. MEN OF COLOR IN FIRST WORLD WAR, and TORCHBEARERS OF DEMOCRACY. AFRICAN AMERICAN SOLDIERS IN WORLD WAR 1 ERA by Chad Louis Williams.

William Carson said...

My relative served along side your grandfather. His name is Sam Carson of Paducah Kentucky. He was Honorably discharged. He died in 1962 and is buried with a headstone with his rank and 809 Pioneer Infantry embossed on it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting this story. Cobie Sides was my Great Grandfather. I never got a chance to meet him, but am so very greatful you posted this blog and a picture of him. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Charyl Archey(Byrd) said...

Thank you so much, because of you I know more about the unit my grandfather served in

Unknown said...

I am a volunteer at historic Oakdale Memorial Gardens in Davenport, Iowa. I came across a military stone for Carl Logan Marshall. The unit designation was 809 Pioneer Infantry. This was the first result when I searched for the unit on Google.

steve chicoine said...


I am an historian and author. I am speaking on Fort Snelling National Cemetery in the fall. I previously published a book on World War Two veterans interred in Fort Snelling.

I have a long list of men of the World War One Pioneer Infantry, who are buried in Fort Snelling. And very few photos. I am seeking photos of men from the Upper Midwest who served in the 809. There were many.


Benitamc3 said...

Thank you for this amazing history. In researching my own grandfather may I include Corporal Benjamin Schubert Baber Sr. 809 Pioneer Infantry, Sailed overseas Sept. 23, 1918. Died of bronchopneumonia Oct. 10, 1918, St Nazaire France, buried Wabash, Indiana. Wabash Wall of Honor.

Lucifer said...

I found this site looking up an old WWI grave here in Columbia, MO. The grave is for a man named Harry E. Coleman, Pvt HQ CO 809th Pioneer Inf. No one remembers him, his grave is always empty, I try to walk around that cemetery sometimes, there are quite a few ww1 and ww2 graves. I'm assuming he was born here or else they wouldn't have buried him here. Good to know a little about what he might have went through. Nice post, thanks for the information.

TexasJack said...

My Great Grand Uncle Claude Lynch of Oklahoma has this on his headstone

PFC HQ Co. 809 Pioneer Infantry WWI

I have no information on him, he was brother to my Great Grandmother Cynthia Lynch. Thank you for preserving this history

Phil said...

Greetings, Ms. Angela Y. Walton-Raji, Thank you so much for all the work that you have done for the world by bringing our hidden history to light. I met you during the activities for the Smithsonian Institution's book and exhibit ,entitled: "indiVisible": African-Native American Lives in the Americas. At the time that i had helped supply Oral History information to Dr. Kevin Mulroy for my families story , I didn't realize that my grandfather Pompey Bruner Fixico had also served in the 809th Pioneer Inf. unit in Co H. .The reason this information had gone unknown was because he was born to a a Mikasuki Seminole Mother Dinah Fixico Dawes Rolls #900. However , he was the son of Caesar Bruner the Oklahoma Seminole Band Leader. When Pompey's mother passed around 1902, he was given a guardian until he became a bit older. However, his life now came under the influence of the Bruner family. Therefore when he went to War with his Bruner brothers and cousins he went as Pompey Bruner. He was on the U.S. Grant that took them to France and 10 months later he was on the U.S. Sierra, that brought the suvivors back home. In 1925, at the height of the Ku Klux Klan's activity in Oklahoma he was unarmed when he was gunned down in Wewoka, Oklahoma, in front of witnesses. There were two doctors present but the wouldn't treat him, so he died of his wounds. Even though 4 witnesses testified the Judge ruled that there was no evidence that a crime had been commited. Honor and Respect, Seminole Maroon Descendant and Activist, Phil "Pompey" Bruner Fixico