My great-grandfather Lawson Holt served in the Army during World War I. Like most, his were among the records destroyed during the infamous 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center. This post shows how it is possible to still find out more information about your ancestor’s military service.
Lawson registered in the first of three drafts held for World War I. Born in Right, TN, he was a single man and working as a porter in hotel when he was drafted:
Published military indexes provided a basic sketch of Lawson’s service. It’s fair to say I had no understanding of most of the terminology.
So, I began to read about African-American service in World War I. Black men were segregated into all black units, the 92nd and the 93rd division, and it’s no surprise they were not well-treated. Racism and segregation was in full-swing.
Nevertheless, Lawson enlisted at Jefferson Barracks Military Post in Missouri on 14 Sept 1917 and received training at Fort Des Moines, Iowa. (In 1917, Fort Des Moines also trained the one and only class of African-American officers in World War I. Lawson, however, was not apart of that group.) From Iowa, Lawson went to Camp Funston, Kansas, where he trained and joined the 92nd division, one of two all-black segregated divisions. He was assigned to the 317th Sanitary Train, Field Hospital 368.
I wondered: what in the world is a “Sanitary Train”? Well, the Army’s Center of Military History and numerous other military websites provided the background I needed. The Sanitary train was essentially a part of the medical team. The University of Kansas Medical Center’s website about Medicine in the First World War had the best descriptions and photographs to help me understand:
The sick and wounded after receiving emergency treatment from the medical corps personnel at the regimental, battalion or support unit level were evacuated to the next phase of physician directed care which was provided by the infantry division’s Sanitary Train. This 950 man unit consisted of a:
• Train Headquarters
• Ambulance Section
• Field Hospital Section
• Camp Infirmaries
• Divisional Medical Supply Unit
The word ‘train’ identifies units that were assigned to support the entire infantry division. There were four trains: Ammunition, Supply, Engineer and Sanitary. All of these were mobile and relied on their horse drawn and motor vehicles to perform their supporting roles.
The role of the Sanitary Train was to provide medical care for the entire division through its ambulance and field hospital sections and Camp Infirmaries.
Now that I had a good idea of what a sanitary train and a field hospital was, I headed down to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland to learn more. I showed one of their military specialists what I had thus far, and he ordered the original records of the 368th field hospital for my review. I was rather surprised about how neat and organized the records were:
But otherwise, I quickly discovered that military records are pretty dry and boring, and certainly not written with genealogists in mind;) I discovered that unlike the other Field Hospitals, the 368th was never set up as an actual hospital, but operated as a mobile unit. Although I never found out his actual job, through the monthly reports I was also able to follow more closely where Lawson was and when:
—Before enlistment, he had been working as a postal clerk. This was no surprise, since his father, John W. Holt, back in Tennessee was a Postmaster.
–By Dec 1, 1917, while at Camp Funston, Lawson was promoted to Corporal.
–By June, 1918, Lawson was sent overseas in France when he reported to Base Section #5 in France.
–Lawson’s division was back in Camp Upton, New York by February 28, 1919.
–They disbanded on March 9 and Lawson was sent to Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia where he was honorably discharged on March 15.
One of my most delightful discoveries during my research was finding transcribed and digitized interviews of two African-American men who had also served in the 317th Sanitary Train during World War I. They supplied even more precious details about their experience, like the fact that the soldiers sailed to France on two sister ships called the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific and the trip took 7 days. They discussed how almost all of the soldiers were infected with “cooties” (lice) once they got to active duty, and how when the Armistice was signed, the French celebrated and poured wine all over everyone. An important point was that the French displayed no racism towards black soldiers:
“When the French people welcomed us with open arms, that is the only time that I ever realized what a real American soldier was. The French people had no prejudice whatever. Negro soldiers fraternized with the French girls just like the white soldiers did.” – Robert Sweeney
African-Americans entered World War I with the same attitude they had in previous wars: hoping that fighting for their country would prove their worth as Americans and as men. Sadly, with rampant racism and a segregated military who mostly assigned blacks to support organizations, black soldiers suffered greatly. There were some successes (such as the 369th Infantry, known as the Harlem Hellfighters) and some black soldiers saw combat, mostly those who were attached to France’s Army which had no racism against blacks akin to that in America as the interview above indicated. However, when black soldiers returned home, they faced more racism and violence, as massacres and lynchings broke out all over the country in the summer of 1919, causing it to be referred to as the “Red Summer.” Serving honorably to further democracy had not won black people anything on the political or social front at home.
I hope this post illustrates that even though the military records for an ancestor may not exist, there is still quite a bit of information about their service that can be found.
Sadly, Lawson suffered from severe mental illness upon his return from the war. Now I understand the likely reasons. As a part of the medical support team, he would have witnessed the horrible effects of the poison gas that the Germans used against the Allies. He would have also witnessed firsthand the explosion of the 1918 flu epidemic, which decimated soldiers and sailors. The flu killed more soldiers than the actual War did, and it went on to kill upwards of 50 million people around the world. All this, in addition to the racism he experienced must have been truly an awful experience. Lawson would have seen suffering and death while he was a soldier, and I believe he may have had what we know today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Lawson was committed and died in the VA hospital in Alabama at the young age of 44. The cause of death was “General Paralysis of the Insane.” That doesn’t even sound like a real thing. It saddens me that he lived in a time where he likely did not receive the care he needed. Lawson Holt is buried at the National Cemetery in Mobile, Alabama. Rest in peace, Lawson. And thank you for your service.