Polk County’s forgotten African American Doughboys

Published 11:15 am Friday, November 10, 2017

Armed forces reflect the society they defend.  That was clearly the case for the segregated United States armed services in World War I. The “Jim Crow” laws of the day mandated a carefully planned system of racial discrimination that extended to the military, and followed it overseas.  Blacks were not allowed to join the Marine Corps, and could only serve in menial positions in the Navy.

Eighty percent of black soldiers in the Army were non-combatants assigned to military “day labor.” After firm insistence overcame strong resistance, the 92nd “Buffalo” Division was formed, the only full-size all-black combat division to deploy to France with the American Expeditionary Forces. The nickname “Buffalo Soldiers” had been given to African American cavalrymen by Native Americans on the frontier in the late 1800s.    

The formation, assignment, and rudimentary training provided to the 18,000-man Buffalo Division was governed by political, administrative, and social conditions, rather than by military needs. As a matter of War Department policy, barely half of its captains were African American, and all officers above that rank were white. Its enlisted men and lieutenants were carefully selected from among draftees, with special attention given to physical stamina, education, and “mental development.”

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In Polk County, John and Texana Jackson Hannon gave four of their sons to service in the 92nd Division. “Johnny,” Claude, Oren, and their first cousin Osborne Hannon, served in Company A, 350th Machine Gun Battalion, 183rd Infantry Brigade, along with two other Tryon men, Iley Payne and Osborne Armstrong.  Robert, the fourth Hannon brother, served as a stable sergeant with 317th Engineers, also of the Buffalo Division.

The July 12, 1918 issue of the Polk County News reported that Pfc. Claude Hannon, who had worked for Missildine’s Drug Store delivering prescriptions by motorcycle, had been on furlough in Tryon, and was “…very much please with military life, and … anxious to go overseas.” He sailed from Hoboken, New Jersey, and arrived in France on July 18, where Gen. John Pershing had turned the 92nd over to the French for training when the British refused to accept them.

In August 1918, the 92nd Division was assigned to relieve French defenders in what was supposed to be a “quiet” sector at Saint-Dié, in the Vosges Mountains of northeastern France. Over the next three weeks the Buffaloes carried out an average of 13 patrols a day, repulsed 11 enemy incursions, and came under artillery bombardment and gas attack. In mid-September the division took position to participate in the American push in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, and in the closing days of the war it engaged in the final allied assault toward the strategic German-held city of Metz.

For the war, the Buffalo Division sustained 215 men killed in action, 597 wounded, 41 dead of wounds, and 715 injured by poison gas attack. Oren Hannon, a mechanic in the 350th, was one of those injured by mustard gas. His face and arms were permanently scarred, according to Tryon resident James Payne. After his return home he worked as an electrician with Avant Electric Company, and later established his own business, but he never completely recovered from his injuries. He was treated at the Veterans Administration hospital in Swannanoa, where he died in 1948 at the relatively young age of 52. 

Twenty-one members of the 92nd Division, including Pfc. Lewis Watkins, a member of the Hannon brothers company, were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest military award that can be given in the U.S. Army, for “extreme gallantry and risk of life in combat.” But there were few rewards for the blood and sweat the Buffaloes left in France. Their associations with French civilians were severely limited, for fear that the black soldiers might somehow become infected with foreign notions of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” No black American troops were permitted to march in the Allied victory parade in Paris, while the renowned “Harlem Hellfighters” of the 369th Infantry Regiment were excluded from the special holiday rations issued to other American soldiers on Thanksgiving and Christmas 1918, in spite of the fact that they “never lost a man to capture, and never lost a trench, or a foot of ground to the enemy” in combat. Their officers picked up the tab.

On February 25, 1919, Oren and Osborne Hannon departed Brest, France on the British ship Coronia. Eight days after their return, the Polk County News reported that Tryon had shown them “a hearty welcome.” Claude Hannon, who had been transferred to the Headquarters Train of the 92nd as a chauffeur, returned home to become a farmer on “Old 19” between Tryon and Columbus, while brother “Johnny” maintained gardens at the Tryon homes of the Kimberlys and Binghams. For many years, Osborne Hannon cleaned and maintained houses, while his cousin Robert continued to work with horses, and was employed on the New Jersey farm of tobacco heiress and socialite Doris Duke. Elsewhere in the country the return to civilian life was not always so uneventful. In many places black veterans were paid scant attention, or treated with outright hostility.

Returning veterans, black and white, had been changed by their wartime experiences, and there were clashes between newfound black self-respect and white insistence on a return to supremacy.  In the year following the end of the war there were lynchings in the north and south that claimed ten black veterans as victims. During the “Red Summer” of 1919, 38 clashes, race riots involving loss of life, broke out in 26 cities, from Chicago, New York, and Washington, to Charleston and Longview, Texas. But there were no recorded overt troubles in Polk County. 

In September 1919, a “Soldiers Memorial Association” was formed to erect a monument in Columbus honoring the young men of the county who had “given valorous service during the perilous days of the war.” The Polk County News reported that association membership could be had for 25 cents, and was open to “…every white man or woman, boy or girl, with a spark of patriotism.” Patriotic African American citizens, even injured combat veteran Oren Hannon, could not join the association. 

Segregation of the United States Armed Forces continued through World War II, and ended in 1948 with President Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981, which abolished racial discrimination in the services.

The Veteran’s Plaza in Columbus features three modest markers honoring local residents who served in the Revolution, the Civil War, and Vietnam. The current 100th anniversary of World War I
would be an appropriate time to add a long overdue memorial to the service and sacrifice of Polk County’s forgotten African American Doughboys.

– submitted by Alan Leonard