Special Feature

An Interview with Thomas Davis, First World War Veteran

Mr. Thomas Davis

Contributed by Eric and Jane Lawson
email: lawson1@ultranet.com


First World War veteran Thomas Davis celbrates his 105th birthday this November 30, 1997. A celebration in his honor held in Boston on Wednesday the 26th will be attended by many including Boston mayor Thomas Menino. Below is an interview by Eric and Jane Lawson focusing on Mr. Davis' service in WWI.

An Interview with Thomas Davis, First World War Veteran

by Eric and Jane Lawson

"Black Yankees, that's what the French people called us." Thomas Davis recalled as he described his tour of duty in France during the First World War. He spoke of that distant war and that distant world from the early years of this century with a perspective that you don't find in history books. When I asked if he and his comrades referred to themselves that way, he swiftly corrected me, "Oh no. We, we were the 809th Pioneer Infantry, U.S. Army."

A refined and proud gentleman, Thomas Davis is a remarkable man who has witnessed and lived the events of the 20th century. Born November 30, 1892 in Shelbina, Missouri, he worked on a family farm and then with the railroad. When America became embroiled in the War To End Wars, he was drafted into the army in St. Paul, Minnesota.


Training camps in the army, like much of society at that time, were segregated. So, Thomas Davis was shipped off to an all black training facility at Fort Dodge near Des Moines, Iowa. Davis referred to it as "Camp Dodge". His time was spent drilling with a rifle in full uniform and in gas mask training. Fort Dodge was also the site of the only training school for black officers in the US Army. Although many hundred black officers were commissioned here, Army regulations restricted them from commanding white troops. When Davis completed his own training as a private, his unit was commanded by both black and white officers. I asked him if there were any differences in the way they treated him. He said, "all officers were the same, some better, some not. No troubles."

In August of 1918, Davis' unit was ordered to France. Sailing from New York on the ship named President Grant, Thomas Davis found the crossing to be pure hell. This was the peak of the vicious Swine Flu epidemic which devastated combatants and home-front civilians across the globe. Of the 5,000 troops aboard the President Grant, half had been stricken ill. Davis described that, "When I went over to France, the flu broke out so bad on that ship, and many men died,... So many, in fact, that we had to bury at sea."


After 14 days at sea the ship finally arrived in St. Nazaire, France in September. As his first duty in France, Davis was one of 75 men picked for the difficult task of unloading the bodies of those who died of Swine Flu. It was soon after their arrival that General John 'Black Jack' Pershing, supreme commander of the American Expeditionary Force, addressed their entire unit. I asked Davis his thoughts of Pershing -- "He seemed alright, it was a good talk."

St. Nazaire was situated on the Atlantic coast of France. It was a main port for incoming American troops. Much infrastructure construction was needed in and around this area, so the 809th Pioneers went to work. They built several hospitals for the wounded American troops. Davis noted that they could very quickly erect the buildings because, "They were all pre-numbered pieces, taken off the ship in sections and put right up."

Thomas Davis served in an all black unit, the 809th Pioneer Infantry. The segregationist policies rampant then in America prevented troops of different races from being in the same unit. Additionally, black units were generally prevented from participating directly in combat. The vast majority of black recruits were placed in labor battalions in the Service of Supply. Only a small proportion fought as active infantry in the 92nd "Buffalo" Division on the US front, or the regiments associated with the 93rd Division which gallantly served under a French Army Group. Davis' 809th Pioneer Infantry unit was somewhere in between these two extremes, trained in fighting yet working predominantly in construction.

Although not experiencing the same hardships as men in the trenches, there was grueling work and shortages of supplies. At one remote site his unit worked for ten days without any resupply of food -- living only on beans, some cornbread, and a little bacon. Generally, they had little free time. When they did, they played cards or read the belated mail from home.

Thomas did get into town on leave sometimes. Once though, he attended a French festival without a pass. After a wonderful evening, he expected to get a harsh reprimand for his foray. Instead, he got guard duty for many long nights. On another occasion he had to spend his 26th birthday "walkin' at post" on guard duty. He remembers it still as "The worst birthday ever!"


The Great War ended on November 11, 1918. The men in Davis' unit were not allowed to get anything with which to celebrate. But Davis said everyone was very glad when a Frenchman toting a bottle of cognac came up the road crying out, "Finis la guerre, finis la guerre!"

The general atmosphere became very relaxed after the war was over, Davis recounts. When a shipment of instruments came to his unit from home he took up the violin and honed his skills practicing at the YMCA. Davis and the other musicians played regularly at dances and dinners for the officers and nurses of the hospitals in the area.

Thomas Davis found France in the spring of 1919 a truly beautiful country. There were "flowers bloomin' everywhere." He enjoyed walking along the beach whenever he was stationed along the coast. He was struck though by the lack of horses, and how everyone used oxen carts. When it was time to return home to the States, Davis stocked up on the latest French scarves.


A much smaller ship brought the troops of the 809th back across a stormy Atlantic Ocean to the US. They arrived in New York harbor greeted by a small celebration. Davis said he was very happy to be home.

Considering the level of segregation and the Jim Crow laws that existed, I asked Thomas Davis what difficulties he faced as a black veteran returning from war. I was surprised by his response, "Oh, things were much better after the war, much better." When I asked him to explain what he meant, he said, "Well, now, when you'd go into a restaurant ... they'd serve you."

In civilian life, Thomas Davis returned to his job as a railroadman on Pullman dining cars, traveling throughout the northwest. He was asked by a patron of his violin accomplishments to come to Boston and study at the New England Conservatory of Music. He worked in hotels in downtown Boston in the roaring '20's, and survived the Great Depression. Thomas Davis is proud to have remained one of Boston's most eligible bachelors, and attributes his longevity to never getting married.

Thomas Davis has lived through a century of profound changes in America and the world. He said he is pleased with how far America has come, but that there is much more to overcome. "Black Yankees, that's what the French people called us ..." Mr. Davis recounted again with a smile, "and I thought it was funny since most of us were from the South, but the name seemed to catch on, YANKEES."


Eric and Jane Lawson wrote the book THE FIRST AIR CAMPAIGN. Any comments or inquiries can be sent to LAWSON1@ULTRANET.COM. They thank Mr. Davis for his interview and wish him a happy 105th birthday.