Monday, May 24, 2010

Memorial Day - One Soldier's Story

William Frank Earnest always stood out among his peers. Born in Tennessee, he was eight when his family moved him to Homer, Illinois. He quickly acclimated to his new surroundings, and graduated in Homer High School's Class of 1915 with high honors in both academics and athletics. From there he entered the University of Illinois and began a promising academic career.

Upon America's entry into the First World War, Earnest acted as any other patriotic young man and enlisted in Company "L" of the 8th Infantry Regiment of the Illinois National Guard in May 1917, which would become the 370th Infantry Regiment in the U.S. Army. The 8th was the only unit with a full complement of African-American officers in the then segregated army. Earnest trained hard with his fellow soldiers, first in Chicago, then at Camp Logan, Texas (outside of Houston), and finally at Hampton Roads, Virginia, before departing to France in April 1918. He did well, and soon was promoted to sergeant.

By 1918 the French Army was in dire need for replacement troops after four years of war, and the U.S. Army leadership was willing to accommodate them with their "inferior" soldiers. As a result, African-American combat units were divided up piecemeal and attached to French divisions upon their arrival. The 370th was moved several times over the entire length of the front line until it was attached to the French 59th Infantry Division. It was with them that Earnest saw combat for the first time as the 370th took positions near Oise and Aisne Rivers facing the German Hindenburg Line in mid-September 1918.

Captain William Braddan, chaplain of the 370th, described the scene after they were shelled by the Germans for the first time:
Early the next A. M. we crawled out of the cave to orient
ourselves, and what a sight! Missiles of death were everywhere
falling; death was all around us, dead Frenchmen, Germans and
horses. Equipments of every description lay in the recently
evacuated trenches; the sight was appalling, the scent nauseating.
The unit moved out in mid-October, but Sgt. Earnest did not go with them. Ordered to the attack soon after their arrival, Earnest was struck down September 17, 1918. Capt. Braddan remembered:
Sgt. Ernest [sic] of Co. "L," being the first to make the supreme sacrifice on the Hindenburg Line, one of the most excellent, exemplary soldiers that I have known in my twenty and four years' service. His body, poor, bleeding, torn and mutilated was buried in No-Man's Land by his comrades.
The 8th Illinois National Guard Infantry Regiment served until the conclusion of the war and were cheered on their return to Chicago in February 1919. They suffered twenty percent casualties with 96 officers and men killed during their time in France. These "inferior" soldiers earned two campaign streamers and received twenty-one Distinguished Service Crosses, one Distinguished Service Medal, and twenty French Croix de Guerre.

William Earnest, full of promise and potential, forever lies in the fields of France, a testament to the struggles and sacrifices of the men and women we honor this Memorial Day.

William Frank Earnest, 1895-1918

No comments:

Post a Comment