Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
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Over the Canteen in France
from Two Colored Women in the AEF

We were never quite so glad to see any soldiers as we were the 809th Pioneer Infantry [an all-black regiment], and the 33 Lieutenants of the Artillery who arrived that Monday morning in October. We met them first as they rested on the beautiful ocean boulevard of St. Nazaire. Life flowed into us once again as we flitted among them welcoming them to our camp and hot chocolate. Even then, many of them looked very worn and ill, but we hardly dreamed of the tragedy of that October transport. We were on our way that morning to the weekly Y Conference with its inspirational and helpful program that, no doubt, was a large factor in the success of the area. But the conference seemed very long, so anxious were we to get to camp. We requested at headquarters special transportation to speed our errands and hurry us to work. Soon we are in our hut—it is crowded—men are everywhere and we look over the crowd and wonder what has happened. These are not the swarthy lads we were welcoming on the ocean front—only here and there do we see one.

“They can only see the smile in our eyes, for we wear the white masque across our faces.”

We are still wondering when a voice close at hand says, “Lady, got any paper and envelopes?” “Certainly,” we say, and then we begin to meet the first need of the soldiers. Meantime, we are saying, “No, no stamps necessary—turn your letter over to your company commander to be censored.” “Oh, yes—three-cent stamp if your folks are in Italy.” Later we learn that many of our own boys have been sent to another camp, and that most of those in our camp are in a distant part. We learn something else—influenza is raging—hundreds of men have died on the voyage—the hospitals are crowded, so are the barracks. Sick men could hardly be left in “pup” tents in the deep mud and constant rain of that season. That night another change comes over our hut. On all the benches, in all the corners and in what had been our cheerful reading room are sick men, many of them ill unto death. We are not only preparing hot chocolate now, but all daylong we are preparing lemons, so that at night we may pass among these men with hot lemonade. It is a sad time—graves can hardly be dug rapidly enough—nurses are scarce—every one is doing the best he knows. True, these are not colored boys we are serving, but what matters that—they are soldiers all, and every lad of them a mother’s son. We go to the hospital and move among them. They can only see the smile in our eyes, for we wear the white masque across our faces. To the convalescent we give cigarettes, literature, gum, and now and then candy. For the very ill we leave oranges or lemons. For some there is little need to leave anything but a prayer.

The following is an extract from a letter received from a soldier with reference to that period, “It was in St. Nazaire at Base 101, that I was desperately sick with ‘Flu’ in October, 1918. Mr. Davis, whom I had known at Evansville, came through my ward. Next day you and Miss Johnson came with oranges and that most prized thing in all the world at that time—lemons. Oh, how good you did look to me! Then, too, how kind you folk were when I rejoined my outfit at Camp One. My mind recalls that Sunday evening ‘Quiet Hour’ you held, while we were there. How you spoke to the boys and urged them to keep themselves clean for the sake of the good women back home. Then when you asked us to talk—what man could have kept still.” The plague passed, and many a man was laid to rest having done his bit to the utmost, though it simply meant breaking home ties and reaching the port of France. After the plague had spent itself, we marched one day with a long line to the American Cemetery, a mile distant from the town. There, while the day was dying, a Red Cross Chaplain told impressively the challenge flung to us by those white crosses upon which we looked, and that had come so suddenly into our little part of that death-ridden country. The French people brought flowers, the Red Cross and Y secretaries sang, the band played “America,” the trumpeter sounded the “Taps,” the guns rang out for the dead and then we left them alone in their glory.  

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