He Chose the Western Front to Paradise
2017-18 marks the 100th anniversary of the United States involvement in World War One. Very little seems to officially being done to commemorate the events and the veterans who took part in them. Some time ago I was curating a proposed exhibit that commemorated the contributions made to the war effort by African American soldiers and sailors from California. Ultimately and quite regrettably this exhibit never came to fruition but I thought I’d share the story of one of the soldiers who were to be highlighted in the exhibit. I used well-established research techniques along with a good dose of what I have learned over the past 20 years as a genealogist to piece together the life of Sergeant Edwin Mosely Thompson of the 25th Infantry and 805th Pioneer Infantry, United States Army.
Above: Private (later sergeant) Edwin Mosley Thompson in a highly evocative real photo postcard portrait taken while he was stationed at Schofield Barracks, Oahu, Hawaii Territory c. 1915. Thompson would voluntarily leave the safety of garrison duty in Hawaii for service in the muddy trenches of the Western Front. Thompson wears his expert marksman badge just above the pocket of his tunic. Photo: California State Library.
Edwin Mosley Thompson was born on May 8, 1898, in Sacramento California being one of five children of William Joshua Thompson and Sarah Mosely. The elder Thompson was a plumber by trade. Little can be discerned regarding Edwin’s youth prior to his enlistment in the army. He was not yet seventeen when he volunteered in November 1914 and was assigned as a private to the 25th Infantry Regiment which was performing garrison duty in Hawaii Territory. While the World War was already raging in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Far East, America had not yet been drawn into the fighting and duty in Hawaii must have been of the preferred postings for army personnel. The 25th Infantry was one of the famed “Buffalo Soldier” regiments of the regular U.S. Army and would remain to garrison Hawaii throughout the war.
With America’s entry into the war on April 6, 1917, Edwin Thompson volunteered for combat service in Europe. He was one of a cadre of 25 veteran members of the 25th Infantry – many of these “old soldiers” like Mosely were not long out of their teens – were assigned to newly raised units of volunteers and draftees and by their example were expected to impart a steadying influence on the new raw recruits. Mosely was assigned to Company G of the 805th Pioneer Infantry then being organized at Camp Funston, Kansas, Nicknamed the “Bearcats”, the 805th was a white officered but otherwise all-black unit made up of men primarily from Missouri and Mississippi.
Above: Filled by his mother while Edwin Mosely Thompson was still overseas, his California War History Committee service card gives a remarkable amount of detail regarding the soldier’s life prior to joining the army. One interesting detail is his pre-war job as a second cook on the Southern Pacific Railroad. Source: California State Library.
The Bearcats arrived in France in July 1918 and were assigned to the Department of Light Railways and Roads. Something of a hybrid regiment, the 805th like all pioneer infantry were generally detailed to engineering and construction duties but were also expected to act as regular infantry as the need arose. Edwin Thompson had qualified as an expert marksman while still in Hawaii and this skill must have been of more than a passing value while in France.
Above: The colors of the 805th Pioneer Infantry as they appeared in the regiments official history: Victory – The History of the 805th Pioneer Infantry, American Expeditionary Forces by Major Paul S, Bliss (1919).
While at the front, G Company was detailed to protect, repair and maintain a two-kilometer section of the Avocourt-Esnes Road near the French town of Avocourt. On at least one occasion G Company was subjected to a German poison gas attack but suffered no casualties. In the unit’s official history – Victory: History of 805th Pioneer Infantry, American Expeditionary Forces – it is mentioned that on moonlit nights the company was also subject to German aerial bombardment. In total, the Bearcats would serve a total of 39 days at the front.
Above: Members of the 805th move a wooden decoy of a French Renault light tank. It is quite possible that the 805th may have built this decoy as well as others like it. Decoys such as this were intended to fool German reconnaissance flights. Photo: Signal Corps, U.S. Army.
With the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918, Thompson and the 805th were stationed at Chateau de Chatel-Chehrey while awaiting their place on troopships home. To pass the time they busied themselves with various entertainments including inter-regimental baseball games between the Bearcats and other black units. Under the management of Captain George M. Bragan, the team kept a perfect 10-0 record. The team’s perfect record was no doubt helped by the presence of several “ringers” in the lineup. These included William P. “Plunk” Drake, High R. Blackburn, and Otto C. “Jay Bird” Ray, all of whom would go on to post-war professional baseball careers in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs.
In July 1919 Edwin Thompson along with the rest of the 805th returned to the United States on board the USS Zeppelin. At some point prior to his discharge on June 4. 1920 Thompson was promoted sergeant. The regiment was entitled to the Meuse-Argonne battle streamer on its regimental color and its individual members – Edwin Mosely Thompson included – were entitled to the World War One Victory Medal with the Meuse-Argonne battle clasp.
Above: The United States World War One Victory Medal with the Meuse-Argonne battle clasp. Each man of the 805th was entitled to this medal for his service in France during the war.
Thompson returned to live with his parents who were now residing in Los Angeles and found employment as a civilian cook with the U.S. Army – possibly at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro. He was married by this time with his wife’s name being Beatrice.
Beatrice had died by 1930 when Thompson had moved to Kansas City where he was employed as a valet at a theater. Perhaps he was bitten by the acting bug while working at the theater because in 1931 he had returned to California to marry Miss Claire Marie Countee Fields and the occupation he listed on the couple’s marriage license with that of an actor. The couple does not appear to have had any children.
Former sergeant Edwin Mosely Thompson passed away at the age of 56 on July 20, 1954, and was buried with full military honors at Golden Gate National Cemetery, San Bruno, California.