Revolt at Taranto

Inscribed “Yours very faithfully, Walter Alves.” This c. 1918 real photo postcard provides us with an outstanding portrait of a member of the British West Indies Regiment.

Walter Alves Front

Above: Private Walter Alves of the 3rd Battalion, the British West Indies Regiment photographed while in southern Italy at the end of World War One. The only uniform concession to the warm Mediterranean climate is the quilted tropical service helmet that Alves wears. The rest of his uniform is of the heavy wool pattern issued for wear in France and Belgium. His cuff band indicates that Alves was a member of the regimental military police. c. 1918 Source: Edward T. Garcia/soldiersifthequeen.com collection.

Often confused with the long establish West India Regiment, the British West Indies Regiment (B.W.I.R.) was raised specifically for duty during World War One and was made up of black volunteers from the British West Indies as well as British Honduras and British Guiana. With the regiment eventually increasing to ten battalions in strength the B.W.I.R. saw its 1st and 2nd Battalions serve in Egypt and Palestine against the Ottoman Empire with the other battalions seeing service in France, Flanders, and Italy.

While often relegated to secondary roles, the B.W.I.R. drew a mention from Field Marshal Douglas Haig in France who said: “[Their] work has been very arduous and has been carried out almost continuously under shell-fire. In spite of casualties the men have always shown themselves willing and cheerful workers, and the assistance they have rendered has been much appreciated by the units to which they have been attached and for whom they have been working. The physique of the men is exceptional, their discipline excellent and their morale high”.

Equally, General Edmund Allenby, commander of British forces in Palestine lauded members of the B.W.I.R. who served under his command: “I have great pleasure in informing you of the gallant conduct of the machine-gun section of the 1st British West Indies Regiment during two successful raids on the Turkish trenches. All ranks behaved with great gallantry under heavy rifle and shell fire and contributed in no small measure to the success of the operations”.

By war’s end the regiment had been recognized with the award of five Distinguished Service Orders, nineteen Military Crosses, eleven Military Crosses with Bar, eighteen Distinguished Conduct Medals, as well as 49 Mentions in Despatches.

The end of the war found the entire regiment concentrated at Taranto in southern Italy for demobilization. Discontent began to arise with the B.W.I.R. when a post-war pay raise being granted other British troops was denied them. Also contributing to the rising ill-feeling was the endless fatigue duties that were assigned to the regiment. These included the loading and unloading of cargo ships in Taranto’s harbor to the cleaning of latrines for the Italian Army. Resentment finally boiled over when members of the B.W.I.R.s 9th and 10th Battalions refused to do any additional work until their grievances were addressed. These points were put forward in a letter signed by some 180 sergeants of the regiment. Violence broke out which lasted three days before being put down by elements of the Worcestershire Regiment which were also in Taranto at the time. One white British officer – the very one who had ordered his men to clean the Italian latrines – was attacked and one black sergeant shot and killed a private of the B.W.I.R. in self-defense before what became known as the Taranto Revolt was suppressed.

In the wake of the revolt, some 60 members of the regiment were court-martialed and received prison terms ranging from three to twenty years. One man faced a firing squad.

The animosities and resentments that brought about the Taranto Revolt and the circumstances of its aftermath would centrally figure in the Caribbean independence and self-rule movements that began to spring up not long after the end of the war.

Above: A short but outstanding documentary commemorating the Caribbean’s contribution to the Allied cause in the Great War. Produced by the West India Committee.

Not much has come to light concerning the soldier in our photograph. His regimental number being 2443, Private Walter Alves was a member of the B.W.I.R.s 3rd Battalion which did not take part in the revolt. As a member of the 3rd Battalion Alves would have served in France and Flanders prior to the end of the war and being transferred to southern Italy. Alves’ service records have not been found (possibly destroyed during WWII) but his medal index card, as well as his entry in the British War and Victory Medal Roll, have. These two sources confirm his service number and battalion and state that he was entitled to both of these medals. Interestingly both of these official sources show Alves’ medals going unclaimed and being returned to the War Office. Of the twenty members of the B.W.I.R. listed on the same page of the medal roll, seven show their medals going unclaimed. Is it possible that there may have been a statement being made by these men?

Alves himself cut quite a soldierly – and very young – appearance in his photograph. He wears the regulation uniform of the British Army at the time a sports a quilted tropical helmet on his head which reflects the warm and sunny Mediterranean climate of southern Italy. On the cuff of his left sleeve is an armband which shows he had been appointed to the regimental military police. In his hand, he holds the ubiquitous “walking out stick”. Often called a swagger stick and associated with officers, these were in fact carried by all ranks with the main purpose being to keep a soldier’s hands busy – nothing was considered more unsoldierly as a soldier with his hands in his pockets.

Walter Alves Reverse

Above: The reverse side of the postcard, Alves dedicated it to “Mrs. Pennington, with compliments.” The said Mrs. Pennington has not been identified. The postcard’s label is in Italian which coincides with the B.W.I.R.s station at the end of the war. C. 1918, Source: Edward T. Garcia/soldiersofthequeen.com collection.

Jimmie Allen Flying Club

From the thrilling and golden age of radio come these three premiums that were the prized possessions of the young fans of The Air Adventures of Jimmie Allen, a 15-minute radio serial that was originally broadcast from Radio station WDAF in Kansas City, Missouri between 1933 and 1937. These premiums were distributed by the show’s commercial sponsors such as Skelly Oil Company or Hickok Oil Corporation and were made available at any of the companies automobile service stations – all the kids had to do was to get their father to drive them to the station to sign them up as members of The Jimmie Allen Flying Club. At the height of the show’s popularity, 600,000 copies of the Flying Club’s newsletter were being mailed out each week.

Jimme Allen Patch

Above: About three inches in diameter, this silk-screened felt “squadron” patch let everyone know that the wearer was a proud cadet of the Jimmie Allen Flying Corps. This version was made available to listeners of the show by Be-Square Motor Oil. c. 1935 Source: Collection of Edward T. Garcia.

While entertaining to the show’s young target audience, the scripts always portrayed the show’s stars as models of good, honest and decent behavior. Radio shows targeted to young audiences without exception always sought to teach their young fans something about character and good behavior – the good guys were always good, the bad guys always bad and the good guys always bested the bad guys but did so honestly and fairly.

Jimme Allen Postcard

Above: A postcard-sized Jimmie “High Speed” Allen Flying Cadet membership card c. 1935 bearing the photograph of 16-year-old Murray McLean who leaned a face to the otherwise unseen radio character of Jimmie Allen. This particular card was mailed out by the Hickok Oil Corporation and promoted their “High Speed” brand of gasoline. Source: Collection of Edward T. Garcia. 

The character of Jimmie Allen was written as a 16-year-old and he was portrayed on the radio by the show’s 40-some-year old director John Frank. For personal appearances and for publicity photographs – such as the Flying Cadet membership card show above – 16-year-old Murray McLean stood in for Jimmie. The show was created by Bob Burtt and Bill Moore both who had both been pilots during World War I. After the show came to an end in 1937 Burtt and Moore continued to collaborate with their next “air adventure” being Captain Midnight.

Jimmie Allen Wings

Above: Measuring about two inches wide and made of stamped bronze colored metal, these Jimmie Allen pilot’s wings were one of the popular premiums available to loyal fans of the radio serial. This set of wings was made available by Richfield Oil and promoted that company’s “Hi-Octane” brand of gasoline. c. 1935. Source: Collection of Edward T. Garcia.

Jimmie Allen Map

Above: measuring an impressive 28 inches high by 65 inchs wide, this full-color map was made available by Skelly Oil. Kids (and probably many parents) could spread the map out in front of them and follow Jimmie Allen’s aerial adventures all the while receiving an unsuspected lesson in geography and current events. c. 1935 Source: David Rumsey Map Collection.

 

 

Sergeant Holden’s Squad

The three U.S. Army infantrymen standing at the right side of the photo were – according to a very faint caption on the lower edge of the photograph – members of Sergeant Holden’s squad. Holden appears at the far left of this image which was taken at Camp Columbia, Cuba sometime between 1899 and 1902, not long after the end of the Spanish-American War. The dates are based upon the time period when elements of the 7th U. S. Cavalry was stationed at Camp Columbia. An unidentified trooper or officer of the 7th compiled the album in which this photograph originated.

Sergeant Holdens Squad

Above: Sergeant James Holden of “F” Company, 8th U.S. Infantry (left) with the three mysterious Obnan brothers at Camp Columbia, Cuba c. 1900. Photo: soldiersofthequeen.com/Edward T. Garcia collection.

This sergeant appears to be Sergeant James Holden of Company “F”, 8th United States Infantry. Holden was born about 1870 in Kilkenny, Ireland and was a resident of New York City when he enlisted in the 8th U.S. Infantry on 5 June 1896. He was honorably discharged with the rank of corporal at Havana, Cuba on 4 June 1899. He reenlisted the following day and served until 4 June 1902 when he was honorably discharged at the rank of sergeant. At the time of both discharges, his character was listed as “excellent”.

Sergeant_Holdens_Service Card

Above: Sergeant James Holden’s New York State, Spanish-American War Military and Naval Service Card from his second term of enlistment. Souce: Adjutant General’s Office. New York State Archives, Albany, New York. 

After army service, Holden would marry Miss Hannah Cochrane in 1905. The couple would have two sons, Joseph, born around 1910 in Manhattan, and William Thomas, born around 1914 in Brooklyn, New York.

Interestingly a somewhat shaky handed ink inscription on the photograph’s reverse side reads: “Obnan brothers, Liberty Pa.” My assumption is that all three of the soldiers with Sergeant Holden were in fact brothers – they do bear resemblances to one another to a certain degree. The photo may have been something of a novelty if indeed tree brothers were serving in Holden’s squad. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any records of anyone, let alone two or three brothers by the name of Obnan serving in Cuba at the time or living in Liberty, Pennsylvania in the time periods before or after the approximate date of the photo.

Sergeant_Holdens_Squad_Detail

Above: A detail of Sergeant Holden’s photograph. Photo: soldiersofthequeen.com/Edward T. Garcia collection.

All four men are armed with either Model 1896 or Model 1898 U.S. Krag-Jorgensen Rifles. Sergeant Holden and two of his men wear dark blue, double-looped Mills Cartridge Belts while the Private second from right wears a khaki version of the same belt. All four men seem to be wearing Khaki service tunics of the type adopted in August of 1899. Additionally, all four men wear U.S. issued M1889 tropical service helmets.

Those Daring Young Men…

These three old real photo postcards were found in a trunk in Roseville, California a number of years ago and offer a view of the very tentative nature of early flight.

The Aircraft in question seems to be a Curtiss Model D Headless Pusher which would date the photographs to sometime around or after 1912. Whether or not they depict an actual sequence of events of a given day and relating to a specific aircraft is hard to say but such events certainly did occur with frightening regularity. The pilot can clearly be seen sitting proudly at the wheel of his flying machine and although I have found other images of him at the helm of the same aircraft I have yet to be able to attach a name to him. Captions that accompany those images seem to make him out to have been a pilot employed by the Curtiss Aeroplane & Motor Company as opposed to an independent pilot.

Curtis Pusher 1

Above: “Before going up.” Photo: Edward T. Garcia collection.

(based on the rather unique way he wears his hat and his facial features this “Daring young man” may be (I stand to be corrected if I error on this point) Canadian born pilot John Alexander Douglas McCurdy (1886-1961) who was instrumental in helping Glenn Curtiss start Curtiss Aeroplane & Motor Company. He later became the 20th Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia.)

Curtis Pusher 2

Above: “Up.” Photo: Edward T. Garcia collection.

Each of the three cards as a period pencil notation on the back that express a slightly morbid sense of humor in their brevity. The first simply states: “Before going up”. The second card in which the aeroplane appears almost like a small insect reads: “Up” and the third “Down…End”. The fate of the pilot is as uncertain as his name and one hopes that he was able to walk away from the shattered pile of sticks and canvas to fly another day.

Curtis Pusher 3

Above: “Down…End” Photo: Edward T. Garcia collection.

Note: Although these three photos were found in Roseville, California they probably originated with a family that had moved to the Roseville area from Mason City, Iowa.

Postmark – U.S.S. Arizona

 

Seventy-seven years ago the battleship USS Arizona was sunk by Japanese bombs during the infamous surprise attack that launched a reluctant United States into World War Two.

This commemorative postal cover harkens back to a happier time on the great ship in 1938 while the Arizona was stationed at San Pedro, California along with the entire U.S. Navy Pacific battle fleet.  The cover was issued by American Naval Cancellation Society and postmarked San Pedro on board the Arizona on February 12, 1938. The recipient was a Mr. Paul Bilsland of Wenatchee, Washington.

USS Arizona Postal Cover

USS Arizona Postal Cover Reverse

Above: The front and back of the Abraham Lincoln commemorative postal cover postmarked 12 February 1938 on board the battleship U.S.S. Arizona at San Pedro, California. Source: Edward T. Garcia collection.

While postmarked on board the Arizona, the cover actually commemorates President Abraham Lincoln and bears a short quote from his Gettysburg Address: “That these dead shall not have died in vain.” The quote is especially poignant in an almost surreal way when one considers the terrible fate the ship and her crew would suffer just a few short years later.

The reverse side of the cover bears two large stamps from the American Naval Cancellation Society as well a small one that bears reads:  “M. M. Parker, USS Arizona, San Pedro, California, (A.N.C.S. 450)”. Parker, actually Melton M. Parker, created the commemorative cachet of Lincoln and hand applied the light coloring used to accent the image.

While obviously a member of the Naval Cancellation Society Parker also appears to have been a member of the ship’s crew, possibly its acting postmaster. He seems to be the same Melton M. Parker who held the rating of SK2c (Store Keeper, 2nd Class) and shows up on the muster sheet for San Diego Naval Air Station in 1939 having transferred there from the USS Arizona on May 8, 1939.

Parker would continue to serve at San Diego until transferred to the Naval Training Center at Los Angeles, California on February 14, 1942.  Parker would actively serve in the U.S. Navy throughout World War II and during the Korean War, retiring as Chief Warrant Officer after 31 years of service. Parker died at San Antonio, Texas in 1977.

Melton Murry Parker

Above: Chief Warrant Officer Melton Murry Parker in a photo taken sometime after World War Two. Photo: U.S. Navy/Parker/Stickland Family Tree/ancestry.com

USS Arizona

Above: Happier times – The USS Arizona in heavy seas off the coast of California in the 1930s. U.S. Navy/National Archives.

USS Arizona Memorial

Above: Still bleeding – the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor. The oil that still leaks from her fuel oil bunkers can be clearly seen in this recent photograph.

The Soldier-Printer

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to curate an exhibit titled African American Military Portraits from the American Civil War. The exhibit was created to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the end of the war and was hosted by the California African American Museum and  the historic main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library in Downtown Los Angeles. With its main component consisting of photographic portraits of black soldiers who fought for the Union, each image in the exhibit was accompanied by new biographical and historical research. This carte de visite from the Gladstone Collection in the Library of Congress in one such image.

John N. Sharper was born on May 21, 1841, in Herkimer, New York the son of Samuel and Jane Sharper. He was a printer by trade when he enlisted as a private in “G” Company, 14th Rhode Island (Colored) Heavy Artillery on October 3, 1863, at Providence, Rhode Island.

John Sharper

Above: The carte de visite portrait of Private John N. Sharper of the 14th Rhode Island (Colored) Heavy Artillery (later 11th Heavy Artillery Regiment, United States Colored Troops) c. 1864 Photo: Gladstone Collection of African American Photographs,
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

After his enlistment, the 14th Rhode Island (Colored) Heavy Artillery was incorporated into the regular U.S. Army and was reorganized as the 11th Heavy Artillery Regiment, United States Colored Troops. The 11th was attached to the Department of the Gulf and was stationed at Matagorda Island, Texas and New Orleans, Louisiana.

Putting his pre-war trade to good use, Sharper was appointed post printer while stationed at New Orleans, a post he held until he received a disability discharge at the Corps d’Afrique Military Hospital in New Orleans on September 11, 1865.  He returned home but possibly due to his service-related disability, John Sharper died on April 5, 1866. He was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Herkimer, New York where his much-weathered memorial can still be seen.

Sharper Grave

Above: A detail of John N. Sharper’s headstone located at Oak Hill Cemetery, Herkimer, New York. Photo: findagrave.com.

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.

Edwin Mosely Thompson.png

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.

Edwin Mosely Thompson Service Card Back

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.

Colors of the 805th

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.

Tank

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.

Medal

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.