In 1932, the Connecticut State Legislature passed a law requiring the Adjutant General’s Office to publish a comprehensive accounting of the service of Connecticut men and women in World War I. The result was a three volume set entitled Service Record of Connecticut Men During World War I. The books have been out of print now for nearly 80 years, but are a good starting point for examining the service rendered by any of the 169 towns and cities in Connecticut. New London, for example, had 1,456 men and women in active duty for the Great War. Of these, 41 men were African-American or, in the vocabulary of the time as listed in the source book, “colored.” Private Cecil A. Smith of 195 Main St in New London was one of these men.
Smith was born in Kingston, Jamaica on June 15, 1895. It is not clear when he came to America, but at the outbreak of the war in the spring of 1917, Smith was about 22 years old. At that time the United States Army was segregated. Men of color received very little infantry training and were generally assigned duty as workers: building roads, loading trucks, cooking food, hauling equipment, unloading ships, burying dead soldiers--these were the most common working assignments. Most of these men did not see active combat duty, but some were pressed into action on rare occasions. Smith, however, belonged to a unit that saw much more of the war. He was in Company D of the 807th Pioneer Infantry Regiment, which was attached to the French 5th Division. As such, it was located nearer to the front than most African-American units; consequently, the 807th took heavy casualties.
The most famous member of the 807th was Corporal Herbert Young. Young lived to be 112 years old, dying in April of 1999. Young was also born in Kingston, Jamaica, nine years before Smith. On George Washington’s birthday (February 22) in 1998, the French government granted Cpl. Young the high honor of awarding him the medal of the Order of the Legion of Honor. In an interview with the New York Times in 1999, Herbert Young had this to say about serving in the Pioneer Infantry Regiment: “There were about 350 men in our outfit, and I guess about 12 made it home including me. God didn’t want me yet.”*
Another survivor of the 807th was John Ralph Lyons, born on February 22, 1888, in Lewiston, Pennsylvania (See photo). Lyons’ great-grandfather, Benjamin Lyons, was a runaway slave who settled in Pennsylvania in the 1820s. John Lyons served in Company F of the 807th during the Great War, so he probably knew Smith. Following the war, Lyons settled near Winooski,Vermont where he and his wife, Lizzie, raised their six daughters and two sons. On March 16, 1941, while hauling coal for a woolen mill in Vermont, Lyons was kicked in the chest by a mule and died that day from the resulting injuries at age 54.
The 807th had the highest casualty rate of any regiment in the war. Private Smith was one of the 338 out of 350 members of the 807th Pioneer Regiment who died in World War I. He died from the effects of the Spanish flu on February 11, 1918. That deadliest of all influenza viruses killed tens of millions of people worldwide in 1918-1919. The remains of Private Cecil A. Smith were interred in the Meuse-Argonne American Military Cemetery, in Romagne, France: Plot D, Row 25, Grave 15 (See featured photo). It is the largest American cemetery in Europe and contains the bodies of over 14,000 American servicemen - 4 of whom are from New London - including Cecil A. Smith of the ill-fated 807th Pioneer Regiment.
Notes and Sources:
2. Service Records of Connecticut Men in World War I: Vol II
3. *NY Times: April 28, 1999
5. Besides Cecil Smith, the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery also contains the remains of these 3 New Londoners: Private Rocco Mariani; Private Percy J. Ward; Private Oswald A. Margelot.