The Black Cats of Amherst
About this Research|
On June 6, 1917 in Amherst, Massachusetts, thirty-one men enlisted in the U.S. Army to drive ambulances in support of the French army. Most of them were Amherst College students but there were some recent graduates (including two young professors). Four others came from the towns of Amherst, Pelham, or elsewhere around New England. One of the Amherst College students was my grandfather, Hugh Hamilton, who kept a diary and saved letters and other items. I am transcribing his diary, cataloguing his materials, and exploring related archives in preparation for writing a book on the topic.
The official name of the ambulance unit was the Section Sanitaire États-Unis 539 or simply SSU 539. Over time they became known as the Black Cats. One great source of information about the Black Cats is this article from the Amherst College alumni magazine. Follow the @AmherstBlackCats twitter account and keep coming back to this page for ongoing updates.
Black Cat Updates
The Research Has Started
October 2017: I have been to the Amherst College archive on four occasions and have made one visit to the archive at UMass. I have lots to write about but in short here are a few of the interesting things I have come across so far:
November 2017: Several Black Cats kept diaries, at least two of which have survived: Hugh Hamilton's and Stoddard Lane's. Stoddard Lane was quite a bit older than the other Black Cats. A 1909 Amherst College graduate, he was working as a Congregational minister in Bogota, New Jersey prior to the war. He married in October of 1915 but his wife died about a year later. In June of 1916 he chose to enlist and join the Amherst ambulance unit at their training in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The quotes below come from his diary.
It looked to us very much as tho the armistice had not been signed. Peace looked small in the distance. Out we went to the G.B.D. on the road to Gavere. And waited. 12 cars in waiting. But there was no barrage; scarcely any wounded; lots of wondering + speculation. – Just what was happening? Very few guns to be heard. We went to bed still in ignorance (not the blissful kind), + had a good night’s sleep in our ambulances.
November 11 came. Also a rude + early awakening to the effect that the armistice was real. I had heard that “news” so often that I rolled over + went to sleep. Didn’t dare believe it. But it was so. At 10:30 we got the order, a never-to-be-forgotten one. It went like this:
11 Novembre 1914 – 5 Heures 43.
Marechal Foch a commandants en chef:
1e – Les hostilité’s seront arrêtees sur tout le front à partir du onze November, onze heures (heure française)
2e – Les troupes allieés ne dépasseront pas jusqu’à nouvel order la ligne atteinte à cette date et à cette heure.
Signé: Marechal Foch
There it was in black + white. Those words meant that the war was over. Peace would come. The Frenchmen were wild with joy. Of course they were. Four long years + more, and now “La Guerre est finie!” Over and over they shouted that, as tho it sounded good to them. And it did have a good ring to it – no mistake.
And we Americans had to make some noise about the thing ourselves. We hadn’t been four years at it, but we were in good condition to share their happiness. We did – and promptly at 11 our klaxons tooted lustily – and we shot up star-shells, no longer war material. The whole front as far as visible followed our example in this. All along the line, was a shower of star-shells, signal-rockets of all kinds. The celebrating was entirely unanimous. We ourselves liked to repeat the magic phrase “the war is over!”
But I for one couldn’t grasp the situation. The thing that had happened was so big – so far- and deep-reaching. Here was something that would touch millions of lives in hundreds of corners of the world. And the destinies of nations – how this would change and give new direction to them. What transformations of national character and policy will happen – and what a brand new international program would be inaugurated. I just felt it was a “big” day; and I knew I wasn’t taking in all of its bigness by any means. In the midst of all the joy of the day, I felt a bit subdued, and awed. Didn’t feel like giving any college yells. And it seemed almost sacreligious to go on a party, such as the section celebration was. A noisy affair. It seemed more like a time for taking a long look ahead – very quietly – a time for nourishing great hope + faith.
(Note: The printed dates in his diary do not align to the actual dates. Also, he clearly must have meant to write 1918 as the date of the Marechal Foch order.)
Group Photo at Allentown
This photo of the Amherst ambulance unit was taken in Allentown, Pennsylvania during the training session at Camp Crane in the summer of 1917. Thanks to an annotated version of this photo in the Amherst College archive, the men can be identified as follows:
Fourth row (all standing): Gillies, Mitchell (?), Kelliher, A. Seamans, Hamilton, Donaher, Bailey, Shipman, Whipple, Stevens, McFeely
Third row: Lane, Allen (?), Steward
Second row: Rogers (?), Peckham, Haley (?), Shepard, Simpson, Hinch, Moore, (standing) Greene, C. Seamans, Widmayer, Evans
First row: Lyman, Miller, Putnam, Swartley (?), Smith, Lay, Burnett, Vielbig (?), Spaulding
Some things to note:
At the time this photo was taken, the unit was known as Section 39. They later became Section 539. At some time in the fall of 1917 they adopted the nickname ‘Black Cats.’ A black cat logo was painted on their Model T Ford ambulances in January of 1918.
Their First Christmas in France
The following is an abbreviated version of Stoddard Lane’s article “Our First Franco-American Christmas: How the Great Holiday was Celebrated in 1917.”
We’ll have to admit that we weren’t looking forward to Christmas, 1917, with any stupendous enthusiasm. Fact is, as far as possible, we weren’t looking forward at all. Christmas Day came – with no raucous reveille to usher it in – white and clear and snappy, regular Christmas weather. It was just as cold as any other day; but nobody made any biting jests about turning on the steam heat. Everybody had secretly resolved to make it as much like a home Christmas as could be. The “Merry Christmases” sounded as real home made ones. Three men went out to get a Christmas tree with instructions to get it but not to get caught. Then we hurried to church.
It was not at all an ordinary sort of church. It was a front room, once a parlor, and now the living-quarters of a French lieutenant of artillery. On the table in one corner was a Christmas tree. The candles on the tree were lighted and in their altar-like glow our Christmas service began. The invocation, in French, was offered by a stretcher-bearer, a Protestant minister before the war. Then we all sang together “Silent Night, Holy Night,” one-half of the congregation using the French words and the other half singing in English. The difference in language did not prevent a real unison. The Christmas story was read in French, then in English. The Frenchmen sang “O come all ye faithful”; and the Americans sang “O little town of Bethlehem.” Together – they in French and we in English – sang, “Hark, the herald angels sing.” The French ex-minister took as the text of his sermon, “Behold, the Morning Star.” Even those of us who knew little French could catch the enthusiasm of his prophetic vision – Christ as the Star of Hope and promise for a darkened world. The American ex-minister, a member of our own outfit, spoke about the Spirit of Christmas and the spirit of internationalism – how the Christmas spirit had brought together a small bit of France and America in that service on that day – and how some time it would bring together the nations of the world in the fellowship of mutual service for all days. The singing by all of “Nearer, my God, to Thee” closed the service. No man of us will soon forget that service.
The Christmas dinner came next. I mention only the outstanding features: goose, four fine fat roasted geese, well-browned, you know, product of a most excellent French farmyard; salad, too, with mayonnaise from the hands of a real French chef; all sorts of good things, pie, peaches from California. After enjoying this repast to the full, literally, the Christmas Tree (origin not yet disclosed) was unveiled. It glittered and glistened just as a good Christmas Tree ought to. Even in France you can’t have a Tree without a Santa Claus. And he was there, the same jolly old chap, though in a soldier’s uniform. And within his reach a riotous heap of presents. They were not expensive (a half-franc limit had been imposed) nor were they strictly utilitarian. But they were mirth-provoking – something for everybody, something apropos of his particular foibles or eccentricities. [For example, the] writer was decorated with a tin “Croix de Guerre” suggesting perhaps that it is the only kind he is likely to get.
A musical program followed – vocal selections provided by ourselves for ourselves, heartily if not always harmoniously. Some of us had been brought up on the tradition that no Christmas is quite complete without Dickens’ “Christmas Carol.” We had searched everywhere for a copy – couldn’t find one. The curé, though, was discovered to have a French translation. One of our scholars was set to work to translate it back into English; and he did it well. We just had to have it. With all the shortcomings of the day it was good to know that we had kept the Scrooge-spirit out of it. And as we said good-night to go to those icy barracks, we felt that, in spite of everything, it had been a good Christmas. And although we didn’t say it we felt like saying with Tiny Tim, “God bless us – every one.”
Lt. John Bocock
The man in charge of the Black Cats during their time abroad was an Army lieutenant named John Bocock. A 1910 University of Georgia grad (and the son of a well-known professor), Bocock taught elementary school and played semi-pro baseball in Georgia while saving up to go to law school. He got his law degree from the University of Virginia in 1915. He enlisted in 1916 and joined the Black Cats not long after they landed in France.
Bocock presents a stark description of ambulance work in the account he wrote for the unit history:
"One might think ambulance work, at best, to be a funeral sort of work, but that is not true. It was rather a work of reconstruction, this snatching of the wrecks of the war from the very jaws of its hell, and carrying them as speedily as possible to a safe place where they might be made whole. We could take our light Fords very close to the line, and we always went along with the infantry; sometimes as far as regimental headquarters, and sometimes beyond. It got to be rather impersonal work, too, though one never got so accustomed to it that the groans were not a continual wear on the nerves. If a man died in the car, the driver did not brood over it; death was one of the ordinary incidents of the work; it might come to any of us at any moment. A broken spring was a serious matter. It meant the impairment of the service; it might mean that the wounded would have to wait, and this must not be. We did no medical work. Our problem was simply one of transportation. We risked our lives, and many men of the Service gave their lives, in the effort to save others. It was sometimes terribly hard, but it was never a gloomy task."
Lt. John H. Bocock (from “Being the Book of S.S.U. 539 United States Army Ambulance Service with the French Army”)
Another Camp Crane Group Photo
Hugh Hamilton kept this photo in an album after the war. It appears to be a shot of Section 39 taken in the summer of 1917 at Camp Crane in Allentown. (Note: The unit wasn’t called SSU 539 until later on.) There are forty-two men in this photograph. Forty-six Section 39 men sailed to France on the San Jacinto in August.
A Series of Remarkable War Drawings
My grandfather, Hugh Hamilton, kept letters, postcards, and other items related to his time in France during World War I. Among his correspondence with some newfound French friends are these four unsigned drawings. They are marvelous. The attention to detail is fantastic. The battle scene drawings have a compelling sense of motion and action. They are remarkable documents. They remind me of the Battle of the Little Bighorn drawings by Red Horse, the Minneconjou Lakota Sioux warrior.
Three of the drawings are numbered (3, 4, and 5) and based on that it appears that a few of the series are missing. They are drawn ink on lined paper that is now a light brown. Bright colors have been added with what looks like colored pencil. Soldiers of many countries (France, Russia, England, and Germany) are depicted, as well as men from different military units. Notably missing are American soldiers (or ambulance drivers for that matter). One theory about the artist is that it could be Roland Le Brun, a French orphan ‘adopted’ by my grandfather’s ambulance unit, the Amherst Black Cats, at some point in their journeys around the Champagne region.
Here they are with brief descriptions:
This unnumbered drawing shows seven soldiers in a trench that is under heavy artillery fire. An officer (presumably French) with a pistol threatens a prisoner in bright yellow as life goes on for the other soldiers who are observing or eating or firing a weapon. Artillery shells fly and explode nearby. A rip in the paper is repaired by tape.
Identified with the number three and with the text “en champagne: Russes et Français attaque les position allemande (suite dans F.S.)” in the upper left hand corner, this hillside battle scene contains dozens of soldiers advancing and shooting at each other while others are blown up or surrender.
Numbered “4” and titled “Armée Anglaise,” this drawing includes nine figures, one disembodied head, and a flag. The five figures in the top row all face right (two are smoking and the grenadier holds what appears to be a lit bomb). Three of the four men in the second row face left while the interpreter faces forward boldly, smoking his pipe. Each figure has a description underneath. Here, to the best of my ability in deciphering what is written, are those words:
Numbered “5” and titled “Armée Français,” this drawing includes six figures in profile. Most face to the right but one faces left:
If anyone can help with the following questions about these drawings, it would be greatly appreciated:
A Book Cover Design for “The Black Cats of Amherst”
I am very excited to announce that artist Dorothy Simpson Krause (the same artist who did the artwork for the cover of “The Writing 69th”) has completed the artwork for the cover of my upcoming book, “The Black Cats of Amherst.” For more on Dot Krause please visit her web site or like her Facebook page.
My writing continues and I am close to completing a first draft. The target date for publication is May. I intend to publish this book through my publishing company, Green Harbor Publications, and offer it for sale (as I did with “The Writing 69th” as an on-demand printed book through Lulu.com.
I would also like to announce that I will be on a panel called “Amherst at War” during Amherst College’s reunion festivities this Memorial Day weekend.
“The Nut’s Revenge” or “Who Poisoned the Ice Cream?”
The Black Cats enjoyed putting on plays. In April of 1918 their production was called “The Nut’s Revenge” or “Who Poisoned the Ice Cream?” Here is how Stoddard Lane recalls it:
By way of diversion + something different S.S.U. 539 becomes histrionic + puts on a dramatic masterpiece. The child of Roger’s brain. Composed April 9 – produced April 10. Title: “The Nut’s Revenge” or “Who Poisoned the Ice Cream?” A tragic tragedy + comic comedy – all in one. First scene in Bill’s Drug Store, Amherst. Boys of R.O.T.C. singing etc. very college. Dean Burns after Amelia Philips (the beautiful Peckham) Brown (with German sympathies) also in the race. Dean drinks Pigeon’s milk + acts the fool successfully (Vielbig). Next the Infirmary + diarrhea – litter drill + charming nurse (Stevens). Poison. Prof. Lancaster (Clarke) as bomb-expert.
Last: The poisoner discovered – Dean. Fine acting by nuts: Whipple + Hinch. S.L. = over-military, Captain Burnett, with the Loot’s trick hat.
503 + 312 invited. Crowded house. Loud applause. Large success.
And that is War!
Howell Shepard kept a cast listing (see below). Photographs of the two cross-dressing actors (Stockham Peckham as Amelia Philips and Rufus Stevens as Nurse Violetina Rose) were published in the Black Cat’s unit history.
Notes: The Black Cats shared lodging and a mess with SSU 503 in April and May 1918. Section 312 was a military transport unit that was part of the Quartermaster’s Corps.