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.