The Black Cats of Amherst

The Black Cat Ambulance Unit

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:
  • The Black Cat colors: In April of 1919 a group of Black Cats marched from the Amherst train station to the college campus to present their unit colors to the Amherst College president, Alexander Meiklejohn. A large crowd that included Civil War veterans celebrated their return. Today the colors sit in a large flat box in the Amherst College archive. Made of silk with embroidered images, the colors are in very delicate condition and in need of restoration. In the picture below you can see the Black Cat symbol plus references to the operations they were involved in.

  • The Lansing letter: The May 21, 1917 issue of the Amherst College newspaper, the Amherst Student, contained a front-page letter from Secretary of State Robert Lansing (an Amherst graduate, class of 1886). Written in response to a letter from Amherst College freshman (and soon to be Black Cat) Hugh Hamilton, Lansing urged students to heed their country’s call. He wrote, “The country has but one great national purpose at the present time and that is to prosecute the war with Germany with all the strength and vigor which it possesses. Nothing else matters.”

  • Fred Waugh uniform: The uniform of one of the Black Cats is in the University of Massachusetts Special Collections & University Archives. As you look at the picture below you can see his awards and unit insignia. Above the upper left pocket is his Croix de Guerre. The other decoration is a fourragère, which is awarded to units that distinguished themselves more than once. Waugh was a private, and you can see a single private’s stripe on the left sleeve. Out of the picture but below his private’s stripe on the sleeve are three inverted chevrons. The meaning of these chevrons is not clear to me. The unit was involved in three major operations, so perhaps it is related to that. Harder to see in this photograph are the unit insignia on the left arm near the shoulder. The white A in a red circle inside a blue field refers to the U.S. Third Army. A white rooster on a crimson background is the insignia of the ambulance units.

  • German helmet souvenir: Apparently if you wanted to mail a war souvenir home from France all you had to do was put an address and stamps on it. The German helmet pictured below was sent by Lloyd Walsh to Miss Eva Risdon. Walsh was not a member of the Black Cats but he was from Amherst and he served in SSU 68, a different ambulance group that was made up of men from Amherst (many from the college, but some, like Walsh, from Amherst or nearby cities and towns). This item is in the Lloyd Walsh collection at the University of Massachusetts Special Collections & University Archives. (Note: If you look closely at the lower left corner of the address label you can see that there’s a stamp and a signature showing that the helmet, like any letter a soldier would send home, was cleared by the censor, most often the commanding officer of his unit. And if you are wondering whether Eva Risdon of Danby, Vermont was impressed by the helmet she got in the mail, it should be noted that she married Walsh after the war.)

Armistice Day
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:
  • This photo was probably taken late in June or early in July of 1917
  • There are thirty-four men in this photo, some of whose names are questioned by whomever provided the annotation (probably Howell Shepard)
  • Grant Goebel, Hutton Hinch, and Horatio Newell were among those who joined the section at Amherst, and so it is a bit surprising that the they are not identified in this picture
  • Merrill Clarke, who is not pictured here, arrived on June 28th, which could mean that this photograph was taken prior to that date
  • Lt. Bocock, who commanded the section during their time in Europe, didn’t join the unit until September 1917, not long after they landed in France
  • An Amherst banner can be seen inside the building behind the last row of men

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 angles 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.

Some observations:
  • The third man from the right is recognizable as Ralph Whipple, one of the shortest men in the section.
  • The second man from the right is holding a banner that has the letters R, S, and T on it. This is likely an Amherst banner.
  • Hugh Hamilton is to the left of the American flag, directly below the utility pole in the background.

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.
  • Text translation: “In Champagne, the Russian and French attack the German positions” (It is unclear what is meant by “suite dans F.S.”)

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:
  • infanterie
  • dragon, cavalerie (touspareille)
  • (grenadier)
  • (elcossals [?])
  • (australien
  • enterprete aspinernt [?]
  • officier de cavalerie
  • indians
  • marin
  • Vive l’Angleterre (under the flag)

Numbered “5” and titled “Armée Français,” this drawing includes six figures in profile. Most face to the right but one faces left:
  • chasseur a pieds
  • chasseur a cheval
  • infanterie
  • chasseurs alpins
  • dragons
  • Zou Zou
Note: The Chasseurs Alpins (the 47th Division) was the group that the Black Cats were assigned to starting in October 1917 yet for most of their time abroad they were attached to the French 5th Division.

If anyone can help with the following questions about these drawings, it would be greatly appreciated:
  • What do you think was meant by the parenthetical comment: “suite dans F.S.”?
  • Were there World War I soldiers who wore yellow uniforms?
  • Can anyone identify the flag in the “Armée Anglaise” drawing?
  • What is meant by “Zou Zou” which appears under the drawing of the soldier in yellow in the “Armée Française” drawing? (Seems likely that it is a reference to Zouaves.)

Any questions? Send an e-mail to Green Harbor Publications