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.

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.

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