Wednesday, June 22, 2011

In Honor of Elmer Holmes, 538th Engineer Battalion, AEF

On Memorial Day, some of you may recall reading this tragic story about the rediscovery of an African American Doughboy’s final resting place.
To give a brief recap, this spring a Spotsylvania resident who commutes to the Pentagon via the local bus network happened to notice a military headstone in an overgrown area directly beneath the major road he passes over every day. After investigation, he found out that it was the grave of a black World War I veteran. The grave is located across the street from the church that the soldier belonged to and is sadly within spitting distance of the local trash dump.
The soldier that the grave belonged to was Pvt. Elmer Holmes of the 538th Engineer Battalion. Holmes was a local farmer and veteran who was killed in an automobile accident on October 31, 1928 at the age of 38. Ten years before his death, Holmes found himself an engineer in the AEF, serving in France during the “war to end all wars.”
To give some background, the 538th was a service battalion organized in May of 1918 at Camp Meade, Maryland. It moved overseas in August and was later converted into a Transport Corps unit in December of 1918 (after the Armistice had been signed). The 538th belonged to an organization called the National Army, which was made up solely of men who had been drafted into military service. While we know next to nothing about what Holmes experienced in France, we can glean a little bit about what his daily life entailed by looking at what engineer troops did during the First World War.
While it is easy to focus only on those members of the AEF who served in combat roles, it is worth considering that engineer troops in WWI were responsible for the following:  building roads (including 1,035 miles of railroad track) and hospitals, providing proper sewage drainage at camps and cantonments, constructing electric power plants, cutting down trees, maintaining and repairing  their own equipment, digging trenches, putting up barbed wire (sometimes under enemy fire), making docks and building bridges and – if the situation called for it – picking up their rifles and fighting as infantry.
At the end of the war there were over 174,000 men serving as engineers in the AEF, and they received the highest praise from their commander, General John J. Pershing.
In my research I was unable to find anything pertaining to Holmes himself, but I did find the following from a man who served in the same unit. When asked to reflect on his service overseas, James Crawley of the 538th said that he was as “patriotic as any man” but described his overseas experience as “deplorable.” He said that he “worked all the time [but] felt as if my country did not appreciate my service as a true American.” Although he continued to believe in “the principles for which we fought” he thought African Americans had “given all to gain for everyone except ourselves.”
Crawley’s words made me consider once again the very question that led me to do the research behind the exhibit Take Our Stand: The African American Military Experience in the Age of Jim Crow – why would young black men and women risk their lives for a country that so often failed to provide them with the basic rights promised to them in the Constitution?
In the case of Elmer Holmes, we may never know. Nonetheless, I felt compelled to look deeper into the location of his grave and what I found astounded me. The pictures below show the grave in its current condition, swallowed up by nature an abandoned. If you’re a Fredericksburg native, I cannot recommend that you go and see this grave, given that you will have to deal with crossing four lanes of traffic and negotiating a fairly steep incline. But let us all hope and pray that this final resting place of one of America’s forgotten wars will be neglected no longer.
As you look at these photos, keep in mind not only what it was like to serve “over there,” but also what it was like for the thousands of African American troops who served nobly and came home to a country that still didn’t quite feel like home.

Coming down the hill, the grave is invisible.