Amherst Magazine

The Black Cats of Amherst

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By William S. McFeely ’52

On June 6, 1917, 24 Amherst students went to the U.S. Army’s enlistment table in Walker Hall and signed up to drive ambulances for the French army. The recruits came from all four classes, and soon they formed a closely tied group. Known as the Black Cats, their official name was the Section Sanitaire Unit 539. For the previous two months, ever since the United States had entered World War I, nothing had been as usual at the college. All spring there was talk of military training; the faculty approved such courses. Students were leaving to join the U.S. Army and Navy ahead of the planned draft, or to volunteer individually to drive ambulances or trucks for the French Army, the manpower of which was severely depleted by three and a half years of devastating trench warfare.

Leading the volunteers on June 6 was Theodore Widmayer ’17, class president for all four years and, for three, on the varsity football, basketball and baseball teams. Fellow senior Joseph Vielbig joined him at the enlistment table. From the Class of 1918 came Widmayer’s teammate Chester Seamans, also a leading athlete, accompanied by his brother E.H., who had graduated in 1916. Among the other six juniors were Baxter Evans of Columbus, Ohio, and John Gilles of Brooklyn, N.Y. Seven sophomores and eight freshmen signed in that morning, as did two faculty members, both recent graduates—Ralph Whipple ’14, a geology department assistant, and Robert Smith ’16, an assistant in the department of social and economic institutions—and three men not from the college: Howell E. Shepard, son of the Amherst postmaster; Stockman C. Peckham from Newport, R.I.; and Kenneth M. Simpson of Malden, Mass. Thirty men in all. Three others—Merrill Clark ’09 and Stoddard Lane ’09, both graduates of theological schools, and William “Mac” McFeely ’20, a neighbor of Lane’s—joined them days later.

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William "Mac" McFeely '20, the author's father, returned from war with a memory book and a 12-inch piece of shrapnel.

McFeely was my father. Since boyhood, I have been fascinated by his copy of the Black Cat memory book and by the 12-inch piece of shrapnel he wrenched from the driver’s seat of his ambulance when returning with a wounded soldier. He never graduated from Amherst, nor did he become a physician, his goal on entering college. Like Baxter Evans, and, I would guess, other Black Cats, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, then called, less clinically, “shell shock.” I have long thought this Amherst story needed telling. Laura Lane-Rediker, daughter of Stoddard Lane, generously shared her father’s remarkable diary, since given to the college’s Archives and Special Collections, where it adds to the Meiklejohn Papers and other rich holdings on World War I.

The holdings also include some of the memory books that, once home from war, the Black Cats prepared for each of the men “so that we may remember … a little more plainly the wheat fields about Corcy.” In an era when the ubiquitous camera went along with almost every man, the men of S.S.U. 539 came back with a remarkable trove of pictures, 1-and-a-half-by-2 inches, plus a few 2-inch-by-3-inch sepia photographs. The photos were of scenes the men had observed—cathedrals in full splendor, cathedrals in ruins, wounded men, dead men and devastated battlefields—and of one another, often standing in front of the Ford Model Ts that served as their ambulances. Negatives must have come back from France—there is a remarkable number of individual prints for each volume. The pictures were painstakingly pasted above printed captions in each copy of the book.

The Black Cats left no record of their motivations in enlisting, but the chance to do humanitarian work rather than shouldering a gun and fighting was surely in the equation. Another factor was almost certainly the lure of adventure: they wanted to be part of the war effort, to travel to a France they did not know—and to drive Model Ts; not all of the Black Cats came from families that yet owned automobiles.

Like other units from colleges and universities across the country, the Black Cats were ordered to Allentown, Pa., where the large fairgrounds were converted into a training camp, Camp Crane. Although destined to assist the French, these recruits were part of the U.S. Army, and Allentown proved that they were. There were drills, calisthenics and complaints about the food. The Cats recalled in their memory books that the experience at the training camp was like being “individually and as a working body, pounded into shape.” They learned to drive Model Ts. They trained in emergency medical treatment, which proved of uneven relevance to the conditions they were to face. And they played a lot of baseball—the Camp Crane pickup team played Lehigh College and won. This, however, was not why they were in Allentown; bored, the Black Cats were anxious to get to France and see some action.

On Aug. 6, 1917, they went to bed fully dressed, their duffle bags packed at the foot of each cot. No one slept much. At 11:30 p.m. the call came and they stumbled upright and out to the mess hall to hurry up and wait to leave, munching on sandwiches. Cots were returned to the quartermaster’s office, the roster called and called again. It was 2 a.m. before they marched out in the dark, past the lumberyard at the edge of Camp Crane to a waiting train standing on a freight siding. Sitting up, uncomfortably geared, they got a few minutes of uneasy sleep. The train left them in Jersey City, N.J., at the dock of the Hudson River ferry. In the morning light its huge clock read 5:34. The ferry carried them the few miles up the river to Hoboken, N.J., and the S.S. San Jacinto.

As Jack Gilles put it in his diary, the ship was a “tub,” a tired old freighter converted into a troop ship. Climbing into the stinking hold to find their bunking quarters, the Black Cats resolved to spend as much time on deck as possible. Passing Sandy Hook, N.J., in excellent weather, they were out in the Atlantic, but not alone. To protect against German U-boats, the San Jacinto was part of a convoy. In the parade were four other transport ships, the Henderson, Finland, Lenape and Antilles, lumbering old ships pressed back in service to carry part of the vast deployment of the U.S. Army to France. Destroyers and cruisers kept shifting the convoy’s course to confuse U-boats that might be lurking beneath the surface. No tell-tale debris was to be thrown overboard, and no matches lit or cigarettes smoked after dark lest a submarine spot them.

They had been right to worry about submarines. On the morning of Aug. 19, they were awakened by a sudden spurt of water followed immediately by six blasts of the ship’s whistle. All the men on the ship climbed out on deck and put on life belts. The destroyers were whipping in and about like sheep dogs frantically nipping at the heels of transports as they changed course. Gilles was in the first row at the rail and, as he wrote in his diary that night, “thanked heaven for it. If I had to go overboard, I preferred to go before the rush started.” Gilles hadn’t had to make use of his advantage; there was no order to abandon ship. But he did see “something Black” near one of the destroyers and hear the explosion as the torpedo detonated harmlessly.

The next day, after midday mess, the blast of the whistle said the men were in for more excitement. The San Jacinto was supplied with two guns mounted aft. When they were fired, the whole boat shivered. To add to the confusion, a French plane flew low over the convoy and dropped a bomb so close to the San Jacinto that it almost knocked the men crowding the deck off their feet. The danger was real enough; the Finland swerved as a torpedo passed 20 feet from her hull.

The French plane told them they were near land. Pressing the captain, they learned they were in the Bay of Biscay. On the afternoon of Aug. 20, 1917, they spotted land, and at 5 p.m. they edged up to a wharf at Saint Nazaire. A large number of townspeople, women in black, filled the dock, cheering the arriving Americans.

The Black Cats were fascinated by France, but they were, after all, in the army. Their first orders had nothing to do with ambulances, let alone adventure. They became stevedores ordered to assist in unloading ships that were docked at all of the port’s piers, carrying every imaginable war supply for the arriving American soldiers. One shipment consisted of pairs of huge crates; in each pair, one crate contained a Ford’s chassis, the other its parts. Soon the unit was busy building its own ambulances. (As sturdy as old VW bugs, the converted Model Ts proved remarkably reliable under the roughest of conditions.) Once the men assembled the cars, they tried them out. Jack Gilles told in his diary of meeting a woman with two cows that, in danger of being hit, parted each to one side of the road, allowing Gilles’ car to squeeze through—barely.

On Sept. 29, 1917, the unit set out from Saint Nazaire to drive through the Loire Valley and around Paris to an ambulance depot. The next morning the men learned that their next detail was to deliver the cars they had built to a hospital in Paris. Dismay at the prospect of losing their Model Ts was offset by the excitement of their first trip to Paris. They saw to it that their route across the city went past as many famous sites as possible. The cars delivered, they took the train to Châlons-sur-Marne (now called Châlons-en-Champagne) to join a regiment of the French army. They met near the location of the First Battle of the Marne, in which the French army had, at great cost in lives, stopped the German advance in 1914.

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A diary by Stoddard Lane, Class of 1909, chronicle the Black Cats' 18 months in Europe. "Action coming—'tis in the air," he wrote in his Oct. 11-24, 1918, entry.

In October, the Black Cats were finally at the front at Somme-Suippe. On Oct. 10, 1917, Lane wrote in his diary: “On duty at last. Off to Bois Triangular.... Thin screen of trees with two dug-out [trenches]. Visit air-craft battery—couldn’t see until near. Camouflage. Field plowed up. German airplane fired at. Mild artillery all day. Little cemeterys [sic] all around. Hear shell whistle. Two couches [wounded] to Triang. in AM. Grub in dug-out 10 AM. To Marmara for 3 couches in aft. Germans on all sides. In plain sight of them on road to M. Well camouflaged with burlap. Town absolutely leveled.”

With the onset of winter, battles abated. It snowed on Christmas Eve, and the Black Cats woke up to a busy Christmas Day. Lane, a Protestant minister and a fervent believer in Woodrow Wilson’s war aims, conceived his own experiment in internationalism: He conducted a service for 15 of the Cats and 30 local French citizens. He even turned up a French Protestant chaplain assigned to minister to stretcher bearers (the lowest job that war awarded). The two divines preached conventional Christmas messages and Lane stretched his into an appeal to international accord after the war. The French sang their carols, the Americans theirs; everyone came together to sing “Silent Night” and “Adeste Fideles.” The service over, it was time for Christmas festivities. As Lane put it in his diary, “Mac gets Xmas tree—mistletoe—pine twigs,” and they made a Christmas party as close as possible to one they would have celebrated at home. The whole crowd of Black Cats finished decorating the tree and had a dinner, “most excellent,” Lane wrote, complete with local champagne, at the Golden Apple Inn. Homesickness was held at bay.

By spring the Black Cats were driving ambulances in major actions along the Western Front. The front, bowed to the west, ran roughly 500 miles from near the North Sea on a curve north and east of Paris to Switzerland. During four years of war France had held off Germany’s advances, but since 1914, the two enemies had fought huge, desperate and inconclusive battles along this line. First the Germans would attack and fail to advance significantly, whereupon the British and French would counterattack to no permanent gain. By 1918 the front had become a series of extensive trenches from which each side faced the other.

The trenches were dug deep enough for a man to stand up without being exposed to enemy fire. Some trenches were linked by narrow passages; some were command posts, others served as occasional hospital stations for nearby wounded men. Unless a shell should score a direct hit, a company of men would be protected. Protected, that is, until ordered over the top, where, under unreliable artillery cover, infantrymen would face the withering fire of the enemy’s machine guns.

When attacks were underway, the number of fatalities was appalling, as was the number of wounded. This is where the Black Cats came in. Driving their own newly supplied Model Ts, each emblazoned with the Black Cat logo—an angry cat with arched back and upright tail, black against a white square—they transported desperately wounded men to medical help in overcrowded and harried hospital stations and hospitals. They drove over what often could not be dignified by the word “roads.” The drivers maneuvered cars over and around shell holes, swerving past the junk of war, sloshing through wretched mud. The lurching would cause agony for a badly wounded passenger in the rear of an ambulance. All the while, the drivers had to concentrate, often in a darkness illuminated only by artillery fire. So organized was the chaos that at one point, before a planned attack, the Cats were employed emptying one front-line hospital, taking the patients to another farther from the front to be ready for the expected inflow of newly wounded men. Once an attack was in progress, there was virtual non-stop need for the ambulances.

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A photo sent home from "Dead Man's Corner" in Corcy, France, and later placed in a scrapbook.

That spring the Germans mounted their last major offensive. It was rebuffed by the Allies, who began their own massive assault. These offensives were known by the names of the nearby rivers: the Marne, the Aisne, the Oise and the Ourcq. It was on the latter offensive that the Black Cats encountered the unforgettable wheat fields of Corcy. The town, or what was left of it, stood in fields of shimmering wheat; as the Cats drove by, they saw dead men stacked at the edge of a field.

In October 1918, the Black Cats were ordered to Belgium, where the war had begun and where, outside the city of Ypres, it had reached a four-year deadlock. Over this narrow strip of ground, now totally devastated, the British and the German armies had fought some of the worst trench warfare in history. So senseless were some of the assaults that were ordered that the name of one town, Passchendaele, has become a code name for the worst of the horrors.

Between November and June 1917, British soldiers in trenches beyond the ruined town were ordered “over the top” onto a wasted landscape in assaults on the German army. There they faced a murderous response from the entrenched Germans. So impassable was the terrain over which they were fighting that lightly wounded men drowned in the mud. One encyclopedia computes that for the five miles gained in this Third Battle of Ypres, 140,000 British soldiers died: two inches for each dead man. It was in this region that the Black Cats now found themselves.

Lane’s diary chronicles the entirety of the Black Cats’ 18 months in Europe, but nothing matches its description of the final battle of the war outside Ypres. By the fall of 1918, the coalition fighting on Germany’s side was breaking up. But the more talk there was of peace, the more ferocious the determination of the British commander to end the fighting with a vicious assault. The cost in wounded men was staggering, and the Black Cats did their toughest driving.

Lane writes of one exhausting day when he and his men had finally settled down for some sleep. “Call at 2 A.M. Two couches [wounded men] serious cases. So out we go again & back thru No Man’s land on an unforgettable & ghastly trip. Cruel road for those wounded chaps—and they couldn’t help groaning. Twice I lost my way—once I sailed over huge gaping mine hole.” Lane got the two to a hospital post. He also describes how, on a different day, several ambulances set out for a hospital: “almost thirty kilometers. Four hours steady driving … it was with intense relief when the big aviator tents of hospital l hove in sight. And then we found one of the men was dead; the roads killed him. Two Boche [German] prisoners covered his face and carried him off in the quiet of that bleak dawn.”

These details hint at the virtual around-the-clock driving that the Black Cats did in October. They refused to let up; some of them paid a price after the war. Time and time again, descendants of the drivers would say, “Dad didn’t talk much about the war.” The men felt it best not to dwell on grim happenings, that a stiff upper lip would cure the memories. Another detail from Lane’s diary hints at what specifically may have been conducive to the men’s shell shock. On Oct. 13, 1918, Lane wrote of the start of the Allies’ final assault. Under a thunderous artillery cover, the infantrymen were to storm the German position. Shelling by the Germans “was nothing compared to our own artillery action,” he wrote. “[T]he sun was out. That was propitious, and so was the barrage. It was startling and overwhelming and everything quivered with it. It was difficult to walk straight or to think straight. The air seemed a live thing—and a noisy one.”

Under the fierce assault, largely by the British, the Germans finally began pulling back. In some cases there was great rejoicing as towns were liberated. In others, civilians faced gassing by desperate, retreating Germans. “The Boches were using gas plentifully, which was hard on civilians and soldiers alike,” Lane wrote. “We carried a number of the former, including women. Two officers were brought in & died before we could evacuate them—foaming at the mouth. Horrible sights…. One of the boys evacuated a whole family—several small children—all gassed. [Winfield] Riefler [’19] took a husband & daughter, gassed—wife in the front seat calling to them [in the rear]. Both died on the way.”

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Classes were excused for an hour when 23 Black Cats presented their colors near the Octagon.

The following month, on Nov. 11, 1918, the war was finally over, but it took many more months to return the vast American force back to the United States. The Springfield Republican reported on April 3, 1919: “Black Cats Arrive at Newport News.” From there, many of the men made their way home, but one contingent attended to another detail first: 23 Black Cats traveled to Amherst on April 23, 1919. Carrying their colors (Evans’ mother had given them to the group in Allentown)—a large American flag, a silk pennant with the word Amherst in white on a purple background and a white pennant with the black cat indelibly in place—they marched up toward the Octagon from the town common. President Alexander Meiklejohn greeted them. The Amherst Student reported that “Lane gave an inspiring address” and presented the colors to Dean George Olds. Classes were excused for an hour.

The ceremony at Amherst was Section 539’s last official act. The drivers all had their memories; soon they had their books of reminiscence. Yet still they did not speak of what they’d seen and documented. The theory was that silence would keep the horrors at bay. It may not have worked. The young men of the Black Cats had done their bit in “the war to end all wars;” but they were scarcely middle-aged men when World War II picked up and continued their war. Marshal Petain awarded 25 of the Cats the Croix de Guerre in 1918. In 1940, Mac, at home in New Jersey and now with a family, shook his head sadly. The same Henri Philippe Petain who had once fought to save France did Adolph Hitler’s bidding and headed the Vichy regime when the Germans, this time, defeated France.

William S. McFeely ’52, who received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Amherst in 1982, is a longtime history teacher and the author of six books, including Grant: A Biography, which won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for biography. He thanks Jessica Choi ’09, Peter A. Nelson and all who responded to his requests about their relatives.

All photos courtesy Amherst College Archives and Special Collections.