Black Americans have served in the uniform of the Unites States military from the very beginning of the republic. Up until President Truman’s Executive Order in July of 1948, black Americans generally served in segregated units and at times under foreign leadership.
Like the rest of the country, Prince William County’s Black American’s served in all of the wars of the twentieth and now the twenty-first century, and some have given their lives in defense of this country. Men like Private Harry Hatcher who served in the 372nd Infantry, 93rd Division, a racially segregated U.S. Army regiment, which served as part of the French 157th Division (Red Hand Division) during World War I. It was made up of National Guard units from Washington D.C., Ohio, Maryland, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Connecticut, as well draftees from Michigan and Wisconsin.
In their first nine days of fighting in the Meuse-Argonne sector, the 372nd can be credited with advancing almost five miles through heavily organized defenses. In the process, they took 600 prisoners, captured 15 heavy guns, 20 Minenwerfers, and approximately 150 machine guns, as well as securing an enormous quantity of engineering supplies and artillery ammunition. The 372nd played a key role in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and suffered the loss of 500 men killed, wounded, or gassed in action. They fought gallantly at Verdun, Bussy Farm (where all officers of I Company were either killed or wounded), and Sechault to name a few of their accomplishments. Two men of the regiment, Corporals Cilfton Merrimon (later Sgt.) and Clarence Van Allen earned an extraordinary triple award, consisting of the Croix de Guerre with palm, the Medaille Militaire (France’s highest decoration), and the Distinguished Service Cross. Private Hatcher, of Gainesville, died from wounds received in action on the 8th of October 1918 in heavy fighting for a German strong point near Monthois, France.
There were also soldiers of the Pioneer Infantry. Units used to clear passages through woods or other obstructions, improve roads, make bridges and generally do minor engineering or construction work. They were also infantry to be used as troops for either combat or simple engineering construction. Private John Berry of Dumfries, Va served in the 808th Pioneer Infantry and died of disease on the 24th December 1918. The 808th was employed as labor troops working on railroad and road construction and at the supply depots. When the Germans left large stores of ammunition and material at various points during their rapid retreat, details from the 808th Pioneers took over two of the large dumps that were taken. One of these, located about five kilometers west of Varrennes, was known as the "1,000,000 dollar" dump, and the other dump was at Cheppy. Private Frank Green, of Haymarket, also succumb to disease on the 18th of January 1919 while assigned to the 511th Engineer Service Battalion in France. The 511th was employed in the construction of new railroad tracks to support logistics operations for the American Expeditionary Forces. Some saw state side service in nearby Maryland with the Chemical Warfare Service at the Edgewood Arsenal. Privates Archie Crawford of Neabsco and Lewis Sunders of Dumfries died there as a result of the Spanish Flu epidemic that raged across the globe in 1918. Privates William Nickens of Manassas and John Blackwell of Catlett also succumb to disease while in training at Camp Meade in Maryland and Camp Lee in Virginia from the severe winter weather in 1918, the Spanish Flu, or tuberculosis.
Black Americans from Prince William County would continue to serve in our Armed Forces in World War II and Korea, but none would die in combat, and the only Black American death among members of the military from our area would occur in an accident at Eglin Field in Florida when Technician 4th Grade James May died on the 16th of May 1943 while assigned to the 829th Engineer Aviation Battalion, 923rd Engineer Aviation Regiment, IX Engineer Command.
The next combat death from Prince William County would not occur until the Vietnam War. This war would claim two Black American lives from our area, a 19 year-old serving with the Marines and a former Marine, serving as a Battalion Commander in the Army. Private First Class Reginald Carter would lose his life while fighting North Vietnamese soldiers north of the Cam Lo River in South Vietnam on the 1st of March 1967. The second to be killed in action was Lieutenant Colonel Eli Howard, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 196th Light Infantry Brigade. Colonel Howard, a veteran of the Korean War, was killed when the helicopter he was flying in was shot down in Quang Tin Province, South Vietnam. At the time of his death, he was directing units in his command against heavily entrenched enemy soldiers. The battle was so intense it took three days to reach the wreckage of the helicopter and recover the eight men who died in the crash on the 19th of August 1969.
Black Americans would continue their honorable service to this nation for over 30 years before another member of our community would die in the horrific events on the 11th of September 2001. Sergeant Major Lacey Ivory and three Army civilians, Amelia Fields of Dumfries; Judy Rowlett of Woodbridge, and Sandra White of Dumfries would die as terrorists from al-Qaeda crashed American Flight 77, a Boeing 757, into the Pentagon.
In the more than a decade that followed, several more would lose their life in Afghanistan and Iraq. Staff Sergeant LeRoy Alexander, of Dale City, was killed when an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) detonated near his ground Mobility Vehicle on the 3rd of June 2005 near Orgun-e, Afghanistan. Staff Sergeant Alexander was assigned to the 7th Special Forces group at the time of his death. Petty Officer First Class Theophilus Ansong, a naturalized citizen from Ghana living in Bristow, drowned after his small boat being lowered from the USS SAN ANTONIO in the Gulf of Aden capsized on the 4th of February 2004.
In Iraq, Sergeant Jack Bryant, Jr. was killed in a complex attack when an IED detonated near the convoy he was in and insurgents assaulted the convoy using rocket propelled grenades near Muqdadiyah on the 20th of November 2004. Master Sergeant Anthony Davis, assigned to the Military Transition Team, 1st Brigade, 1st infantry Division, from Triangle was killed by an individual in an Iraqi Security Force uniform while conducting humanitarian operations in Baaj, Ninawa province, Iraq on the 25th of November 2008. Specialist Frank Rivers, Jr. died from non-combat injuries sustained while assigned to the 334th Signal Company, 2nd Infantry Division, Task Force Olympia in Mosul, Iraq. Specialist Rivers was from Woodbridge.
These men and women should always be remembered and honored by our community and nation for their service and sacrifice.