At Monday’s Memorial Day Service at Veterans Park, Jeff Davis County Veterans Association Chaplain Carroll Walker pointed out that the first soldier from Jeff Davis County to lose his life in service to the nation was Thomas Ward who died in World War I.
Not much was learned about Ward so I was intrigued and did a little research on my own.
According to an article in the April 25, 1918, edition of the Hazlehurst News, word had just “been received in Hazlehurst of Thomas Ward, a local negro who was drafted last summer and sent to France with a regiment of stevedores. He was killed in the fighting last fall.
“As he was covered by government insurance, his wife has been notified that she will receive $50 per month for twenty years.”
A look into the Georgia Archives found a listing for “Ward, Tom (Colored) – Private; Home – Jeff Davis County, Ga.”
From the United States World War I Centennial Commission, I learned that Pvt. Thomas Ward of Jeff Davis County, Hazlehurst, died Jan. 17, 1918, of pneumonia, which contradicts the Hazlehurst News article’s description of when and how Pvt. Ward died.
Further research revealed that his death could perhaps be contributed to the poor treatment black men received in the Army during the first world war. Pvt. Ward died in 1918, less than 30 years from the end of the Civil War, and black soldiers in WW I had far fewer options for service than their white counterparts.
Many African Americans applied to join the Army on the front lines but were often turned away, as positions in fighting regiments were limited and in the regular army only cooks and bakers with credentials were accepted, and only chauffeurs and automobile men were accepted in the medical department and quartermaster’s corps.
Further digging revealed that Pvt. Ward was assigned to the 302nd Stevedore Regiment formed in October, 1917, in Newport News, Va. The regiment was assigned to Camp Hill, Va., and embarked for overseas duty from Hoboken, N.J.
The 302nd Stevedore Regiment worked loading and unloading cargo from ships in the port of Bordeaux, France.
Pvt. Ward’s remains are buried at Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in Seringes-et-Nesles, France, along with some 6,500 other U.S. soldiers
There were about a half dozen stevedore regiments and battalions, all formed in Virginia during WW I. According to Wikipedia, the groups were found to be less than well qualified because most were laborers from cotton plantations in the American South, rather than being stevedores with experience in handling cargo. The 301st, 302nd and 303rd regiments were described as having an authorized strength of 127 officers, 858 enlisted men (white) and 6,121 enlisted men (colored).
The Army advertised for colored men to enlist as stevedores. Recruits were sent to Newport News, Va., without being issued uniforms. The Army Medical Department observed that the quality of the recruits was below standard. “Few had had much education, and as a group they were regarded as ‘ignorant negroes of the poorest class, both physically and mentally.’ They were in questionable health from the outset, no physical examinations had been administered at mobilization camps to weed out those who were ill or in any other way unfit for service.” New troops often reported without warning, wearing little more than rags because they had been incorrectly told the Army would issue uniforms when they arrived.
After the stevedores were deployed to France, they were unsuited for the work because they had substandard clothing and had been poorly fed and had poor medical care, which perhaps provides a clue as to how Pvt. Ward came down with and died of pneumonia while still a young man — recruits during World War I came from the 20-30 age group.
The information I found still doesn’t reveal much about who Thomas “Tom” Ward was, nothing about his family, no information about where in Jeff Davis County he lived, what he did for a living, or whether he had any children or any descendants still living in Jeff Davis County.
If there are any Ward descendants still in Jeff Davis County, I’d like to know more.