Random story. Memorial Day. Guy decides to pull off the expressway, just one of those existential tugs.
Right turn into Zachary Taylor National Cemetery. American flags everywhere. People scattered across the white marble landscape, visiting the graves of family members, friends, heroes.
He pulls out a camera, snaps a few frames. He kneels down in front of a marker, composing a close shot of a small flag against the contrast of the headstone behind.
It isn’t until he gets home and starts flipping through the images he has taken that the name jumps off the screen at him.
Robert Morehead. Private, U.S. Army, World War I. Born Oct. 3, 1892. Died April 17, 1959. He starts to wonder. His mind drifts from the several Memorial Day thoughts he had planned to write, returning to that name, those dates.
A search ensues. An obituary. The Courier-Journal, April 21, 1959. Morehead lived on Winnrose Way, a few blocks from Chickasaw Park. He was survived by a wife and daughter. The obituary says nothing more than that he was a World War I veteran and worked for L&N Railroad shops for 23 years.
To Google: 801 Pioneer Infantry (the outfit listed on his headstone). Return: “WWI Black Soldiers.” The African-American Pioneer Infantry regiments were designed as support groups.
More returns: An induction form. Morehead is listed as being from Gordonsville, Ky., a little town in Logan County, down on the Tennessee border in the Western part of the state. He reported for training to Camp Taylor in Louisville on July 29, 1918.
Camp Taylor, six miles southeast of downtown Louisville, was for a brief time the nation’s largest military training camp, with nearly 50,000 trainees on 2,000 acres running from present-day Bardstown Road all the way to land owned by the Louisville International Airport. Among the (less popular) officers to pass through there was F. Scott Fitzgerald, who would mention the camp in a later novel, The Great Gatsby. A neighborhood still bears the name, “Camp Taylor.” Part of its land now makes up the Bellarmine University campus.
Little is readily available about Morehead’s time at Camp Taylor, except that 41 days later, he was aboard the USS Manchuria, a passenger liner outfitted to transport troops, leaving Hoboken, N.J. for France. Once there, the 801st, according to one account, was involved in salvage work. The next time Morehead’s name appears in records is in a transportation log, aboard the USS Ancon leaving Brest, France on May 23, 1919. It arrived in Newport News, Va., on June 5, and the regiment was demobilized six days later.
That’s where the trail goes cold, until the obituary, and the order for a U.S. Veterans Affairs grave stone.
During Morehead’s time in France, an American writer, Irvin S. Cobb, born and raised in Paducah, Ky., visited African-American troops serving there. It was an illuminating experience for him, forever changing the way he had viewed an entire people. His account for The Saturday Evening Post was read by millions, and was picked up by The Courier-Journal.
One letter home from one of those African-American soldiers exclaimed, “These people in France don’t bother with no color-line business. They treat us so good that the only time I ever knows I’m colored is when I looks in the glass.”
Though they served with distinction, things weren’t as nice back at home. Cobb thought his work might help change that. He died, his ashes placed under a dogwood tree in Paducah, knowing not enough had changed.
Last May, in that same block where Robert Morehead lived, a man was fatally shot in a home, It was in all the newscasts.
I didn’t set out to write this column. It sort of dragged me through a series of unexpected steps and thoughts. One final one I will share.
I’ve just finished reading a three-volume life of Winston Churchill by William Manchester and Paul Reid. In the first volume, with the allied effort in World War I at its bleakest, with the fate of France hanging in the balance, consider the passage that comes next:
‘At this point, writes Cyril Falls, the British military historian, ‘something astonishing happened. Up the Marne came marching new men. They were two divisions only, but they strode proudly through the flotsam and jetsam always present on the fringe of a stricken battlefield. . . . They were fine-looking men and even the rawest had a soldierly air.’ The first Americans had arrived. Their vanguard was a brigade of U.S. Marines, an odd mix of tough professionals and Ivy League students who, like their Oxford and Cambridge counterparts of 1914 — most of whom were now dead or maimed — had enlisted the week after their country entered the war. . . . For five days the marines held five miles against the gray enemy columns which came hurling across the wheat field. Then they counterattacked, driving five divisions of Germans back through a boulder-strewed, gully-laced forest called Bellau Wood. Only one in four survived unscratched. More than a hundred were decorated for heroism. The French renamed the wood for them.The Last Lion, Winston Churchill, Vol. 1
I guess, to wrap all this up, to have any honor for any of those stones in so many cemeteries all over the world, we as Americans would do well to remember that we have been at our best when we have come together, when we have taken the world stage with a common purpose out of our uncommon cultures.
When we have done those things, when those whose memories we honor today have displayed the courage to fight for those things, we have been deserving of the superlative Churchill himself laid on the headstones of the American people not long afterward in front of an audience at Chapel Hall, Westminster.
“When I have seen during the past few weeks the splendor of American manhood striding forward on all the roads of France and Flanders,” he said. “I have experienced emotions which words cannot describe.”
Today is a day to remember that splendor. Long may it live.