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The Voice of the Black Community


Unsolved World War I mystery
Soldier's missing remains is puzzling
Published Thursday, June 19, 2014 8:41 am
by Jenny Gray, Daily Herald of Roanoke Rapids

ROANOKE RAPIDS, N.C. – On March 15, 1929, a grieving Virginia mother filed an “Application for Headstone'' with the War Department for her recently deceased son, John M. Cain, a veteran of World War I.

She lived in Norfolk, Va., and her son was lying nearby in an unmarked grave, she attested. Her application was approved and the gravestone shipped nearly two years later.
But how it came to be leaning against the side of a brick house chimney in Halifax County? It's just one of many mysteries surrounding this soldier.

A picture of the headstone was posted May 7 on the Johnson Hawkins Family History Group Facebook page by Fred Hawkins, who reportedly has ties to the Roanoke Valley. His posting asked if anyone knew anything about the headstone.

Roanoke Rapids history buff Cindy Garris Boone said she is also a member of that Facebook group. She said she dug around, but came to no conclusions about who Cain was or how his gravestone came to Halifax County. She visited the gravestone off Highway 48 behind a residence near Aurelian Springs Elementary School on last week, but the owner of the property wasn't home. A man working on the property said he thought the gravestone had been there at least 20 years.

It appears to be a marble headstone, about a foot wide and maybe four feet high. The slab is about four inches thick. Drips of paint could be seen on the face and back of the stone, the same color as the weathered paint on the house.

“It's been here awhile,'' Boone said.

Cain doesn't appear to have any ties to the Roanoke Valley. The application to the War Department said Cain had enlisted on Aug. 6, 1918, and was discharged July 9, 1919, after serving in the 543rd Engineers Service Battalion as a private/first-class in company D. He died Nov. 19, 1928, the application further stated, and was buried in Lincoln Cemetery, one of three African-American cemeteries in Portsmouth, Virginia.

In shaky handwriting, the mother signed her name, “Adeline Howard,'' and her address was given as 425 Queen St. in Norfolk.

Families planning to put a private stone, monument or other permanent marker on the grave of their soldier were not permitted these free veterans' headstones, the application stated. The grave had to be unmarked. The full expense of the shipment was to be paid by the U.S. government.

The application shows it was confirmed, approved and the stone ordered. Cain's headstone was shipped out Jan. 9, 1931, as stamped on the application.

Also stamped on the application is another date, and place: “Proctor VT. Oct. 1, 1933.'' No other information is tied to that stamp. However, the Vermont Marble Co. in Proctor, Vt., provided gravestones for the Federal government, according to archives.gov. This company, founded in 1880, contributed to the USS Arizona Memorial, the Washington Monument and Arlington National Cemetery, among others.

The application clearly said the stone was to be shipped to Adeline Howard in Norfolk. So why is it leaning against the chimney of a private house here in Halifax County, and not at the soldier's grave? And where is the grave of John M. Cain? While there are about 100 unmarked graves at Lincoln Cemetery, there are no records Cain's remains are there, according to Lincoln Cemetery historian Carl Wimbrough.

“We have searched and we have looked through his mother's name, also,'' he said. “A lot of these graves just had an “X'' on them, so we've gone back through our old books and we still haven't found him.''

Numerous World War I websites don't mention the 543 Engineers Service Battalion, either.

Then there's the mystery of why Cain would have enlisted just as the Great War was winding down. He enlisted Aug. 6, 1918. A month before, a decisive battle – The Second Battle of Marne – spelled the beginning of the collapse of the German Army, according to World War I timelines. That October, Germany asked the Allies for a truce, and it was signed on Nov. 11, 1918, thus ending the war with Germany.

Why would Cain enlist just as the war was ending? And why did he serve less than a year?

What happened to him in the years before and after his enlistment, and why did he die so young, nine years and four months after his discharge?

Some of these questions may never be answered, but some may be guessed by looking at the times in which Cain lived.

About 375,000 blacks served in World War I – 200,000 overseas. Only 42,000 saw combat and the rest were laborers.

Many were eager to serve, to prove their merit and pride. They were fighting for respect, according to an article, “Fighting for Respect: African-American Soldiers in World War I'' by Jami Bryan, managing editor of On Point, an Army Historical Foundation publication.

“On 18 May 1917, Congress passed the Selective Service Act requiring all male citizens between the ages of 21 and 31 to register for the draft. Even before the act was passed, African-American males from all over the country eagerly joined the war effort,'' Bryan wrote. "They viewed the conflict as an opportunity to prove their loyalty, patriotism and worthiness for equal treatment in the United States.''

Cain was a member of an engineering battalion. During World War I, Army engineers paved the way for troop movements, building roads, bridges and railroads, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website. On Sept. 5, 1917, in Cambrai, France, two of these engineers were wounded by artillery fire, thus becoming the first casualties in any U.S. Army unit serving at the front in Europe.

While other branches of the military limited black soldiers to menial positions during World War I (the U.S. Marines banned them entirely), African-Americans served in the U.S. Army's cavalry, infantry, signal, medical, engineer and artillery units. They also served as chaplains, surveyors, truck drivers, chemists and intelligence officers, according to militaryhistoryonline.com.

The first African-American combat troops, the 93rd Division, were sent to France in December 1917. Their 369th Infantry, known at the “Harlem Hellfighters,'' saw combat on the front lines and drove the Germans from their trenches during the Aisne-Marne counter offensive that started July 18 and ended on Aug. 6, 1918 – the same day John M. Cain enlisted.

The war ended officially on Nov. 11, 1918. The Harlem Hellfighters were welcomed home to New York City by huge parades (the New York Tribune estimated the crowd at five million, according to “Who Were the Harlem Hellfighters?'' by Henry Louis Gates Jr.), but then racial tensions arose.

At this time in the nation's history, some feared these experienced African-American soldiers would return demanding equality and would use their Army training to get it.
During the summer and fall of 1919, called “The Red Summer,'' anti-black race riots erupted in 26 cities across America and 77 black Americans were lynched. Of these, at least 10 were war veterans, and some were lynched while in uniform, militaryhistoryonline.com states. One of the worst riots occurred in Chicago during a seven-day riot (July 27-Aug. 3) that saw 38 deaths, 537 injured and 1,000 black families left homeless.

In Washington, D.C., from July 19 to 23, four whites and two blacks were killed in race riots, according to the PBS documentary “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.''

It was into that social climate, in that summer, that Cain was discharged on July 9, 1919. From there, all that appears to be known about him is the date of his death.

And where his gravestone lies, far from his body.


I'm so intrigued I want to know more
Posted on April 22, 2020
Wow! Sad! I wish we could find out more!
Posted on July 1, 2014

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