The United States entered World War I in April 1917. The goal was to organize a million man army. In May 1918, President Wilson authorized the creation of eight colored regiments.
805th Pioneer Infantry
On June 27, 1918, the War Department ordered two colored regiments to be organized at Camp Funston, Kansas. These were the 805th and 806th Infantry Regiments.
By July 8, some officers were assigned, and the organizational work began. It was a huge task, because the 805th and 806th were to be rushed to Europe with all possible dispatch.
By July 12, 1,100 enlisted men had been assigned, most of them draftees from Louisiana and Kansas. 1,500 more black troops and 50 white officers were assigned by the end of July. By mid-August, the regiment totaled 3,226 enlisted men and 99 officers.
These black regiments reorganized slightly as “Pioneer” Infantry. Everyone wondered about this designation – the 805th Pioneer Infantry.
The Pioneer Infantry were similar to regular army troops in that they were trained in infantry tactics, but they were also trained in combat engineering.
The Pioneer Infantry were trained both as combat infantry and as combat engineers. Their duties varied greatly, from construction to demolition to salvage to cleaning. They maintained roads, built railroads, salvaged battlefield equipment, found and buried dead soldiers.
“They did everything the Infantry was too proud to do, and the Engineers too lazy to do.”Unknown Pioneer Infantry Officer
These regiments were unusual in that they were not a part of a division, like the rest of the organized army. They were attached to an Army or Corps as needed and temporarily. 20 of the 37 Pioneer Infantry Regiments were made up of African-American troops.
There has been much discussion of the meaning of the word “Pioneer” in the designation of Pioneer Infantry regiments. Here are some possible definitions:
The word “pionnier” in French has been used for foot soldier. It is possible that the Pioneer Infantry has its roots in the Corps of Artificers during the Revolutionary War.
There has been some speculation that the name “Pioneers” was a code name for this type of combat engineering troops.
The word Pioneer signifies path-finder or marker of the way. From this it would be easily inferred that Pioneer Infantry is that arm of the service that marks and prepares the way, so as to help the Infantry win battles.A Guide to the U.S. Pioneer Infantry Regiments in World War I
Tom Gallagher assigned to 805th
Tom had graduated with the first class of new officers in September 1917, and had been stationed at Camp Funston since then. On July 27, 1918, Tom was promoted from 2nd to 1st Lieutenant.
On August 10, Tom Gallagher received orders. He was attached to the 805th Pioneer Infantry.
There were 14 companies, each with about 340 enlisted men and 6 officers. Tom was in Company L. Here’s the list of officers for Company L:
Mobilization for Europe
On Saturday, August 24, a tip from the Union Pacific freight agent mentioned that trains were being prepared to move the 805th. Rumors were flying.
Orders came the next day. The regiment was to proceed to Camp Upton, New York without delay.
Telegrams were sent to those on leave: “Return at once.” Telephone calls were made to officers who were in Manhattan and Junction City. All through the night of August 25, they came hurrying back.
The first train left Monday night, August 26. Company L would embark the following day.
At 11:45 P.M. the men entrained at Camp Funston, Kan. They traveled four days, within which time they crossed seven states. To the majority the journey was an education in itself. Many had not seen the numerous manufacturing cities of the East, the industrial centers of the United States. The activities around the large and spacious harbor of New York had a marked effect in impressing them with the great foreign commerce of their country.
On the night of August 31, at 11:00 P.M., the company arrived at Camp Upton, N.Y.
The next day all the men were fitted out with new clothing and fully equipped for overseas service.Victory – History of the 805th Pioneer Infantry
Surprisingly, the company received orders to board trains the next morning at 3 am. Why would they leave New York harbor by train? What new surprise lay in store? They had been ordered to ports in Canada where there was capacity on ships ready to depart for Europe. They traveled throughout the day and arrived at Quebec, Canada at 11 am on September 3.
The troops marched to the ships dock and boarded the British transport ship HMT Orita. At 10 pm September 3, the Orita left the dock and headed down the St. Lawrence towards the Atlantic. It didn’t take long for seasickness to spread throughout. Men lying on deck and in the ship’s hold, unable to do anything. After four days, the sickness abated.
From many ports there now gathered a great convoy of camouflaged shipping. The number reached 22 during the night of September 9-10, and a four-funneled British destroyer took post at the same time at the left corner.
Portholes were closed at dusk, and no smoking outside was permitted after dark. Silence on decks was also prescribed after dusk.
Land was in sight on the 16th, and the convoy soon entered the Mersey and headed for Liverpool.Victory – History of the 805th Pioneer Infantry
We did not tarry in Liverpool. In making up the trains to carry the troops, the company was split into two sections. Lieut. Gallagher, in command of the first, proceeded to Southampton and marched his section to a rest camp about three miles from the dock, only to receive orders to feed the men and march back to the docks. We were thankful that they told us it was a “Rest Camp,” for otherwise we would not have known it.
During the march of the first section to and from the rest camp, the men were looked upon with wonder by the inhabitants. They had not seen this type of American troops in such large numbers. At every opportunity they engaged in conversation with the men.
At 6:00 P.M. the company received orders to embark upon the British transport, St. George. The St. George sailed at 8:00 P.M. and, after an uneventful voyage across the English Channel, docked at Le Havre at 5:00 A.M., the 18th.Victory – History of the 805th Pioneer Infantry
The 805th was in France, arriving in the early morning of Wednesday, September 18, 1918. They immediately received orders for the front, and loaded into box cars for the journey to Rolampont, arriving on September 20. The men had been traveling since August 27, on the move every day and night.
Rolampont was a troop staging area, with tens of thousands of troops waiting to be sent to the front lines 75 miles to the north. The 805th pitched their pup tents on a mud flat outside of town. They began advanced training in gas warfare and bayonet combat.
Here influenza struck, disabling dozens. But all returned to duty in the following weeks.
In just a few days, on September 25, the biggest battle in American history would begin – the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne. The 805th Pioneer Infantry would be part of it.
- Quotations about 805th Pioneer Infantry and Company L – Victory – History of the 805th Pioneer Infantry, American Expeditionary Forces – Major Paul Bliss – 1919 – https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044088018890&view=1up&seq=1
- Quotations – Pioneer Infantry regiments – A Guide to the US Pioneer Infantry Regiments in WW1 – Margaret M. McMahon – 2018 – https://aweekofgenealogy.com/book-a-guide-to-the-u-s-pioneer-infantry-regiments-in-wwi/
- Newspaper articles – The Junction City Daily Union – various dates – newspapers.com
- Image – 2nd Platoon, Company L, 806th Pioneer Infantry – National World War I Memorial and Museum – https://theworldwar.pastperfectonline.com/Photo/B233D89A-C99D-4238-9777-773818484923
- Image – Black soldiers with tools – U.S. Army – https://www.army.mil/article/199913/african_american_wwi_harlem_hell_fighters_proved_their_mettle_patriotism_in_combat
- Image – Lt. Thomas P. Gallagher – Teply Family Documents
- Photo of US Soldiers embarking to ship – http://www.kumc.edu/wwi/index-of-essays/american-military-operations-and-casualties.html
- Photo of Troop Train Soldiers – Photo by George L. Beam. (Photo courtesy of Denver Public Library Western History/Genealogy Dept.)
- Image – HMT Orita – Pacific Steam Navigation Company – http://www.simplonpc.co.uk/PSNC2.html#anchor372054
- Image – A British convoy steering a zigzag course in a danger zone – Imperial War Museums – http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196492
- Map – Le Havre to Rolampont – adapted from map by LtCol R. L. Cody, USMC (Ret), in Reducing the St. Mihiel Salient – by Colonel Walter G. Ford, USMC (Ret) – https://permanent.access.gpo.gov/gpo90281/Reducing_the_Saint-Mihiel_Salient.pdf
- Video – Training Black Troops – Training of Colored Troops – 111-H-1211.pdf – https://catalog.archives.gov/id/24716?objectPage=11
- Video – Arrival in Liverpool and march to rest camp – BASE SECTION NO. 5 (BREST), TROOP ARRIVAL AND REST CAMP SCENES  – 111-H-1342.pdf – https://catalog.archives.gov/id/24845?objectPage=15
- Video – Entrain from Le Havre to Rolampont – BASE SECTION NO. 5 (BREST), TROOP ARRIVAL AND REST CAMP SCENES  – 111-H-1342.pdf – https://catalog.archives.gov/id/24845?objectPage=15
I have never heard of the Pioneer Infantry. Very interesting. The videos are great. Thanks Mark.
Thanks Brenda. I hadn’t heard of Pioneer Infantry either. Tom G had a unique and interesting military service.
So much about World War I that I don’t know. Thanks, Mark.
Thanks Debbie, as always. Agreed, so much to learn. The Pioneer Infantry history is most interesting.