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  • Writer's pictureFrank Armiger

Black Stevedores Deployed to France in World War I

By Richard Morain, Volunteer at the Maryland Museum of Military History

As work continues at the Maryland Museum of Military History, the staff has made an exciting discovery. They have found more than 280 photographs from World War I in a cardboard box that once contained perfume bottles. What makes this collection particularly noteworthy is its principal photographer  – a Baltimore resident, Private Daniel Gaines, an African-American soldier of the 301st Stevedore Regiment. Although overlooked in many histories, the stevedores were integral to the Allied victory in World War I.

PVT Gaines behind the wheel in France

The Army organized the stevedores to load and unload supplies for the AEF at the various ports in France, such as Brest, St. Nazaire, Bordeaux, Havre, and Marseilles. Initially, the stevedores in France were civilian employees on a government contract. When their contract expired and France unable to supply the necessary labor force, the Army initially sought to fill the positions with White laborers. This proved difficult as most of these workers were already employed in the United States. Upon seeing a group of civilian African American stevedores unloading the first convoy to arrive in France, General of the Armies John Pershing, the commander of the AEF, was so impressed with their work that he cabled back to Washington, “Send immediately eight hundred (800) more of these stevedores, but as they look and behave as soldiers, make them such.” The Army began to recruit African Americans as stevedores.

The strength of the stevedore regiments (301-303) serving overseas differs according to sources. They consisted of a regimental headquarters, headquarters and supply company, two battalions, and a medical detachment. Each battalion had four companies. Discovering that this structure lacked flexibility due to the varying demands at ports, the Army reorganized the regiments into separate battalions (801-815) in September 1918. Initially part of the Quartermaster Corps, as part of a restructuring of forces, the Army placed the stevedores under the command of the Transportation Corps. Under the TC, the companies were numbered 801-854.

The 301st Stevedore Regiment (Quartermaster Corps) was organized at Camp Hill, Virginia, in September 1917. In October 1917, the regiment moved to its port of embarkation in Hoboken, New Jersey. The 301st conducted operations at the port of St. Nazaire. In October 1918, Rear Admiral Wilson and General McClure cited “A” Company of the 301st for setting a world record by unloading and coaling (refueling) the SS Leviathan in 56 hours. The immensity of the stevedores’ task is demonstrated by the daily average of material off-loaded in September 1918 – 25,588 tons.

Daniel Gaines joined the US Army on September 19, 1917. Assigned as a Private to Company D of the 301 Stevedore Regiment, he shipped to France on June 6, 1918. On October 1, 1918, he was transferred to the 809th Company, 803 Stevedore Battalion, as part of the restructuring of the stevedore regiments. In December 1918, he was transferred to the 809th Transportation Company, attached to the 23rd Engineer Regiment (Road). Initially serving as a stevedore at the port in St. Nazaire,  Private Gaines saw service in Fresne, Combres, Pintheville, Trésauvaux, Hennemont, Saint Mihiel, Chauvincourt, Verdun, St. Hilaire, Marchéville, Puxe, Billy-sous-Mangiennes, Mazeray, Abaucourt, Harville, Vauquouis, Longuyon, Romagne, Saulx, Vienne-le-Château, Montsec, and Brest. He left France on July 7, 1919, returning to the United States aboard the USS Aeolus. Honorably Discharged on July 19, 1919, he returned to his home at 916 Burnetts Courts, Baltimore. Daniel Gaines died on July 13, 1943. He is buried in Baltimore National Cemetery, Baltimore City, Maryland, alongside his wife, Annie Gaines.

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