John Ray Carter, A Harlem Hellfighter from Kentucky

Story by John Trowbridge, Kentucky National Guard Historian/Archivist

369th-trenches

The 369th in action during “The War to End All Wars.” Note the French helmets worn by the men. (Archive photo)

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Last year marked the beginning of the Centennial Commemoration of the First World War, the Great War, the War to End All Wars, which started in Europe on July 28, 1914. It was not until April 6, 1917, that the United States would enter into the war. America quickly moved to raise, equip, and ship the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) to join the war in Europe. An estimated 95,575 Kentuckians served during the war and 2,418 Kentuckians would become casualties of the Great War.

JRCarter 001

Private John Ray Carter served with the 369th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters.” The 368th was as “The Regiment That Never Lost a Man Captured, a Trench, or a Foot of Ground.” (Archive photo)

One of those Kentuckians who would serve and later become the only black Soldier from Anderson County to die in the First World War was John Ray Carter.  John Ray was the son of John and Laura Carter, born in Frankfort in 1894. At an early age his family moved to Anderson County. John Ray’s two brothers, Sam and Ira would also serve in the war. Sam with the 167th and Ira with the 801st Pioneer Infantry Regiment.

On June 20, 1918, John Ray was inducted into the Army at Anderson County. He was sent to Camp Zachary Taylor in Louisville, where he received his initial military training with the 64th Company, 16th Battalion, of the 159th Depot Brigade. On July 16, 1918, he was transferred to Company A, 801st Pioneer Infantry, and ready to be sent overseas. By mid-August he was in France and immediately transferred to the 369th Infantry.

The 369th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters,” was becoming known as “The Regiment That Never Lost a Man Captured, a Trench, or a Foot of Ground.” The “Hellfighters” were among the first U. S. regiments to arrive in France, formerly the Old 15th Regiment, New York National Guard. It would become one of the most highly decorated American regiments of the war. The 369th was an all-black regiment commanded by mostly white officers, commanded by Col. William Hayward.

On May 8, 1918, General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing relieved the regiment from assignment to the American 185th Infantry Brigade, becoming part of the 16th (French) Division. The men were issued French weapons, French helmets, brown leather belts and pouches, although they continued to wear their U. S. uniforms. The exception was when they went on raids; then, they wore French uniforms.

Harlem2a

“Hell Fighters! Let’s Go!” Meuse-Argonne, September 26-October 1, 1918. The 369th Infantry fought valiantly in the Allied (Champagne) Offensive as part of the French 161st Division. Attacking behind a fiery barrage, the 369th Infantry assaulted successive German trenchlines and captured the town of Ripont. Against determined resistance, the 369th advanced up the heights north of the Dormoise River and spearheaded the attack toward the town of Sechault. On 29 September, the Regiment “. . . stormed powerful enemy positions, . . . took, after heavy fighting, the town of Sechault; captured prisoners and brought back six cannons and a great number of machine guns.” Despite heavy casualties, the 369th, called “Hell Fighters” by the French and Germans, relentlessly continued the attack at dawn. Raked by enemy machine guns, they assaulted into the woods northeast of Sechault, flanking and overwhelming enemy machine gun positions. The “Le’s Go!” elan and indomitable fighting spirit of the 369th Infantry was illustrated throughout the battle action. Their initiative, leadership and gallantry won for their entire Regiment the French Croix de Guerre.

By the time Private Carter joined his new unit, Company I, 369th Infantry Regiment, the regiment had been pulled off the front line to rest and train replacements. Soon however, the regiment found itself back in the fight participating in the Meuse – Argonne Campaign. On September 25, 1918 the 4th French Army went on the offensive in conjunction with the American drive in the Meuse-Argonne. The 369th turned in a good account of itself in heavy fighting, sustaining severe losses. They captured the important village of Sechault. At one point the regiment advanced faster than French troops on their flanks. There was a danger of its being cut off. By the time the regiment pulled back for reorganization, it had advanced fourteen kilometers through severe German resistance.

By mid-October the regiment was moved to a quiet sector in the Vosges Mountains. On October 17, 1918, Private Carter was transferred to Company B, of the 369th. The 369th would remain in the Vosges Mountains sector until November 11, the day of the Armistice. Private John Ray Carter was not part of the victory celebration of the men.

It is difficult to say when or how Private Carter died; officially his cause of death is listed as accidental/not shown. His date of death is listed as on or about October 16, 1918, however his service record indicates that he was transferred to Company B, on October 17, 1918, and there is a letter, written by Private Carter to his father which has the date of October 22, 1918.

Following is John Ray’s final letter home to his father. It arrived in the mail the day after the family had been notified of his death.

Somewhere in France, Oct. 22, 1918.

Mr. John Carter,

            My Dear Father,

            I thought that I would drop you a few lines this leaves me well and hope when this letter come to you it will find you all the same. I wrote to Mamma the other day I don’t know whether she got it or not. When did your hear from Sam, where is he, give my love to all. Where is Ira? Now I want you all to send me some Chocolate candy in my box and tell Mr. Dawrson I have not forgot him, I am looking for something from him. Tell Black Howdy, and my Partner. Did Mamma get my letter, don’t worry about me for I am getting a long all rite I have not seen Sam yet I don’t know where he is. When did you all hear from Georgie, tell Son that I said don’t let them get away.

            Well Papa you all can send me some candy that is all that [I] want. Is Raymond Pleasant still at home and Clide Pleasant. Well news is dull with me now love to all much love to you all and all answer soon –

                                                John R. Carter

 

True_Sons_369th_02426v

Wartime poster of the 396th fighting German soldiers, with the figure of Abraham Lincoln looking down from above.

Within twenty days of writing this letter home, the War to End All Wars was over.

Initially the body of Private Carter was buried in a small church yard in France. In the 1920’s during the efforts by the Allied Governments to recover the remains of their soldiers, Carter’s body was located and his family was notified. The family requested that John Ray be returned home. On December 20, 1921, the body of John Ray Carter was buried in Woodlawn Hills Cemetery in Anderson County, Kentucky. He was buried beneath a persimmon tree growing in the cemetery.

 

Over time John Ray Carter’s sacrifice in the world to end all wars was forgotten. Eventually the local American Legion Post had a monument constructed on the courthouse lawn honoring the county’s war casualties, the bronze table on which John Ray’s name is cast appears as John Roy Carter.

DSC04038In 1997, it was learned by a group of local citizens that John Ray Carter, a soldier of the Great War was buried in an unmarked grave. The old persimmon tree that had once marked his grave had long since died and rotted away, leaving no trace or indication that an American soldier was buried there. Additionally it was determined that the medals he had earned had not been awarded. Efforts were immediately begun to correct these oversights and by June 1998, the grave of Private Carter was marked with a veteran’s headstone and the medals he had earned were formally presented to his family.

About kentuckyguard