West Virginia Veterans Memorial

West Virginia
Veterans Memorial


Lewis Alexander Holley

"Whether on the battlefield, in hospital or cantonment, at home or abroad, these have laid down their lives in the service of their country, for which they gave their last full measure of devotion."

from the July 4, 1919, Memorial Program for Martinsburg, Berkeley County, West Virginia

Lewis Alexander Holley was born on December 17, 1894, at Hedgesville, Berkeley County, West Virginia, to parents Amos and Sarah Elizabeth Berryman Holley, who had been married January 15, 1874, in Berkeley County. This was a second marriage for Amos, who had previously been married to Ann Rebecca Washington Holly [sic] Weaver, according to the Johns/Harden family tree found on Ancestry.com. That marriage had produced three children: George W. Holley (1863-1922), Mary Holley (1867-1890), and John H. Holley (b. 1869).

The 1900 Federal Census shows Amos and Sarah's large family to be living in Opequon, Berkeley County, and consisting of the parents (although Amos is listed as "Harry"), George W., John H., Amanda (1878-1951), Laura E. (1879-1946), Bessie (b. 1883), Lillie (1884-1952), Martha (b. 1886), Charles M. (1889-1963), Annie R. (b. 1890), Florence (married name: Turner, b. 1892), and Lewis D. [sic]. Also living with the family was grandson Auther [sic] Blake. It would be helpful to have 1890 census records to track family members, but of course those have been lost to posterity. The 1910 census shows a much smaller number living with Amos and Sarah as the adult children have moved out and settled on their own. With the parents in 1910 were Charles, Florence, and Louis [sic]. Also in the household were a boarder, Louise Walker, and grandchildren Moon and George Taylor.

When Lewis registered for the draft on June 5, 1917, he stated he was single, and his father and mother were dependent on him. He was at the time a laborer at the Security and Time Company. With many soldiers lacking photos, the draft registration was often the best clue to their physical appearance. Lewis was reported to be of medium height with a "stout" build, having grey eyes and black hair.

World War I draft registration for Lewis Alexander Holley. National Archives and Records Administration

World War I draft registration for Lewis Alexander Holley. National Archives and Records Administration

The year 1918 was to bring about two momentous events in the life of Private Lewis Holley. On July 3, he married Katherine Belle Brown, who was two years his senior. Katherine was an African American schoolteacher from Hedgesville. One month and two days later, Lewis enlisted in the U.S. Army. Assigned to Company B, Service Battalion, 542nd Engineers, he arrived in France on the troop ship USS American on October 1, and by October 4 would be pronounced dead of pneumonia. Most cases of pneumonia in World War I resulted in complications from the "Spanish flu," which was rampant among the troops in 1918. It seems reasonable to infer that Lewis contracted this malady during the voyage to France on a crowded troop ship. He died in the Naval Base Hospital #65 near Brest, France. 

The 542nd Engineers Service Battalion was mobilized at Camp Humphreys (near Washington, D.C.) in August 1918. The Battalion embarked from Hoboken, New Jersey, headed for France. After its service in World War I, the unit demobilized in June of 1919 at Camp Dix via Camp Upton. ("542 Engrs Serv Bn," Black Soldiers Mattered, accessed 26 October 2021, https://www.blacksoldiersmattered.com/unit?id=542%20Engrs%20Serv%20Bn.)

While the talents of African American soldiers were fully utilized during the war, their efforts were not rewarded with the same recognition as their white counterparts. African American soldiers fought hard to get the credit they deserved, but it would take another world war and then some to get equal footing. According to one source,

Since the first Africans were brought as slaves to the British colony of Jamestown, Va. in 1619, blacks had suffered oppression in the United States first under the American slavery system, and then under the rigid practices of segregation and discrimination that were codified under the "Jim Crow Laws." With the entry of the United States into the Great War in 1917, African Americans were eager to show their patriotism in hopes of being recognized as full citizens. After the declaration of war, more than 20,000 blacks enlisted in the military, and the numbers increased when the Selective Service Act was enacted in May 1917. It was documented on July 5, 1917 that over 700,000 African Americans had registered for military service. However, they were barred from the Marines and served only in menial roles in the Navy. Blacks were able to serve in all branches of the Army except for the aviation units.

The government made no provision for military training of black officers and soon created segregated training camps for that purpose. Disheartened, blacks protested against this discriminatory practice. Despite the outcry, Fort Des Moines in Iowa became one of the segregated camps and in October 1917 over 600 blacks were commissioned at the camp as captains and lieutenants.

African-American soldiers provided much support overseas to the European Allies. Those in black units who served as laborers, stevedores and in engineer service battalions were the first to arrive in France in 1917, and in early 1918, the 369th United States Infantry, a regiment of African-American combat troops, arrived to help the French Army. Earning the reputation from the Germans as "Hell Fighters," the 369th was nicknamed the "Harlem Hell Fighters" because the regiment "never lost a man through capture, lost a trench or a foot of ground to the enemy." The 369th was also the first to reach the Rhine River and provided the longest service of any regiment in a foreign army. They fought in the trenches for 191 days and the entire regiment received the Croix de Guerre medal for their actions at Maison-en-Champagne. ("African American Participation in World War I," Delaware Historical & Cultural Affairs, accessed 26 October 2021, https://history.delaware.gov/world-war-i/african-americans-ww1/.)

Pvt. Holley was first buried in the American Cemetery at Lambezellac, France, northwest of Brest on October 7. On June 20, he was moved to another site in the Lambezellac cemetery. Finally, on October 25, 1921, he was moved to the American Cemetery in Oise-Aisne.
Entrance to the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery. American Battle Monuments Commission

Entrance to the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery. American Battle Monuments Commission

According to Constance Potter, writing in Prologue Magazine, a publication of the National Archives,

Holley's burial was not typical. Because Lewis Holley was a noncombatant and died on a naval base rather than in a combat zone, he was buried within four days of his death in an American cemetery. When the GRS first reburied the body on October 25, 1921, they found it buried in a pine box but under a cross marked "Paul Schur." The identification tag on the body, however, identified it as Lewis A. Holley. When the GRS moved Holley's remains the final time, the unit found the correct identification disc on both his body and grave marker. The GRS also found a reburial bottle in the coffin that gave Holley's name, service number, rank, and unit. Because the bodies were usually "badly decomposed, features unrecognizable," the examination report included detailed dental records. ("World War I Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimages, Part I," 31:2[Summer 1999], accessed 19 October 2021, https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1999/summer/gold-star-mothers-1.html.)

Despite the brevity of their marriage, Katherine Brown Holley was determined to keep the memory of her husband alive. They had one child together - Louise Elizabeth - a daughter Lewis would never get to know. When families were given the choice of bringing home the remains of their loved ones or leaving them in an American cemetery in Europe, Katherine first opted that she wanted her husband's remains to be returned to Berkeley County. However, without explanation, in a letter of April 20, 1920, to the Graves Registration Service, she indicated she wanted them to be left in France. According to Potter, "Some families who originally asked that the body be brought back to the United States changed their minds when they received pictures of the graves of their sons or husbands and realized that they could visit the grave." And thus was born the Gold Star Mothers' Association, which advocated tirelessly during the next decade for pilgrimages to the World War I cemeteries.

Katherine Holley's trip to France as part of the Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimages provides several interesting perspectives on that endeavor. In 1929, Congress enacted legislation authorizing these journeys for mothers and widows of American military members buried overseas. It's important to note that only one family member could undertake the pilgrimage, and mothers had precedence over widows. Fathers, despite a strong familial bond, were not included at all. Katherine requested that her daughter, born April 10, 1919, be allowed to accompany her. From Capt. A. D. Hughes, she received the following reply: "As the Act of March 2, 1929, does not contain any provision for any member of the family to make the trip except the mother or unmarried widow, nor does it permit the mother or widow being accompanied by any member of the family, it is regretted to have to inform you that while your feelings with regard to taking your little daughter to her father's grave are appreciated, she is not eligible to make the pilgrimage." (Potter, "World War I Gold Star Pilgrimages, Part I.")

So, first of all, only mothers or widows could make the trip, with the mother being given the first opportunity. No fathers, no children. Those making the journey represented a broad spectrum of American society, from farm women to socialites. But another aspect of caste was represented in the travelers: race. According to Potter, "African American women who made the pilgrimage were segregated from the white pilgrims. For example, white women traveled on luxury liners; African American women, in commercial steamers." Because of this segregation, some African American women declined to make the pilgrimage, but Katherine chose to make the visit to her husband's grave. April Smith's novel A Star for Mrs. Blake describes the interactions of a white and an African American traveler on one of the pilgrimages and the empathy that results; whether such an encounter could have taken place is debatable. Nevertheless, the novel describes in some detail the disparity of treatment between the two groups.

Pvt. Lewis A. Holley will be remembered for his willingness to serve his country - at a time his country did not consider him to be a first-class citizen - and his wife's fierce determination to visit his grave at all costs. In Martinsburg, the Marshall-Holley-Mason Post 102 of the American Legion bears his name.

Article prepared by Patricia Richards McClure
October 2021


Lewis Alexander Holley

West Virginia Archives and History welcomes any additional information that can be provided about these veterans, including photographs, family names, letters and other relevant personal history.

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