Tape, Cassette, interview with Robert L. Sweeney, African American veteran in World War I with the 317th Sanitation Train, 92nd Division in France, concerning his experiences overseas as a supply clerk. 2 tapes interviewed with William Knox; sides 2 and 3 relate to Mr. Sweeney. Interview has been transcribed. Interviewed by Mark Beveridge, curator, and Elizabeth Pessek, Archivist, May 23, 1980 at the Liberty Memorial. Tapes have 30 minutes each side. Side three of the tapes relates to Mr. Knox (1980.117.0) and Mr. Sweeney's post war years in Kansas City.
From the service of Robert L. Sweeney, Headquarters Company, 317th Sanitation Train, 92nd Division, AEF.
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW OF 5/23/80 WITH ROBERT SWEENEY
Pessek: What is your name please?
Sweeney: My name is Robert L. Sweeney.
Pessek: Where do you live now Mr. Sweeney?
Sweeney: I live at 2821 Highland, Kansas City, Missouri, 64109.
Pessek: How long have you lived in Kansas City?
Sweeney: I've lived in Kansas City since 1920.
Pessek: You moved here from?
Sweeney: St. Joseph, Missouri.
Pessek: That's where you were born and raised?
Sweeney: Born in Highland, Doniphan County, Kansas.
Pessek: And you moved to St. Joseph from there?
Sweeney: After I finished high school in Highland, Kansas I came to St. Joseph and went to work for Dr. W.J. McGill.
Pessek: What kind of work did you do?
Sweeney: I was a chauffeur for Dr. W.J. McGill.
Pessek: And what about your parents, what did you parents do?
Sweeney: My father was a horse and mule buyer in Kansas . And to go back a little further, my grandfather bought his way out of slavery. He had worked for Polly Swinney in Bethel County, Kentucky. Slave buyers came by and wanted to buy my grandfather and she said she didn't raise niggers to sell and she gave my grandfather an opportunity to - after he got through with his work on the plantation - to cut bluegrass seed, work in the cotton field, to cut and shock corn, and to cut cordwood, and she saved up pretty close to a thousand dollars, because she had been offered $1,600 for him. That was the going price for a slave. But before he had a chance to buy his way out of slavery the war ceased, and she gave that money to my grandfather.He used it to buy a team, and he built, he and some other slaves whom had been freed, built the first schoolhouse in Bethel at that time for Negroes.
Pessek: Did he move eventually to Kansas?
Sweeney: I'm talking about my grandfather.
Sweeney: My grandfather, Bill Sweeney, and his son (my father's name was Robert) came from Kentucky to Highland, Kansas and worked for a man by the name of Robert L. Stone, and the Stones were in the horse and mule business. They gave my father an opportunity to work around, and where they knew that he had mule sense, they had a place down in Missouri where they kept a group of mules. They had got out, a hundred some mules, broke out, and they had rounded them all up and got them all back. So my father said you've gotten them all back except one gray mule. So they said anybody that's got that kind of sense we're going to give you a chance to buy horses and mules and that's when he got into the business.
Pessek: How old were you when you moved to St. Joseph?
Sweeney: I had finished high school - 17 years old.
Pessek: And what year was that?
Sweeney: I finished high school in 1912.
Pessek: And what year were you born?
Sweeney: I was born November 14, 1895.
Pessek: How long were you in St. Joseph?
Sweeney: I worked for Dr. McGill seven years. I went to the Army from Dr. McGill's home.
Pessek: Were you driving an automobile?
Sweeney: I was driving an automobile.
Pessek: How did you learn to drive?
Sweeney: I learned to drive a Ford car in Highland, Kansas. Model T Ford.
Pessek: What kind of car did the doctor have?
Sweeney: He had a 1912 Cadillac.
Pessek: How did you go about getting into the service and what year did you enter?
Sweeney: After the war had been going on for some time there were about 25 persons who were sent to the Army under Homer Roberts.He got the group of men together. Bill Knox was one of the men who was in that group. He picked, I don't know exactly, Bill knows the amount of men, I'll say from 18 to 20 men. Top Negro men that were chauffeurs in - worked in the post office and various other places - and they went into the Signal Corps under Lt. Homer Roberts. They formed the group, and he took them to Camp Funston, Kansas. And that's where Homer Roberts got his commission. Several of them went into the ambulance company, some went into field hospitals. I went into the 317th Sanitary Train, in one of the field hospital companies. I didn't go with this group because of Homer Roberts. I went at a later date.
Pessek: What date did you actually go into the service?
Sweeney: I think it was April. I think it was about the time we shipped out- I think I went in April the 17th, 1918. I went from Dr. McGill's house.
Pessek: And did you also train at Camp Funston?
Sweeney: Yes, I went up later than Bill. This group went up, and I was there around the headquarters company about four or five days or so and I was soldiering with Bill's company and going out on hikes with them. Then Lt. Col. David B. Downing wanted to send me home because I hadn't joined the Army yet. I didn't go home, and talked with Colonel Cole. He immediately inducted me into the U.S. Army. There were physicians and surgeons. That was one of the prerequisites for them to be an officer in the Sanitary Train or the Ambulance Company. And we took training before we went to the Front. We had to learn about a compound fracture.
Pessek: Even as an ambulance driver?
Sweeney: Well, in field hospitals too, because one field hospital man is worth 18 men on the Front, because you can save the man. We had to learn how to use tetanus - how to inject a man, make a tourniquet, keep a man from bleeding. So we had some training in the medical field, because all of our officers were doctors. And I think that is a very important part about that, because of course they had to be doctors to be in the ambulance company or field hospital. And the ambulance company or field hospital was .... the field hospital was a hospital and the ambulance company evacuated the men back to the field hospital.
Pessek: Was the field hospital moved around?
Sweeney: As we left from front to front. Everything in the 92nd Division was mobile.
Pessek: Was the hospital usually set up in a permanent building, like using an old church or was it a tent?
Sweeney: Well, they had to improvise- it varied.
Pessek: And then you shipped over to France in the same ship as Mr. Knox?
Sweeney: I shipped over to France; I believe we went over in June of 1918 on the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific -two sister ships from the Pacific Ocean. They sailed side by side, and we went over in seven days from New York.
Pessek: Was that a convoy?
Sweeney: We had a convoy at first and went out first with destroyers, but about a day out of New York we were on our own. Our ships were two fast ships. We crossed in seven days.
Pessek: Did you have any signs of submarines?
Sweeney: Yes, we had warnings because I remember the fellows who were on command of the guns - they were saying I wish that submarine would show up his head. They turned those guns loose - they thought they saw a submarine. We had two very fast ships. We landed in Brest, France.
Pessek: So they didn't bother going in the slow convoys?
Sweeney: No, we didn't go in the slow convoys.
Pessek: Do you know if you zig-zagged - changed course?
Sweeney: Yes, I couldn't tell what the pilot was doing, but it was said the Captain in our crow's nest - he never left that crows nest from the time we left the port in New York City.
Pessek: Did you have to wear your life jackets throughout the voyage?
Pessek: Did you have any lifeboat drills?
Sweeney: Yes, we had lifeboat drills. We had a good time going over; we had quite a time going over there. Of course, Bill was a gambler. I was trying to make me some money and I remember they issued us some oranges and things like that and I bought up those oranges and sold them to some of the boys gambling and then I got in with the chef. But I could always make me some money.
Pessek: Do you know how many soldiers were on the ship?
Sweeney: I don't know how many soldiers there were, but on our ship we had four hospital companies, ambulance companies, headquarters' companies and whatever companies were on there a soldier wouldn't know, but our ship was loaded. It was a large ship.
Pessek: Was your equipment on there too?
Sweeney: I am quite sure our equipment was loaded on there.
Pessek: Was it all black soldiers?
Sweeney: It was all black soldiers. The 92nd Division was made up of 33,300 men. The 92nd when it was organized, I'm speaking of the officers, Colonel Young should have been the General of the 92nd Division, but at that time prejudice was so widespread and so deep, notwithstanding the fact that Colonel Young had ridden a horse from his home to Washington, D.C., they wouldn't let him be General of the 92nd Division. He was a half-colonel and one of the first negroes who graduated out of West Point. Another beautiful thing about the 92nd Division, before a man became an officer in our outfit he had to be a medical man and we had a training company - one of the first training corps set up for Negroes - that was in Des Moines, Iowa. An officers' training camp was set up there but young Negro doctors who wanted to go into the Army went up to Des Moines to get their training. And another good thing about our Division was that our Division was made out of a very high caliber type of individual. Notwithstanding the fact that it was made up of former soldiers of the 9th and l0th Cavalry, and the 24th and 25th Infantry, stationed at Fort Arizona.
Pessek: Professional soldiers?
Sweeney: Professional soldiers. We had men in our outfit up to the rank of major. Major Dean was the only Negro major - he was in the divisional headquarters. You asked Mr. Knox a very interesting question about what was our feeling when we got to France. When the French people welcomed us with open arms, that is the only time that I ever realized what a real American soldier was. The French people had no prejudice whatever. Negro soldiers fraternized with the French girls just like the white soldiers did. The only time we had some trouble was when the Wildcat Division from the South came to La Rochelle, and we had some trouble with those white boys from the South, and we had an officer, a doctor named Dynamite Brown. Dynamite Brown called up all those soldiers together - he had a lot of influence - and we almost had some trouble over there but somebody came over from divisional headquarters and quieted it down. But that was the only time we had any trouble with the white soldiers.
Pessek: What was your job when you were in France?
Sweeney: I was assigned to Headquarters Company, 317th Sanitary Train. I checked the records and each one of four ambulance companies in the Sanitary Train had to send their ration report. We would figure up the subsistance in rations that they needed, and that was my duty in the supply department.
Pessek: How often did you move as a unit?
Sweeney: Well, that depended on just how the war was going.We moved several times, but the last time we moved in September, 1918 that's when we moved up to the Argonne Forest - up to a town, and that was before the final drive that broke this war wide open.
Pessek: Before you went into the Argonne- Battle of the Meuse-Argonne- I believe your unit went in with the French unit, didn't it, and relieved them?
Sweeney: Well, we went in with all the divisions- the French, the American divisions, all of them massed up on that front.
Beveridge: Do you remember seeing a lot of French troops in your area?
Sweeney: Yes, the French troops - that's what came in contact with the Negro officers. But, I'll say this about those French Negro officers - they didn't have too much to do with the American Negro. They felt themselves superior to us and I guess they had a right to because the French people gave them that type of feeling because they were officers. I don't know what the ranks were but they were the head of their outfits.
Beveridge: Did you learn French while you were over there?
Sweemey: I learned a little French myself and I could converse with the Madamoiselles quite well. I got along very nicely with them. And that was the only time that I was a full-fledged American citizen because they treated the black soldiers just like they treated the white soldiers. No difference whatever. France is a wonderful country, and they certainly treated the Negro soldier, they had a great respect and admiration for them.
Beveridge: When the Argonne Battle began did you have a feeling that it was gcing to be the last battle of the war? Did you have a feeling that the Germans were about ready to surrender?
Sweeney: I thought when the - I'm talking about that 72 hour barrage- when that 72 hour barrage ended, that looked to me like that was going to be the end of the war. There was a time that I had never seen as many airplanes. The airplanes - the air was just black with airplanes going on over to bomb the Germans - And I can see how the Germans were ready to surrender because there was just a terrific bombardment and that's when the Germans gave up. Bill and I were both in that 72 hour barrage.
Beveridge: What were your impressions of the battlefield - no man's land - the trenches?
Sweeney: When we went up to the - now you've heard about the Argonne Forest, it's the thickest, it is a forest- we occupied the place where the Germans had made beds in trees.It is a thick forest. The Argonne Forest is really a forest. I've never seen anything like it in my life.
Beveridge: Did you ever go down in any of those German trenches.
Sweeney: Yes, the German trenches where they had been living there. Some of them had pianos there, where they had been living for a long time.
Beveridge: Did you notice any of those small gauge railroad tracks?
Sweeney: I didnot come in contact with any of those. But I shall never forget my feelings, because when - now a person says fear doesn't leave you, but when that time comes and you know that if you get knocked off its alright, if not, its alright. You make up your mind that you're going to be victorious or that is gonna be the end of it.
Beveridge: Mr. Knox mentioned that in action his ambulance was damaged by shell fire which knocked a plate off the ambulance. Do you remember were you actually under fire?
Sweeney: I wauldn't know anything about that. Bill's company was altogether different from my company. You see I served all my time in the headquarters company.
Beveridge: Did the headquarters company ever on special occasions ever get into the forward lines?
Sweeney: We got to move up with the lines.We had to supply - we had to keep a certain distance from them because we had to supply the demand.
Beveridge: Do you remember seeing columns of German prisoners coming back from the
Sweeney: Yes, I've seen some German soldiers coming back from the front?
Beveridge: How were they treated by the American soldiers?
Sweeney: They were treated alright. You see when a German soldier gives up then he becomes a comrade. That's when he calls you comrade and he's very meek and submissive because I think thats where that term "comrade" orginated with the German soldier.
Beveridge: Was there a feeling at that time, was there a hatred of the German himself or was it that they were the enemy and you had to fight them?
Sweeney: Well I remember one time when we were in training - you've got to have some training before you go up to the line, the German soldiers would come down to use a place to wash their clothes one time and the next time the Americans would come down. That was what you call a "quiet front". And then some American soldiers came up there and that upset the apple cart and opened up on the German soldiers and but there wasn't any bitter feelings because I remember that time the German soldiers would come down and wash there clothes one time and the American soldiers another time and wouldn't bother anyone.That's what you call a "quiet front".
Beveridge: I had often heard that the 92nd Division was a feared division. The Germans feared the men, because they were black soldiers.
Sweeney: That's right and when they shot at them, they said they'd never come in contact with the black soldiers, they said they'd turn black and they'd just keep on coming. We had an outfit out of New York, 372nd - the Rattlesnake Division - was a very fine group of soldiers.
Beveridge: Was that this insignia here, with the rattlesnake?
Sweeney: Yes, the Rattlesnake Division they were out of New York and they were made up too of former soldiers. I'm trying to think of the man who led them. They had a band up there. They established themselves over there.
Beveridge: Before the Armistice was signed to you remember seeing any famous people
like General Pershing or any of the French commanders?
Sweeney: No, because you take General Pershing and the French commanders. They stayed back in the headquarters, away from the front. Of course Patton wasn't with us- he was in World War Two- but a man like Patton you like the soldier in a man who's fearless. We had one man in our outfit named Dynamite that could inspire men...
Beveridge: He was one of your officers?
Sweeney: Yes, men like to follow an officer of that calibre.He inspires men and you like the soldier in that man. I like the soldiers under Patton because he's my type of soldiers, he was a leader.
Pessek: Regarding Armistice Day, one of the things I was interested in, did it come as a surprise, or had there been rumours that Armistice was going to be signed?
Sweeney: You had what you might call scuttlebutt, but I don't think it got to us that Armistice - it came as a surprise to me.
Pessek: What do you recall of the event?
Sweeney: We were right in the midst of it when the Armistice came and, but that was a great day. That's when we moved back and that was a great celebration with the French.
Pessek: Was that part of the agreement that both sides pull back?
Beveridge: When the Armistice happened at 11:00 that morning, do you recall the
guns stopping, the cannon?
Sweeney:Well, there was a, the news didn't get to all of us at the same time, but yes there was a lull and we realized that that was the end.
Beveridge: Did you move into the Army of Occupation or did you stay in France and participate in cleaning up the battlefields?
Sweeney: No, not the outfit that we were in.
Beveridge: What happened immediately following the Armistice, that you remember, as far as what actions did you take did you pull back?
Sweeney: We pulled back, I'm trying to remember the town we pulled back to from
Beveridge: to La Mons?
Sweeney: We pulled back to a little town and that is the time Bill that we had an
opportunity to visit mostly in southern France because after we'd been on the front we had a chance to visit some places in France.
Beveridge: Do you remember when you were issued your steel helmets and gas masks?
Sweeney: Yes, we were issud those in training, we had to train with gas masks.
Beveridge: Did you get them after went to France, or before you left?
Sweeney: We learned how to use the gas mask before we got into France.
Beveridge: What was it like to wear a World War One gas mask?
Sweeney: You had to learn how to breathe in with it and how to live with it, but after you learned it, it was a very simple thing.It's a matter of survival.
Pessek: Did you ever come under gas attack?
Sweeney: I don't know - I don't think I ever get into that. I was just in Headquarters Company. See Headquarters Company is just a little bit different.
Beveridge: Do you recall your division being called the Buffalo Troops, the Buffalo soldiers at that time?
Sweeney: Oh yes, we were the 92nd Division.
Beveridge: But do you remember a nickname being applied?
Sweeney: The Buffalo, yes. We were very proud of the 92nd Division, because the 92nd Division was one of the first Negro Divisions that was every activated in the United States Army and we were proud of the Buffalo Division.It was a great division. It was made up of - you take the machine gun companies it was made up of a very high calibre type of an individual.I remember 317th Machine Gun Company, there was a school teacher here at Lincoln High School, he was with the machine gun company.And then the company that kept commmunication with....
Beveridge: the field outpost company
Sweeney: They were a very high class of men in the 92nd Division.
Beveridge: There were a lot of other Negro troops in France that were not allowed
to serve together as a division. They were men that ultimately became the 93rd Division and they served with the French. Do you ever remember seeing those men?
Sweeney: No, I never came in contact with them, no. I never came in contact with the 93rd Division. I didn't know anything about them.
Pessek: Did you have a chance while you were in France to ever go on pass or leave? Sweeney: Yes, after I was in there 6 months, in the Headquarters Company when an order comes through I did get a chance to go to Nancy. And an order came through I took advantage of it, and I went to Nancy in southern France and I lived like a king there for about three days. We had a big time there. We lived in the hotel and we had some fun. Well I was with a
bunch of fellows who had been there and we had a room in the hotel. I was with them one time and we were trying to get a room in the hotel, so we took out a 100 franc note and found us a room. Of course money --- in other words, when you go on a trip like this you got so much money, and you've got so much money to spend and you're gonna spend it cause you don't know if this is the last time you're gonna make a trip or not, so you must have a big time. Beveridge: Did your unit have a band?
Sweeney: Oh my lord yes.
Beveridge: Did they play pretty good music?
Sweeney: They played fine music. That's one of the most beautiful sights that anybody has ever seen, I believe you call it guardsmen. That's when all the units - field hospitals, ambulance companies, machine gun companies, the infantry companies - a certain amount of the 92nd Division all assembled at one place and passed in review. That's one of the most beautiful sights to see the American flag unfurled and see those soldiers at that time. That's one of the most impressive things that I remember, and it makes you proud that you are an American citizen. It makes you proud that you serve - not withstanding the fact of all the injustices. Being denied the opportunity of- being in a Jim Crow car, letting the German soldiers eat before we did - but still America is a great country. I felt even at that time, after the war was over, if the was was ever to happen again I would go back and fight again.
Beveridge: Do you feel the experience of the American Negro in World War I, do you think that had a beneficial effect on them ultimately receiving more rights as citizens here back home? Do you think the American people appreciated what the Negro soldiers did in World War I?
Sweeney: I don't think so at that particular time. After Negro soldiers had been discharged out of the Army, some people didn't want them to wear that American uniform. They were treated badly all through the South. Even the Adjutant General and the people who controlled the 92nd Division. When I was discharged, instead of discharging me out of Hqts. 317 Sanitary Train they discharged me out of some kind of labor battalion. That shows on my discharge now. In other words, the American white man did everything to play you down and degrade you and not let you think you had been over there to fight to make the world safe for democracy. They wanted to put you in your place. That came from Washington all the way down. In other words, he's always tried to make me think that I have a certain place. That never bothered me, because I never let it bother me. Notwithstanding the fact that I knew that I've been able to circumvent myself, becuase I've gotten along pretty well, but some other persons haven't done as well as I've done. But that is the attitude of the American white man toward the American Negro. And that condition probably prevails somewhat today.
Pessek: You mentioned you were active in the American Legion, was that an all black chapter?
Sweeney: Yes, Homer Roberts organized the Wayne Minor Post 149. I was a charter member of it and later became a commander of it.I organized the 269 Post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. I became commander of that. I became the Vice Commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Also I became Vice Commander of the American Legion so I've been very active.I remember the time when we got back to the States in 1920 we went to northern Louisiana for a national convention. And I remember I was marching down the South there and some of the white citizens said "What's that Negro doing marching in that Army." I was with a group, and those white boys took up for me and said I had as much right to be there as anybody else. But I've lived all through that. I remember the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans, Louisiana when Negroes couldn't go through the front door of that hotel.
Pessek: That's where the convention was?
Sweeney: That's where the convention was, yes that was where the convention was. That prevailed in Louisiana and that also prevailed right here in Kansas City, Missouri. I can remember when Negroes couldn't go in the front door of the Muelbach Hotel. I remember when Negroes couldn't stay in any hotel. I remember after I came back from the Army when Negroes couldn't eat in any public eating place. I lived all through that era.
Beveridge: If you were able to sit down and talk to the young people that are growing up today who don't remember World War I, is there anything you'd like to tell them about your experience in WWI and what they should probably know about the roll of the American Negro in WWI?
Sweeney: I think they should know it, and our condition that existed at that time. They should be cognisant of the fact we've come a mighty long way. First I think history should be rewritten and Negro history should be a course in school. I think they should give some of the better things the Negro has done. I think they should go back to the time when the Negroes were brought over here in 1620, then bring it on down through the Negro's part in the Revolutionary War; also how Negroes served as slaves and their part in the Civil War, because the tide didn't turn until the Negro slave was freed and the Negro joined the Union Army. I think history should be rewritten about the part that the Negro played in the Reconstruction era. I think it should be emphasized when we had 28 Negro senators in Congress - the United States House of Representatives and Senate. I think we should show that a Negro was elected to the U.S. Senate from Louisiana.He was Lt. Governor of Louisiana and a senator from Louisiana wouldn't- you know before you can be seated the present senator was to take you up and present you to the Senate - but he never took him up to the Senate. His name was Pickney(?). He was never seated as a United States Senator, notwithstanding the fact that
he had served as Lt. Governor and was elected to the U.S. Senate. I think history should show that when the Negro was in the Reconstruction era that every one that was in the Reconstruction era that was elected as a representative was not a Negro. We had some Negroes during the Reconstruction era that had their Ph.D degree.In other words the slave master had sent them to McGill University in Canada and also in England. History hasn't shown what the Negro has done or what the legislation that was passed during the Reconstruction Era.
Beveridge: About World War I specifically though, you feel that the true story of the Negro participation should be told?
Sweeney: It should be told and it should be taught. Just like you here, you don't have anything in here. I remember when this place was dedicated, but no Negro participated in the dedication of this building - they weren't on the program. You don't have any history of Negroes here.
Pessek: From our records, I understand that in the fund raising for the Memorial, black Kansas Citians did have a very active part. They raised money to build this Memorial. Is that correct?
Sweeney: That's very true, but we didn't participate in the ceremony. I think I gave some money to this Liberty Memorial. I believe I did.
Pessek: Do you recall the 10 day campaign in 1919 when they raised the money?
Sweeney: Yes, I remember it, because the American Legion was in it. - We took a very
active part.I was in the parade when they dedicated it because I came up here with a very good friend of mine who later became Recorder of Deeds, William J. Thomas. We were here at this Dedication.
Pessek: Did the 92nd Division bring back any souvenirs?
Sweeney: I still have two brass 75 shell casings. I brought them back from the Army. Pessek: Where were you mustered out?
Sweeney: I was brought back here to Camp Funston, Kansas and came back to Kansas City, Mo. when I was mustered out of the Army. I came back to St. Joseph, Mo. to Dr. McGills' house and I was a guest of the people for whom I had worked.
NOTE: More interview on tape relating to Mr. Sweeney and Mr. Knox' post-war experiences in Kansas City, Mo. Side 4 is music played by Mr. Knox on his banjo.
Sweeney, Robert L.
World War I
Wounds & injuries
317th Sanitary Train
Fort Des Moines, Des Moines, Iowa