WWI Artifacts and Memories: The 805th Pioneer Infantry Bearcats
In May 1917, President Woodrow Wilson directed the organization of eight African American infantry regiments for service in WWI. One of these regiments, the 805th Pioneer Infantry, was raised at Camp Funston, Kansas, and included many Missourians. Nicknamed the “Bearcats,” the regiment arrived in France in September 1918. They were assigned to the Department of Light Railways and Roads, where they built and provided upkeep of roads and railroads behind the front lines. They served in this role, performing admirably, until the end of the war in 1918. The 805th spent the winter of 1918 and 1919 in France, waiting for orders to return to the United States.
After a long winter in France, the spring of 1919 provided a welcome respite, and the minds of the 805th turned toward returning home. In the meantime, athletic programs, including baseball, were instituted to keep the men busy and out of trouble. Almost every company of the 805th fielded a team and played at a baseball diamond located at Château de Châtel-Chéhéry near the Aire River in the Argonne.
In early May of 1919 the regiment was moved to Camp Pontanezen in Brest, France, a staging camp for troops going back to the United States. Here a regimental team was formed, taking the best players from all companies of the 805th that had been playing all spring at Château de Châtel-Chéhéry.
The Bearcat baseball team was the pride of the regiment. Captain George M. Bragan managed the team to an undefeated 10–0 record. The success of the team was no fluke. The team roster included several players who would go on to play professionally in the Negro Leagues.
William P. “Plunk” Drake, born in Sedalia, Missouri, pitched for the top Negro League teams between 1920 and 1927. His nickname, “Plunk,” came from his tendency to pitch inside to batters, hitting those who crowded the plate. Drake played professional baseball from 1915 to 1927, notably with the St. Louis Giants, St. Louis Stars, and Kansas City Monarchs. He went to two World Series with the Monarchs, in 1924 and 1925.
Other players on the 805th Bearcat baseball team included Hugh R. Blackburn from Sweet Springs, Missouri, who played for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1920; and Otto C. “Jay Bird” Ray from Lexington, Missouri. Ray played for the Kansas City Monarchs, the Chicago Giants, the St. Louis Stars, the Cleveland Tate Stars, and the Cleveland Browns.
The Bearcat Bulletin, with a full account of the game between the Bearcats and 803rd Pioneer Infantry, is part of the Missouri History Museum’s World War I Collection, along with other records of the 805th Pioneer Infantry Regiment. To search or collections, click here. The service records of Drake, Blackburn, Ray, and other Missourians are available at the Missouri Secretary of State’s website.
—Patrick Allie, Project Coordinator