It was almost 100 years ago to the date that Pvt. Marlin Nance boarded the USS Suwannee from a port in St. Nazaire, France and headed home to his native Alabama. It was July 1919, and the Treaty of Versailles had been signed just one month earlier, formally ending World War I. Marlin Nance had spent the past year overseas defending the United States a year at war, one of 350,000 black troops who served during World War I. But whatever he saw, whatever he felt, remained cloaked in silence. He never discussed his service, and dodged questions about it, according to his widow, Ethel Gardner Nance Butler (1915-2014).
Marlin Nance was one of my great-grandfather’s younger brothers, and one of two of his brothers who served in World War I. The other brother was Mackie Nance. George Nance and Oliver “Bud” Nance registered for the draft, but claimed exemption. My great-grandafther J.E. Nance, apparently, didn’t register for the draft, and the youngest brother, Daniel, was just 12 years old.
Neither Mackie nor Marlin talked about the war, but their service
records have helped uncover bits of this chapter of their lives. Marlin Nance was 21 when he registered for the draft, and listed his older sister Lovie Nance Britt as his next of kin. A part of the 528th Company, he served in a support role, though it’s unclear exactly what the regiment was responsible for doing. On July 9, 1918, they departed from Hoboken, N.J. on the USS Mount Vernon, bound for France.
Uncle Mackie’s service is a little less clear. He was 18 when he registered for the draft, and working on his father’s farm in Coffee County, Ala. After training at Camp Sheridan in Montgomery, Ala., Mackie Nance departed on the USS Logan, though the record didn’t indicate the departure location nor the ship’s destination.
Both Marlin and Mackie returned to Alabama after the war, though Mackie lived in Ohio for a while. Uncle Marlin died in 1943 and Uncle Mackie died in 1969.