Brunswick County WWI Vet's Posthumous Awards
As we celebrate the birth of our nation, it seems natural to pay homage to those who sacrificed and fought to create our country and to protect our freedoms. One such man was recently recognized for his efforts during WWI, thanks to efforts from his family and community groups.
The Friends of Fort Caswell Rifle Range and The Brunswick Town Chapter of National Society Daughters of the American Revolution recently received word that Pvt. Robert Bollie Stanley was awarded his Purple Heart posthumously along with additional medals for his sacrifices in the Great War.
When the 365th Infantry embarked in Brest, France, on Feb. 17, 1919, ready to return to their loved ones in the United States, Private Robert B. Stanley was not among them. Instead, he was recovering from a battle in which he was wounded, taken prisoner by the enemy, and suffered the amputation of most of his right leg. He returned to the U.S. over a month later on March 24, 1919, but was not discharged until completing five months of additional recovery.
On Aug. 25, 1919, he returned home with a 95 percent disability classification.
The Great War
Robert Bollie Stanley was born and raised in Shallotte. He was called to duty for World War I on March 29, 1918.
He was one of a total of 25 black men from Brunswick County ordered to report that day. Their destination was Camp Grant in Rockford, Ill.
Very few black Americans served in combat units during WWI, instead serving mostly as laborers. Months after the U.S. entered WWI, the War Department created two divisions, the 92nd "Buffalo Soldiers Division," in honor of Black troops who served in the American West after the Civil War, and the 93rd "Blue Helmets." Both divisions were comprised of primarily black combat units. The soldiers of the 92nd and the 93rd infantry divisions were the first Americans to fight in France.
After arriving in Camp Grant, only three of the draftees from Brunswick County out of the original 25 were chosen for the honor of a combat position in the 92nd Division. Those three men were William Frederick Brooks, William James Gordon and Robert Bollie Stanley. These men began training with Company H, 365th Infantry, 92nd Division in preparation for combat in France. Ultimately, there were a total of seven black men from Brunswick County holding combat positions in the 92nd Division.
The 365th Infantry was scheduled to board the USS Agamemnon at Hoboken, N.J., on June 10, 1918, to travel overseas to France. The 365th Infantry reached Brest, France, on June 19, 1918. They immediately began an eight week period of intensive training in offensive and defensive tactics. In August, they took up positions in the St. Dié sector, where they made their first contact with the enemy.
A journal written by their captain, Raymond Earl Hill, brings the countryside and experiences alive. One entry in August describes Captain Hill’s first experience of shellfire, giving a glimpse into what Pfc. Gordon and Pvt. Stanley were experiencing. (Captain Hill's diary is available online at www.whiningpast.com.)
"I had my first experience of shell fire. It is an experience that one cannot well describe. You hear the boom of the distant gun then the rushing whine and screeching of the shell as it passes, then you wait for the terrific explosion wondering how far beyond you it will strike. It sure causes a weakness in the knees and a funny feeling up your back. The man that says he was not scared at those first shells he heard is either a damn fool or a liar."
On Oct. 9, the 92nd Division relieved the French 68th Division and assumed command of the Marbache Sector. Their mission was to hold the line of the First Army east of Moselle, harassing the enemy by frequent patrols. Until Oct. 31, the division was engaged in patrolling on the front.
On Oct. 29, 1918, Pvt. Robert Bollie Stanley was reported missing. He had been captured by the enemy and was not released until Nov. 27, 1918.
A life resumed with more sacrifices
After the war, Robert married Ethel Harrison. She passed away at a young age, leaving several young children motherless. Robert Stanley ultimately raised five children on his own, including his grandson, Fred “Stan” Stanley, who he adopted and raised like a son.
Two of Pvt. Stanley’s sons served in WWII, one with the U.S. Army and the other in the Navy. Pvt. Stanley's last direct descendant, his youngest child, passed away in 2018. Stan, his grandson, served in the Navy for 20 years, followed by 21 years in the U.S. Merchant Marines, retiring in 2010. He still lives in North Carolina, and filled in more details of his grandfather’s story.
"Dad, which I called him, was a farmer, and I started at 9th grade and had quite an agricultural program until I graduated. That was our joy, planting, growing [raising] pigs, and all the support crops.
"We liked going to Shallotte Point to meet the fishing boats to get fresh seafood,” he said.
In 1961, two weeks after Stan graduated from high school, Robert Stanley suffered a stroke. The 17-year- old Stan delayed his entrance into the Navy to care for the man who had already sacrificed so much. "I was by his bedside to watch him take his last breaths as God took him,” Stan said.
That year, in September, Robert Stanley passed away.
"He never complained even when he was in excruciating pain, and never talked about the War.” Stan recalled.
Robert Bollie Stanley was laid to rest on Sept. 22, 1961, in the same cemetery as his parents. He did not have a military headstone, and no WWI honors were displayed, giving no indication he made such considerable sacrifices for his country.
On May 7, 2019, the Friends of Fort Caswell Rifle Range, along with members of the Brunswick Town Chapter, National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, paid tribute to Pvt. Robert Bollie Stanley, WWI Brunswick County veteran and only known POW.
A flat military style marker was installed and dedicated. It was purchased with funds donated by Allen Dunstan, an out-of-town visitor who was deeply
touched by Pvt. Stanley’s sacrifice. Five of Pvt. Stanley’s descendants, along with two cousins and a friend, attended the ceremony and received the thanks
and recognition for his sacrifice.
It was at this ceremony that Robert Stanley's family mentioned their interest in obtaining a Purple Heart for his service. Pvt. Stanley would have received a Wound Chevron for his combat injuries. The Purple Heart, created by George Washington in 1782, was not officially re-established until 1932. Anyone who was killed or wounded in war since April 5, 1917, became eligible for the new medal.
The Friends of Fort Caswell Rifle Range took up the challenge. Finally, on May 17, 2023, they received word that the long-overdue medals and ribbons were on their way.
They experienced a heart stopping moment when they received notification from USPS tracking that the package had been delivered, but they had not received it. "The thought of Pvt. Stanley's medals and ribbons being lost in transport was too much to bear,” said Norma Lee Eckard, President of Friends of the Caswell Rifle Range.
But, she said, what a joyous moment it was when the box arrived the following day. "We did it!"
The letter detailing the contents included, "We have verified Mr. Stanley's entitlement to the following awards:
- Purple Heart (permanent order and certificate enclosed)
- Prisoner of War Medal
- World War I Victory Medal with St Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne Battle clasps and France Service clasp
- World War I Victory Button - Silver"
On June 17, 2023, the ceremony to deliver the medals and awards to Robert Stanley's family was held at the cemetery where he was laid to rest.
“God has blessed me and allowed me to see and do so much, and even more so, allowed me to witness such an amazing recognition of my grandfather’s sacrifice.”
–Fred “Stan” Stanley; May 7, 2019