World War I -- Life Histories/Section 019/John Oliver Ranson
John Oliver Ranson was a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a first lieutenant of the 371st infantry in World War I.
John Oliver Ranson was born on November 29, 1893 in Huntersville, North Carolina. He was one of ten children born to Mr. and Mrs. William Joseph Ranson. From 1913 to 1917, he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he was a member of the YMCA, secretary and treasurer of the Mecklenburg County Club, a social club, and he was on several athletic teams such as the football and track teams. Chapel Hill’s yearbook, The Yakkety Yak, described him as “a good athlete, a jolly good fellow, and one who is universally popular...ninety-nine percent spunk and the other percent determination”.
Preparing for War
Before his graduation date, Ranson left for first officer’s training camp along with several other fourth-year students. He attended officers training camp at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia and was assigned as a white lieutenant to the 371st U.S. infantry, a black infantry. At some point around the beginning of 1918, he returned home momentarily to marry Eugenia Withers on January 7, at the home of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. J. S. Withers.
In the War
On April 5th, 1918, Ranson went overseas and served several months fighting on the Western Front. Ranson’s comrads described him as “always helpful to his men and the officers with whom he was associated” and they said that he “was loved and admired throughout the regiment for his fighting qualities”. On September 27, 1918, during an attempt to take back a German occupied, unidentified town near Ardeuil, France, Lieutenant Ranson was shot in the head and killed. He was 25. Ranson, along with his entire regiment, received the Distinguished Service Cross “for extraordinary heroism in action near Ardeuil, France, September 29, 1918”. The Distinguished Service Cross was introduced during World War I and was the second highest military award one could receive for extreme bravery in a life-risking situation.
Soldiers in North Carolina
In 1917, the situation in Europe was bleak and the Allies hoped that the Doughboys would offer a shift of power in the Allies’ favor. In order to gain so much manpower, President Woodrow Wilson called for the registration of all men in between the ages of 21 and 31 in the draft. In North Carolina, the draft called 40,740 white men and 20,082 African American men into the war. Most white North Carolinians belonged to the 30th Division or the 81st Division, but Ranson was a part of the predominantly African American 93rd Division. Besides those who had been drafted, many other North Carolinians volunteered. North Carolina sent a mixture of drafted and volunteering young men overseas to fight for the United States, totaling 86,457 men.
African Americans in the War
African Americans quickly signed up to fight for the United States, upon its entry into the war. Within a week of Wilson’s declaration of war, The United States Department of War began to refuse African American volunteers because their quotas for African Americans were filled. African Americans were segregated from other infantries because of racial discrimination and tension between the two races. Although allowed to participate in the war, most African Americans never saw the line of battle. Instead, they were required to serve the war in a secondary fashion providing resources for the war. Others were turned away after the United States had filled their quota. Despite this discrimination, many people pressed against these ideas and argued that African Americans should be allowed more leadership opportunities in the war effort. The United States Department of War also felt that soldiers would more often follow orders from commanding officers of same color. The government responded to these concerns by allowing select African Americans to lead infantries.
The 371st Infantry
Although white himself, Ranson was a lieutenant for the 371st Infantry, one of the four infantries of the 93rd Division which were all primarily African American. Because it was rare for African Americans to be allowed to act in roles of authority in the army, commanding officers of African American units were usually white. The 371st infantry, once arriving in France was put under French control and fought with French men on the front. Under French command, the regiment excelled. French commanders did not focus as much on race as United State commanders did and allowed the soldiers coveted combat positions. Because of this, members of the 371st infantry were among the few African Americans to be able to participate in the war by fighting on the front.
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- "LT. J. O. Ranson Dead in France." The Charlotte News 21 Oct. 1918: 11. Print.
- Thompson, B. S. Letter to Eugenia Withers. 10 Oct. 1918. MS. France
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