WATERLOO - In the fall of 1918, an American soldier who would have lasting impact on the youth of Waterloo participated in one of the decisive battles of World War I.
That soldier's and his unit's heroism was recently rediscovered by the granddaughter of one of the youths he mentored.
In September 1918, James Lincoln Page, a 28-year-old first sergeant with 10 years of experience in the Illinois National Guard, was serving in the all African-American 370th Infantry Regiment, which participated in a five-day assault on the heavily fortified German position of Mont de Signes. Page was apparently assigned to a machine gun company. One of the regiment's platoons captured part of the German fortifications, turned the enemy's own guns on them and then held it for 36 hours without food or water until re-enforcements arrived.
One-fifth of Page's comrades in the 370th were killed or wounded in combat. In one instance, a single German artillery shell killed or wounded 80 soldiers of the 370th as they stood in a mess line, on Nov. 3, just eight days before the war was to come to an end.
The Germans called the 370th "the Black Devils" for their fierceness. The French sarcastically called them "the Partridges" for their proud demeanor. Though segregated from white U.S. troops, their officers were generally respected by their French and English allies.
Page was discharged from the military in July 1919. His commanding officer,
After the war, Page, a native Kentuckian, came to Waterloo, and imparted the lessons he learned about the military, about war, and about character on a whole generation of young people.
Page served as the mechanical engineer at the Strand and Paramount theaters downtown for 45 years. He also organized the first troops of African-American Boy Scouts in the city. He was cited by President Herbert Hoover for his work and produced, according to many historical and local accounts, the first black Eagle Scout in the United States, Edgar V. Cunningham. He received his Eagle award on June 8, 1926.
Cunningham's granddaughter, Carla McDonald, has been striving for three years to obtain official documentation of her grandfather's achievement. In the course of her research, she unearthed historical information on the service record of his mentor, Page, and his unit from the U.S. Army Historical Foundation, records at the Black Hawk County Courthouse and a 1919 history, "The American Negro in the World War," by Emmett J. Scott, special adjutant to then-Secretary of War Newton D. Baker.
"My grandfather wouldn't have done it without him," McDonald said of Page. "He was the inspiration. I'm so happy I found it.
"It's an inspiration to me," McDonald said, and gives her hope that her research on her grandfather also will bear fruit. While national Scouting records do not indicate the race of Eagle recipients, she's pursuing documentation through the President Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation in Plymouth Notch, Vt., and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, of which her grandfather was a member.
James Lincoln Page died in 1986 at age 96. Both he and Edgar Cunningham, who died in 1980, have received posthumous recognition from former Gov. Tom Vilsack, the local Winnebago Council of Boy Scouts and the city of Waterloo.
Edgar Cunningham's son, the late Walter Cunningham, became a respected Waterloo educator for whom the Walter Cunningham School for Excellence is named. James Lincoln Page's stepdaughter is Beverly Smith, a current Waterloo Schools administrator and former member of the Iowa Board of Regents.
Contact Pat Kinney at (319) 291-1484 or Pat.Kinney@wcfcourier.com.