Kane County History: The Compelling, Tragic Story of Black WWI Hero Hank Boger
- Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was submitted by Mary Clark Ormond, president of the Aurora Historical Society. All images are courtesy of the Aurora Historical Society.
Henry Hall Boger should have been a star in Aurora history.
The son of a former slave and a free black woman, in the early 1900s he obtained a fine education and embarked on a career as an educator.
Like his older brother, Thomas, who was a prominent physician in Aurora for 50 years, Henry was living proof that, at least in Aurora, one could rise above humble beginnings with grace and speed.
Instead, Henry Boger died in the bloody mud of the Argonne Forest of France, giving his life in the final, furious surge of the Allies, as they drove the German Army back into Germany and forced the armistice that ended the First World War.
He was 31 years old.
Growing up in Aurora, Henry Boger was known as “Hank” to his friends and went through the public schools. He was a football star at East Aurora High School (Class of 1905) and played one year at quarterback.
After graduation, he attended the University of Illinois at Champaign for two years, majoring in agriculture, then later transferred to the University of Wisconsin and again to Ohio State University, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture there in 1916.
He began his career as an educator at the esteemed all-black college, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he was head of the Division of Agricultural Instruction.
History has not revealed to us why he decided to join the Army in 1917, shortly after the U.S. entered World War I. But we do know that after attending the newly-opened officer training school for blacks at Camp Dodge in Des Moines, Iowa, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 15,000-men-strong, all-black 92nd Infantry Division, one of two all-black divisions that served in World War I.
He was assigned to the 365th Infantry, one of the six infantry and five artillery regiments that made up the 92nd.
The 92nd went overseas in July of 1918 and was quickly sent to the front lines, from where it took part in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive that began in September and concluded with the armistice that ended the war on Nov. 11, 1918.
The Aurora Historical Society holds many of Henry Boger’s letters to his family, and they reveal an unvarnished style that was to-the-point about the racial prejudice of the time but still full of pride in what he and his “All Americans” were doing.
“The people everywhere have received us with open arms, and have made us feel like we are men, not half men as our U.S. whites do. We wine and dine at the best with the best and get along fine, except where the U.S. white is — he has brought his ways with him here,” Boger wrote on Sept. 1, 1918. “We are in some trenches built early in the war, by the French – they have changed hands several times, but now they are in the hands of the Black Boys, the ‘All Americans’ and the devil cannot get them from us.”
On Oct. 13 he wrote, “All is O.K. feeling fine — had a very quiet night, except for several air-plane fights overhead. … I can look right into Germany. There is only a river separating us.”
Three days later he described advancing with the artillery. “We have had a hand in several big fights, and boy I cannot begin to tell you how you feel. … The sights were awful, and the taking of a life for the first time, pushing your bayonet in, pulling out and going on to the next. War is truly ____.”
By November his patriotic pride had, if anything, grown. “… Oh how nobly my boys fought, each and every one acted like a seasoned veteran. … my automatics and machine-gun boys are the very best in the world … I am truly proud of my Black Boys, they are 100 percent true blue.”
Although the Germans were weakening and Boger himself predicted that the war would be over in November, and his forces home again by spring, he fought on tirelessly and even asked to be included in an attack planned by another battalion on Nov. 10.
He was last seen leading a borrowed platoon through heavy artillery fire in the woods. His body was later found on German soil by a German army major.
He is buried in France in Plot B, Row 28, Grave 25 of the Saint Mihiel American Cemetery in Thiaucourt.
The Meuse-Argonne Offensive, in which Henry Boger fought and died, was the final effort of the war and succeeded in pushing the German Army back into Germany.
Although the surrender was signed at 5 a.m. Nov. 11, it did not go into effect until 11 a.m. — the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — and thousands of soldiers were killed that morning as the fighting continued. Very likely Henry Boger was among them, making him one of the last Americans to die in the war.
His family learned of his death a month later, in a letter from his captain. The officer explained that a note had been found in his pocket, asking that his father be notified.
About the Aurora Historical Society
In continuous operation since 1906, the Aurora Historical Society is one of the oldest institutions of its kind in the Chicago area. Come tour the 1857 Tanner House, visit changing exhibits at the David L. Pierce Art and History Center or make an appointment to do research at the History Center. aurorahistory.net
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