Soldier's son to share, seek Maine history of 'colored' battalion

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NORTH YARMOUTH — Although the talk he gives Saturday should prove educational, Dr. James Pratt is also hoping to learn quite a bit himself about the days when his father’s World War II battalion was stationed in New England.

The Germans had sent an operative to Vanceboro during World War I to sabotage an international railroad bridge, according to an article by Candace Kanes published on the Maine Memory Network website. And with war underway again across the Atlantic Ocean, concern about history repeating prompted the Army to send soldiers from Fort Devens in Massachusetts to guard Grand Trunk Railroad crossings across Maine in 1941.

The U.S. was hit that December with the ultimate double whammy: Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, and Germany’s declaration of war.

The 366th Infantry Regiment was one of the few battalions armed, trained and ready to go defend sensitive facilities and infrastructure throughout New England, according to information provided by the North Yarmouth Historical Society.

But that wasn’t the only unique thing about the regiment.

In the days when military segregation still existed, the 366th was composed of African Americans and other non-whites, and called a “colored” battalion.

Pratt’s father, Capt. Charles Pratt, was part of the 366th, whose service in North Yarmouth and other New England communities the Groton, New York, resident will discuss at the North Yarmouth Congregational Church on Saturday, May 17. A $20 chicken pot pie supper is at 5:30 p.m., followed by Pratt’s 7 p.m. presentation, which costs $5.

Pratt, a retired agricultural economist, spoke at Fort Devens last November, and invited several New Englanders, including North Yarmouth Historical Society member Linc Merrill, to attend.

“(Merrill) asked if I’d come to Maine, and I said, ‘sure,'” Pratt said.

The 366th wrapped up its time in Maine by the end of 1942, replaced by military police battalions, Pratt explained. The group was disbanded in Italy in March 1945.

“When they were in Italy, they lost so many soldiers that they weren’t a functional unit anymore,” so the soldiers were distributed into other units, Pratt said.

His father, who was stationed in the Washington County town of Vanceboro, and died in 1989, tended not to discuss his service.

“He did talk about Vanceboro,” Pratt said. “I knew he had been in Italy, and I knew he was in the infantry, but on a family trip to Canada once we came back down through Maine and he stopped in Vanceboro to talk to some people … (at) places he had stayed. He always thought Vanceboro was a great place.”

A visit to Italy unveiled much to Pratt about his father’s service there and the rest of the 366th. He and his family were taken to various sites and were hosted at a banquet.

“The mayor and his staff made speeches, and talked about what these soldiers had done for the village, and the city,” Pratt recalled. “And they knew way more about my father’s service in Italy than I knew, and I was embarrassed.”

The experience prompted Pratt to further research the 366th, an endeavor that’s lasted about four years. On his trip to Maine, he said, he spoke with people who remember the battalion and could shed light on the subject.

Soldiers lived in boxcars at Dunn’s Corner in North Yarmouth, and residents like the Atkins family, which had a farm near the outpost, made friends with the troops, according to Kanes. The soldiers went to dances and a swimming hole, played cards with residents, and attended a bean supper, she added.

Troops were also stationed in Falmouth, where they joined a baseball team and guarded the Presumpscot River Bridge, Kanes said.

But how the soldiers were treated remains a bit of a mystery for Pratt, who said he’s heard accounts in some places of them being welcomed with open arms, and visiting Maine with their families after the war.

But he said he’s also heard stories about the soldiers facing discrimination. He noted, for instance, that the Ku Klux Klan was active in Maine in the 1920s and 1930s.

“It’s extremes on both sides, which is really kind of interesting to me,” Pratt said.

“This is an unresolved issue, as far as I’m concerned,” he added. “I don’t know what the truth is; I’d love to find out. … I’m hoping (residents) will come to the presentation and help me.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.