Wayne Miner, son of slaves, ‘died a hero’ on the last day of World War I

The Star set out to tell the stories of 10 hometown heroes. Here is one of them.

With bombs exploding and the smell of mustard gas in the air, the lieutenant shouted for volunteers.

A machine gun outpost needed ammo, and somebody had to take it to them.

The day was special: Nov. 11, 1918. High ground in France. American soldiers who lived to 11 a.m. — the cease-fire was set for the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — would survive the final day of the war to end all wars.

In other words, it was a morning to keep your head down.

But for now, that machine gun needed ammo. The lieutenant’s request for somebody to take it to them drew no takers. He cast a glare toward the men and was fixing to go to his “lottery” system, when one man stepped forward.

He was Wayne Miner, 24, a son of slaves. His wife, Belle, waited back home in Kansas City.

The lieutenant, William H. Clark, wrote 45 years later that he got a lump in his throat at that moment. Miner had gone out on every patrol since the company arrived. Clark didn’t want to use him for this one, likely the last one.

Miner was a fine man, a good man, courageous, well liked and much respected by everyone in the outfit. All reasons he stepped forward.

“I never saw Wayne Miner again,” Clark wrote.

Ask people in Kansas City about Wayne Miner and you’re likely to get, “Housing project? Yeah, it used to be down on 11th and Woodland until they blew it up.”

True. Wayne Miner Court, a public housing complex of five high-rise buildings to serve low-income families, opened in 1962 in the optimism of America’s new frontier.

Drugs, crime and violence brought it all down in 1987.

Anyway, that’s how most people answer the question about Wayne Miner.

Then there’s a few like Joelouis Mattox. He’s a local historian who takes great interest in the role of African-Americans in the country’s military. So when the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial opened in 2006, he was among the large crowd at the ceremony.

He wanted to see how the place paid tribute to the service and sacrifice of black soldiers who served in a war that took place a half-century before the civil rights movement.

He heard a lot that day. Bands, speeches, prayers. Stirring tributes to good men who served and died in that war.

“But I never heard anything about Wayne Miner,” Mattox said recently. “He died three hours before the war ended — died a hero, paid the ultimate sacrifice, might have been the last American to die in World War I — and nobody said his name that day.”

So Mattox wrote a piece called “Raising Private Miner: Elevating the Rank of the Great War’s Last Fallen.”

Mattox had always thought it odd that the first American officer to die in the war and perhaps the last soldier both lived in Kansas City. Bookends to the Great War, he calls it.

The officer was First Lt. William T. Fitzsimons, a doctor who died Sept. 4, 1917, during a German air raid on a base hospital in France.

It’s impossible to know if Miner was the last soldier killed, given the furious fighting in the closing hours as both sides sought to move the line. The bigger question is why Miner volunteered on a day when the clocked ticked to survival.

Mattox has his idea.

“His parents had been slaves and they believed Lincoln set them free,” Mattox said. “I think he (the son) wanted to do one more thing for his country.”

Not a whole lot is known about Wayne Miner.

According to Mattox, he was born in August 1894 in Henry County, Missouri, to Ned and Emily Miner, who likely worked as farmhands.

According to military records, he and Belle lived at 571 Troost Ave. in Kansas City.

Late in 1917, Miner became part of the Army’s 92nd Division, which was formed in Camp Funston at Fort Riley, Kan., and made up mostly of “colored draftees,” according to the division’s summary of operations.

African-Americans also made up another division, the 93rd, but it brigaded with French forces while the 92nd was formed as a complete division fighting solely under American command, and wearing the insignia on their sleeves that would forever make them the “Buffalo Soldiers.”

Upon arrival in France, the division deployed to the front lines in August 1918. It would participate in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the last major engagement of the war.

On a recent day, Ron Magee, a volunteer at the World War I museum, laid out a battle map showing the last day’s action.

Two American companies attacked Bouxieres and reached the edge of the French town, but machine gun fire forced them back. A second attempt to take the town also ended with the Americans being forced back into the woods.

Clark commanded the foremost advancing units, two platoons made up of 124 soldiers, including Miner. An order came for volunteers to take ammo to the machine gun outpost. No takers.

“I told the boys they were letting me down and I would use the lottery system,” Clark wrote.

Miner stepped forward. The moment reminded Clark of a time a month earlier when Miner had volunteered for a similar mission. That one so pleased top brass that a brigadier general personally praised those involved.

The general wrote a letter of commendation for the men.

“It was my most prized possession until I lost it going through a delousing plant,” Clark wrote.

Now he had to send men out again on the final day of the war. Miner was soon joined by three others. They headed out over over rough terrain, rifles slung across their backs, lugging the ammo, essentially becoming pack horses.

Clark was hospitalized when he got word that Miner had been killed by a shrapnel burst.

“I recommended him for the Distinguished Service Cross,” Clark said. “But somehow, my captain through who it was sent never received it, and a brave sacrificing and deserving soldier did not receive his just reward, even posthumously.”

A year later, on Sept. 29, 1919, American Legion Post 149 in Kansas City was organized and named in honor of Miner, becoming one of first “Negro” posts in the country.

Nearly a century later, the Wayne Miner post has 115 members.

“Everybody knows that story,” post commander Sidney Malone said of Miner’s act on the war’s last day. “We are very proud of him and proud of that history.”

Historians say that after the war, some African-American soldiers, particularly those with the 93rd Division who served with the French, wanted to stay in France, where they were treated with respect and dignity. Back in America, they faced segregation, racism and Jim Crow laws.

So some stayed. Wayne Miner is there, too. He’s in St. Mihiel American Cemetery, plot B, row 14, grave 17.

The son of American slaves, he volunteered for his country when others wouldn’t and died on the last day of the war to end all wars.

Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182

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