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|European||Company “D,” 390th Engineer General Service Regiment|
Author’s note: Delaware’s World War II Fallen occasionally highlights men and women without a direct connection to the First State. I felt compelled to tell Technician 5th Grade Stafford’s story after coming across it while doing research for another article.
Early Life & Family
Robert Stafford was born in Newnan, Georgia. Very little is clear about his early life. Even his date of birth and the names of his parents are uncertain. What is known for certain is that Robert had a brother (or stepbrother) named Charlie Stafford, who he listed as a contact on his draft card.
Most likely, Stafford was born around September 10, 1908—although his military records give his date of birth as September 10, 1910. He was the son of Albert and Eula Stafford (née Neals). He probably had two older stepbrothers and a younger brother. According to data recorded at the time Stafford entered the military, his highest level of education was grammar school. Please see the Notes section below for further explanation of the uncertainty surrounding the records about his early life.
By 1933, Stafford had moved to 897 Edgewood Avenue N.E. in Atlanta, Georgia, less than a mile away from where future civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was living. Stafford’s occupation was listed as waiter in a 1933 Atlanta city directory, laborer in a 1934 directory, and back to waiter in 1935. He was living at the same address when he registered for the draft on October 16, 1940. The registrar described him as standing about five feet, eight inches tall and weighing 155 lbs., with black hair and brown eyes. At the time, Stafford was working at the Washington Pool Room at 42 Decatur Street in Atlanta.
Stafford married Gertrude Daniel (1913–1977) in Cobb County, Georgia on July 8, 1941. The couple had one child, Daniel Robert Stafford (1941–2019). The family may have been living at 973 Mayson Turner Avenue N.E. in Atlanta when Stafford entered the service. At any rate, that was listed as his wife and child’s address by October 15, 1942, when he filled out an application for family allowances.
After Stafford was drafted, he joined the U.S. Army at Fort Benning, Georgia, on August 27, 1942. During World War II, the U.S. armed forces were segregated. African American men like Stafford were assigned to predominantly non-combat, all-black units, usually commanded by white officers.
By March 1944, Stafford had been promoted to technician 5th grade and was serving with the Company “D,” 390th Engineer General Service Regiment. In his book, World War II Order of Battle, Shelby L. Stanton stated that the unit’s history began with activation on August 10, 1942, at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, followed by a move to Camp Shanks, New York, in preparation to go overseas. The unit was in New York from May 28, 1943, until June 24, 1943, when the regiment sailed from the New York Port of Embarkation aboard the ocean liner turned troop transport R.M.S. Queen Mary. They arrived in the United Kingdom five days later.
As of March 4, 1944, his unit was stationed at a prisoner of war camp in the vicinity of Rugeley in Staffordshire, England. Based on a document describing it as 1½ miles southwest of Rugeley along the road to Hednesford, this was the Flaxley Green Camp. The men of the regiment may have been maintaining or upgrading the camp’s facilities. Stanton wrote that:
One of the largest and most critical engineer unit categories in World War II was the engineer general service regiment; over 100 serving with 82 still active at the war’s conclusion. […] Their purpose was to perform general construction work behind the front and in forward areas requiring a high percentage of skilled labor.
Stanton added that “They became responsible for general construction of hospitals, camps, depots, shops, and special plants” as well as roads and railroads. One of the other units at the camp was the 425th Military Police Escort Guard Company.
Though the 390th Engineer General Service Regiment was a segregated unit, England was not. In some cases, U.S. military authorities insisted on arrangements (ostensibly to keep the peace) either by permitting servicemen of one race to leave bases on pass only on alternating days or restricting their passes to specific geographic areas, but this was the exception rather than the rule. While stationed in England, when Technician 5th Grade Stafford went on pass, he would have experienced freedoms unheard of in the segregated South. Black servicemen were served in British restaurants or pubs alongside white customers. If they wished, they could socialize and even date white civilians. These newfound freedoms did not go unnoticed by white servicemen, some of whom bitterly resented them.
Victim of a Heinous Crime
Although information about the first three decades of Robert Stafford’s life is fragmentary, there is extensive documentation about the final, tragic evening of his life: March 4, 1944. All quoted statements in this section are from the synopsis of evidence and testimony at the court-martial of Privates Tracey Bryant and William C. Forester of the 425th Military Police Escort Guard Company. It was compiled as part of a board of review by members of the Branch Office of the Judge Advocate General, European Theater of Operations.
Technician 5th Grade Stafford and another man from his company, Technician 5th Grade William H. Walton, visited the nearby town of Rugeley on pass. “They arrived in the town about 8 p.m. and visited several public houses and a carnival. They left Rugeley between 10 p.m. and 10:15 p.m.” to head back to their barracks. “There had been a fall of snow that evening and while it was dark there was a certain degree of luminosity[.]”
Around 10:30 p.m. they passed a group of white enlisted men from the 425th Military Police Escort Guard Company on the road to the camp. These soldiers were returning after a night of drinking in town. One of men “shouted to Walton and Stafford ‘Hey, wait’.” They ignored him.
One of the white soldiers then yelled, “Hey, wait. I am talking to you.”
Stafford, in no mood to stop for drunk and obnoxious men who were talking down to him even though he outranked them, replied: “We haven’t got time. We are on our way to camp. We haven’t time to stand here in the cold and fool with you. You had better wake up.”
After Stafford and Walton ignored an insult shouted by one of the white servicemen, two of them (including Private Bryant) ran up to the black soldiers. The subsequent exchange of words was not elaborated on in the board of review synopsis, but Stafford remarked to Walton and a British sailor walking with them, “Let[’]s go, fellows; it looks like they’re going to start something; let’s go[.]”
The synopsis continued:
The colored men commenced to run, but were again overtaken by two white American soldiers. One of them expressed the desire to fight. The two colored men retreated. Stafford stated to the two white men that they were making a mistake and declared he did not know “what it was about”.
Testimony established that Private William C. Forester then ran up to where Stafford was arguing with Private Bryant and the other white soldier and Stafford “was knocked to the ground […] Both Forester and Bryant beat and kicked the prostrate colored soldier, who protested, ‘Let me alone[.]’”
Technician 5th Grade Walton managed to escape and “reported the incident to his company duty officer, First Lieutenant Maxwell T. Hasty[.]” The trial testimony stated that several American servicemen and British sailors attempted to intervene, but does not specify the extent of that intervention. British sailors later testified that as they left the scene, they “saw a white solder jump from the grass verge on the side of the road and ‘land with his feet’on [sic] the back of the prostrate black soldier” and heard one of the attackers declare, “Lets kill this f—- black bastard[.]” The sailors hurried to the P.O.W. camp to notify a guard.
Three British civilians walking home from a wedding stumbled across the scene at around 11 p.m. An attacker told one of the civilians, Evan J. Savage, not to intervene, warning him: “Clear off, if you don’t want no trouble[.]”
The attacker referred to Stafford by a racist slur and declaring his intent to leave Stafford there until a vehicle ran him over. Savage convinced the attackers to move Stafford out of the roadway. He later testified that as he was reporting the incident to a guard at the entrance to the camp, two of the assailants “passed through the gate whistling[.]”
In the meantime, Technician 5th Grade Walton and Lieutenant Hasty had arrived at the scene and located Stafford. Stafford was pronounced dead on arrival at the 312th Station Hospital at approximately 11:20 p.m. on March 4, 1944.
U.S. Army investigators quickly identified and arrested five suspects, including Privates Bryant and Forester. Several witnesses identified them as being involved in the fight. A member of the 440th Military Police Prisoner of War Processing Company found Private Bryant “in a stupor evidencing intoxication with his clothes ‘tusseled up’ and with mud on them, abrasions on one of his hands and on the top of his hand and stains on his leggings and trousers which looked like blood[.]” Private Forester also had an injury on his left hand.
Captain Samuel Kantor noted in his autopsy report that Stafford had suffered numerous “abrasions, contusions, lacerations, and ecchymoses” but noted no fractures or significant damage to his internal organs. That suggested that the beating would have been survivable, except for the fact that an attacker strangled Stafford with his own necktie. Dr. Kantor reported that “The knot of the tie is so firm that it had to be cut in order to be removed.”
Private Bryant had been born in South Carolina and entered the service from Georgia. He may have been illiterate—at any rate, he was unable to sign his draft card with anything but an X. He had previously been convicted of going absent without leave for nearly two weeks. A U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division agent obtained a statement in which Private Bryant admitted that on the night of the murder, he had been absent without leave again when he went to a pub and drank “about twelve pints of beer myself.” He confessed to punching Technician 5th Grade Stafford in the face at least five times while “Forrester [sic] was kicking him on the head, face and shoulder.”
Bryant’s statement omitted any mention of Stafford’s necktie. Investigators never determined which of the five men arrested for Stafford’s murder had strangled him. However, the board of review concluded:
The exact moment and the actual perpetrator of the act of strangulation are not definitely shown by the evidence, but there is substantial proof that the [victim] was strangled during the attack upon him in which the two accused were active, vicious participants.
Private William C. Forester and Private Tracey Bryant were court-martialed at Whittington Barracks in Staffordshire on March 17–18, 1944. The two men were convicted and sentenced to “dishonorable discharge, total forfeitures and confinement at hard labor for life” at the “United States Penitentiary, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.” The board of review concluded in June 1944 that Stafford and Walton
were the victims of an unlawful, inexcusable interference by the accused and companions [whose] interference developed into a cruel battery on the deceased resultant in his death. No question of self defense can arise from the evidence. Forester and Bryant were vicious aggressors from beginning to end.
The board of review upheld their conviction and sentences, though it is unclear whether the men were indeed imprisoned for life. The fates of the other three men arrested for the crime—who were tried separately—are also unclear.
Compounding the injustice of Stafford’s death was the fact that the information that the War Department provided to his family was incomplete and misleading at best. A letter to Gertrude Stafford from the Adjutant General’s Office, dated June 6, 1944, stated in part:
A report of an investigation conducted by the military authorities to determine the circumstances surrounding your husband’s death has now been received in the War Department. This report discloses that Technician Stafford died instantly on the night of 4 March 1944, in Rugeley, Staffordshire, England, as the result of injuries incurred during an altercation with other soldiers. Your husband was on authorized pass at the time of his death.
It could be argued that falsely telling Stafford’s family that he “died instantly” was well intentioned, to spare them knowledge of what he endured in the last minutes of his life. It is more difficult to justify labeling his injuries as having “incurred during an altercation with other soldiers” without providing additional context. That would tend to imply the men involved were mutual combatants, rather than Stafford and Walton being the victims of an unprovoked and racially motivated attack. Indeed, Stafford’s granddaughter, June Nicole Stafford Whitaker, grew up with the understanding that her grandfather had been killed in a bar fight.
After the war, Technician 5th Grade Stafford’s body was buried at the Marietta National Cemetery in Georgia. His widow, Gertrude, did not remarry and was buried along with him after her death in 1977, aged 63.
Family & Early Life
I believe Technician 5th Grade Stafford is very likely the Robert Stafford recorded on the 1910 census living at 12 Ray Street in Newnan. This Robert Stafford was living with his father Albert (a 26-year-old laborer at a planing mill), his mother Eula (a 27-year-old washerwoman), his 9-year-old stepbrother Charles Dickson, and 6-year-old stepbrother Hercules Dickson.
As of April 15, 1910, Robert was described as one year and three months old, which would place his date of birth around January 1909, contradicting both the 1908 and 1910 dates of birth! Still, if it is the right Robert Stafford, it would tend to rule out the 1910 date of birth found on his military records, as he would not have been born when the census was taken. His father’s age was likewise imprecise in extant records: He was recorded as being 40 years old when he registered for the draft on September 12, 1918, just eight years after his age was recorded as 26!
The next census recorded the family as living at 21 Peachtree Street in Newnan as of January 1, 1920. Both parents’ ages were listed as 38, with Albert working as a laborer in the lumber industry and Eula as a servant. Robert’s stepbrothers were now recorded as his older brothers, Charlie and Hercules Stafford. Robert was listed as being 11 years old, and he had an 8-year-old younger brother, William.
It is not possible to be certain that either census record pertains to the correct Robert Stafford. However, that fact that the city is correct and that he did have a brother or stepbrother named Charlie Stafford (as documented on his draft card) does support the conclusion that he was the same Robert Stafford who later served in the U.S. Army. Eula had moved to Atlanta by the time of her death in 1926.
One curious detail in the obituary of Gertrude Daniel Stafford (printed in The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution on February 20, 1977, is that she was described as “the widow of Albert Robert Stafford[.]” In almost all known census records, directories, and military records, he was identified as Robert Stafford with no middle name. Note that Robert Stafford’s father was most likely named Albert.
Although he served in the military under the name Robert Stafford, a copy of an application for family allowances dated October 15, 1942, listed his name as Robert Albert Stafford.
Another Robert Stafford?
I was unable to locate the correct Robert Stafford on the 1930 or 1940 censuses. There was a promising match on the 1940 census: a married couple, Robert (age 32) and Gertrude (age 28) Stafford, living in Glynn, Georgia. They were listed as living with Gertude’s mother, Sallie Blue. However, that contradicts the details known about the correct Gertrude Stafford, based on her entry in the U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index. That record listed her birthplace as Atlanta, Georgia, her father as James H. Daniel, and her mother’s maiden name as Gertrude Martin.
Working backwards, it appears that this other Robert Stafford was born in Brunswick, Georgia, on June 12, 1908, the son of Alfred and Lattie Stafford. He was living in Glynn during the 1910, 1920, and 1930 censuses. However, none of these census records indicate that he had a brother named Charlie. Likewise, Gertrude Blue, the daughter of Harry and Sallie Blue, appeared on census records in Glynn in 1920 and 1930. It would appear to be simply a coincidence that both Robert Staffords from Georgia were about the same age and married a woman named Gertrude who was three to five years younger than him.
Addresses in Atlanta
The address at 897 Edgewood Avenue had a suffix of N.E. in multiple directories from the 1930s and S.E on the draft card. Assuming that modern addresses are the same, N.E. would be correct.
I was unable to locate an extant address of 973 Mayson Turner Avenue N.E. in Atlanta, although there is a 973 Mayson Turner Road N.W.
Location of the Murder
The road where the murder took place was described as the public road between Rugeley and Hednesford. Closer to Rugeley, it is known as Sandy Lane, and as Hednesford Road further outside of town.
Four or Five Assailants?
I debated whether to name all five men who were arrested for the murder. In the end, I decided to name only the two who I knew to have been convicted of the crime. Certainly, it appears likely that at least two of the three other men were culpable. Some testimony in the board of review stated that the fifth man was one of the assailants. Other accounts stated there were four assailants rather than five, and that the fifth man arrested for the crime had in fact “intervened in an apparent effort to stop the disturbance but he was held by eitherForester [sic] or Bryant[.]”
War Department Letter
The June 6, 1944, letter to Gertrude Stafford was written in the name of the U.S. Army Adjutant General James A. Ulio (1882–1958). However, it was presumably written by another member of the Adjutant General’s Office. Well over a million telegrams and letters to families of casualties were written in his name during the war.
Special thanks to Technician 5th Grade Stafford’s granddaughter, June Nicole Stafford Whitaker, for contributing documents that were valuable in telling his story. Thanks also go out to Martin J. Richards (Repatriated Landscape and Syston Images) for permission to use his photographs of the prison camp site as it appears today.
“Board of Review, United States v. Private WILLIAM C. FORESTER (34686405) and Private TRACEY BRYANT (34686280), both of 425th Military Police Escort Guard Company.” Holdings and Opinions, Board of Review, Branch Office of the Judge Advocate General, European Theater of Operations, Volume 6. Pg. 11–23. Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/rr/frd/Military_Law/pdf/ETO-BOR_Vol-6.pdf
Cizewski, Leonard H. “390th Engineer General Service Regiment.” http://www.ibiblio.org/cizewski/signalcorps/nonsignalcorps/390esr/390.html
“Daniel Robert Stafford Sr.” Find a Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/200268435/daniel-robert-stafford
“Eula Stafford.” Georgia Deaths Index, 1914–1940. Ancestry.com. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2562/images/004179363_00977
“Gertrude Daniel Stafford.” U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936–2007. Ancestry.com. https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/21847048:60901
Greater Atlanta (Fulton County, Ga.) City Directory 1933. Atlanta City Directory Co., 1933. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2469/images/10961162
Greater Atlanta (Fulton County, Ga.) City Directory 1934. Atlanta City Directory Co., 1934. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2469/images/12242651
Greater Atlanta (Fulton County, Ga.) City Directory 1938. Atlanta City Directory Co., 1938. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2469/images/12248967
Index to Marriage Records–Cobb County, Georgia. Georgia Department of Archives and History, Morrow, Georgia. https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-C9BT-YJW1
Miller, Donald L. Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany. Simon & Schuster, 2006.
“Robert Stafford.” Find a Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/3956990/robert-stafford
“Robert Stafford.” U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936–2007. Ancestry.com. https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/804545919:60901
“Stafford.” The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution, February 20, 1977, pg. 24-C. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/65409111/gertrude-stafford-obituary-2/
Stafford, Robert Albert. Application For Family Allowances, October 15, 1942. Courtesy of June Nicole Stafford Whitaker.
Stanton, Shelby L. World War II Order of Battle: An Encyclopedic Reference to U.S. Army Ground Forces from Battalion through Division 1939–1946. Revised ed. Stackpole Books, 2006.
Ulio, James A. Letter to Gertrude Stafford, June 6, 1944. Courtesy of June Nicole Stafford Whitaker.
United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/7884/images/31111_4327481-00192
United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6061/images/4295837-00740, https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6061/images/4295837-00741
United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6224/images/4531975_00011
United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2442/images/M-T0627-00678-00695, https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2442/images/M-T0627-00678-00696
U.S. WWII Hospital Admission Card Files, 1942–1954. Record Group 112, Records of the Office of the Surgeon General (Army), 1775–1994. National Archives at College Park, Maryland. https://www.fold3.com/record/705382762/u-s-wwii-hospital-admission-card-files-1942-1954-stafford-robert
Whitaker, June Nicole Stafford. Email correspondence on January 28, 2022.
World War II Army Enlistment Records. Record Group 64, Records of the National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives at College Park, Maryland. https://aad.archives.gov/aad/record-detail.jsp?dt=893&mtch=1&cat=all&tf=F&q=34411024&bc=&rpp=10&pg=1&rid=4823518
World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917–1918. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6482/images/005150577_04379
WWII Draft Registration Cards for Georgia, 10/16/1940–3/31/1947. Record Group 147, Records of the Selective Service System. National Archives at Fort Worth, Texas. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2238/images/47553_B578982-00419
Last updated on February 19, 2022
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