Private Fred R. Prattis (1912–1944)

HometownCivilian Occupation
Seaford, DelawareMechanic
BranchService Number
U.S. Army32751982
TheaterUnit
PacificCompany “A,” 901st Air Base Security Battalion

Early Life & Family

Fred Richard Prattis was born in Seaford, Delaware, on September 12, 1912. He was the son of John Prattis and Mary Prattis. He had at least three sisters and two brothers. 

The Prattis family was recorded on the census on January 7, 1920, living on North Street in Seaford. At the time, Prattis’s father was working as a farmhand and his mother as a servant. The family was recorded again on the next census on April 15, 1930, living on Rives Street in Seaford. Prattis was recorded as working as a washer in a garage. His father was listed as performing housework for a private family. His older brothers were working as laborers involved in road construction, while his mother and older sisters were working as launderesses. 

When Prattis registered for the draft on October 16, 1940, he was living at 704 Clarence Street in Seaford and working for Theodore Burton. The registrar described him as standing five feet, five inches tall and weighing 157 lbs., with brown hair and eyes. He was Protestant according to his military paperwork. 

Prattis was mentioned in an article printed in the Wilmington Morning News on October 17, 1940: 

The new salesroom and garage of Theodore Burton, Jr., which has been constructed on Shipley Street, West Seaford, at a cost of over $50,000, has been formally opened. […] 

T. Walter White, Jr., of Harrington, will be in charge of the service department, with a mechanical force that includes J. T. Hunter, Ray Collins, Paul Collins, Otha Batson, and Fred Prattis. 

According to letters from Prattis’s brother, Calvin, to the Army Effects Bureau, Prattis had one daughter, who Prattis left in the custody of his sister, Emma Horsey, when he was drafted. 


Military Career

Prattis was inducted into the U.S. Army on February 20, 1943. It appears that he went on active duty one week later. At the time, the American armed forces were segregated and there were limited career opportunities for black soldiers like Prattis. There were relatively few black combat units and of the few that existed, most had only white officers. 

In spite of that, Private Prattis was trained as an infantryman and assigned to Company “A,” 901st Air Base Security Battalion. As the name implies, air base security battalions were intended to protect U.S. Army Air Forces fields in combat zones (a role that, after the U.S. Air Force became an independent branch in 1947, was fulfilled by U.S.A.F. Air Police/Security Police/Security Forces). 

Men from a black air base security unit man their halftracks at an airfield in North Africa in 1943 (Official U.S. Army Air Forces photo, National Archives via Fold3)

The 901st Air Base Security Battalion had been activated at Camp Rucker, Alabama, on June 20, 1942. The cadre of noncommissioned officers transferred in from the 367th Infantry Regiment. On Christmas Eve 1942, the unit moved west to Camp Stoneman, California, arriving on December 29, 1942. Camp Stoneman was a staging area for the San Francisco Port of Embarkation. On January 5, 1943, the battalion boarded a Dutch ship operating under the auspices of the War Shipping Administration, the M.S. Klipfontein. On January 7, 1943, the unit shipped out for the Pacific Theater. After intermediate stops on Suva, Vita Levu, Fiji, and Tonga Tabu, the ship arrived at Nouméa, New Caledonia, on February 4, 1943.  

Instead of performing the duties they had been trained for, the men of the 901st went to work as stevedores at Nouméa harbor, working seven days a week. On April 13, 1943, the unit shipped out again aboard the transport James B. Francis, arriving four days later at the major Allied base of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides. The 901st went ashore on April 20, 1943. Ten days later, after building a camp out of the jungle, the men of the 901st began guarding Thirteenth Air Force Bomber Strip No. 2, later known as Pekoa Airfield. On November 1, 1943, the battalion’s tank platoon and transportation section were activated. 

It is unknown if Private Prattis was assigned to any other unit after completing basic training and prior to joining Company “A,” 901st Air Base Security Battalion, but he was definitely a member of that unit by September 1944. If that was his only unit, taking training and transit times into account, would have joined the 901st no sooner than mid-1943.  

Airfields on Espiritu Santo. I believe Pekoa is the more distant airfield in this photo, visible in the upper left. (National Archives)
A C-47 following a mishap at Pekoa Airfield on January 12, 1944 (Official U.S. Army Air Forces photo, National Archives via Fold3)

During early 1944, the 901st continued guarding Pekoa Airfield, although men were sometimes pulled for work details elsewhere on Espiritu Santo. On March 10, 1944, Brigadier General George L. Usher wrote a letter of commendation to the commanding officer of the 901st, explaining that a February inspection by Headquarters Thirteenth Air Force “indicates that your organization is given a general rating of excellent.” He added: 

In order to accomplish such outstanding results in a comparatively short period of time, it is obvious that you, your officers, and your enlisted men have devoted untiring efforts toward the end of developing that organization. This is borne out by the daily routine established for your unit, the spirit applied to your training program, and the proficiency attained in the performance of your primary duties. 

In his summary of the unit’s history for March 1944, 2nd Lieutenant Robert E. Murch wrote: 

Fences were built in a noble, if sometimes futile, effort to keep out the herds of Santos cattle. Company Day Rooms neared completion, and the work was started on the NCO Club. Morale sharpened with these improvements in the unit as a whole, in the unit area, and in the recreational facilities within the unit, and on the Island. 

A movie theater was added the following month. In May 1944, the battalion track and field team came in second in a competition among the units stationed at Espiritu Santo. On June 18, 1944, the unit was relieved of its duties at Pekoa Airfield, which were taken over by the 925th Air Base Security Battalion. One week later, the 901st shipped out aboard the U.S.A.T. Fred C. Ainsworth, arriving back at Nouméa, New Caledonia, on June 29, 1944. The 901st would not be used for airfield security for the rest of the war. 

The unit shipped out again on July 2, 1944, arriving four days later at Milne Bay, New Guinea. The unit disembarked the following day and began building its camp. Work details provided guard duties for nearby engineer units. 

On August 14, 1944, the 5253rd Port Battalion (Provisional) was formed from the 901st and 903rd Air Base Security Battalions, per General Orders No. 149, Headquarters U.S. Army Services of Supply. Although the two air base security units were not formally dissolved, from that point forward, the men of the 901st would perform labor duties, such as uncrating and moving sections of landing craft and working in base warehouses. Equipment not necessary for their new role was put into storage. The men of the 901st tried to make the best of the circumstances, improving their camp with a mess hall, clubs, post exchange, and movie theater. 

In September 1944, Private Prattis was involved in a serious accident while riding in a truck, suffering a skull fracture. He was transferred to the Detachment of Patients, 47th General Hospital, also located at Milne Bay. Medical personnel discovered that he had an atrophied liver, apparently unrelated to the accident. Private Prattis died at the 47th General Hospital on December 15, 1944. The cause of death was recorded on the burial report as “Hepatitis, infectious, severe.” 

An inventory of his personal effects included a pair of sunglasses, two Bibles, an album of photographs, and a box of seashells.  

The 47th General Hospital at Milne Bay on May 9, 1944 (Official U.S. Army Signal Corps photo 111-SC-267498 by Private 1st Class Michael Pitcairn, National Archives)

Private Prattis was initially buried at the U.S. Armed Forces Cemetery Milne Bay No. 2 on December 18, 1944. He was later reburied at the U.S. Armed Forces Cemetery Finschhafen No. 2, also located on New Guinea, on April 30, 1945. On September 23, 1947, his body was moved to the Army Graves Registration Service mausoleum in Manila, Philippine Islands. 

After the war, Private Prattis’s brother, Calvin, requested that his remains be repatriated to the United States. The body crossed the Pacific Ocean aboard the U.S.A.T. Sgt. Jack J. Pendleton. On February 8, 1949, Sergeant 1st Class Preston Johnson of the 866th Port Company accompanied the casket as it traveled by train from New York to Seaford. Private Prattis was subsequently buried at Macedonia Cemetery in Seaford. 

Private Prattis’s name is honored on the Seaford Veterans Memorial. Due to an error by the State of Delaware Public Archives Commission, which ostensibly was unable to locate any family that would confirm he was a Delawarean, Prattis was omitted from the Delaware Memorial Volume and on the memorial at Veterans Memorial Park in New Castle. 


Notes

Daughter 

All that is known about his daughter is that her name was Elizabeth and her last name was not Prattis. 

Pekoa Airfield 

Pekoa Airfield is now known as Santo International Airport (or Santo-Pekoa International Airport.) 


Acknowledgments

Special thanks to Mattie Burton and Emerson Prattis for providing information about their uncle’s family. 


Bibliography

Applications for Headstones, compiled 1/1/1925–6/30/1970, documenting the period c. 1776–1970. Record Group 92, Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, 1774–1985. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2375/images/40050_2421406273_0396-01947  

Feilke, Edward L. “Unit History 1 April 1944 to 30 April 1944.” Headquarters 901st Air Base Security Battalion, May 3, 1944. Reel A0094A. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency. 

Feilke, Edward L. “Unit History – 1 March 1944 to 31 March 1944.” Headquarters 901st Air Base Security Battalion, April 6, 1944. Reel A0094A. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency. 

Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. Record Group 29, Records of the Bureau of the Census. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6224/images/4531895_00241  

Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920. Record Group 29, Records of the Bureau of the Census. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6061/images/4295768-00924  

Fred R. Prattis Individual Deceased Personnel File. Courtesy of U.S. Army Human Resources Command. 

Hutchinson, Cary B. “Establishment of Provisional Port Battalion.” General Orders No. 149, Headquarters United States Army Services of Supply, August 8, 1944. Reel A0094A. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency. 

Murch, Robert E. “Unit History – 1 August 1944 to 31 August 1944.” Headquarters 901st Air Base Security Battalion, August 31, 1944. Reel A0094A. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency. 

Murch, Robert E. “Unit History – 1 July 1944 to 31 July 1944.” Headquarters 901st Air Base Security Battalion, July 31, 1944. Reel A0094A. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency. 

Murch, Robert E. “Unit History – 1 June 1944 to 30 June 1944.” Headquarters 901st Air Base Security Battalion, July 5, 1944. Reel A0094A. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency. 

Murch, Robert E. “Unit History – 1 May 1944 to 31 May 1944.” Headquarters 901st Air Base Security Battalion, June 3, 1944. Reel A0094A. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency. 

Murch, Robert E. “Unit History – 1 September 1944 to 30 September 1944.” Headquarters 901st Air Base Security Battalion, September 30, 1944. Reel A0094A. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency. 

Murch, Robert E. “Unit History 20 June 1942 to 31 December 1943.” Headquarters 901st Air Base Security Battalion, May 11, 1944. Reel A0094A. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency. 

Thompson, Richard H. “Historical Data and Records.” Headquarters 901st Air Base Security Battalion, October 1, 1943. Reel A0094A. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency. 

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/704875618/blank-us-wwii-hospital-admission-card-files-1942-1954  

“Woman, 85, Hurt in Seaford Fall.” Wilmington Morning News, October 17, 1940. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/111838374/fred-prattis-seaford/  

WWII Draft Registration Cards for Delaware, 10/16/1940–3/31/1947. Record Group 147, Records of the Selective Service System. National Archives at St. Louis, Missouri. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2238/images/44003_13_00006-01354  


Last updated on November 13, 2022

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