In front of the Gibson Inn stands a monument to Lt. Willoughby Marks, Apalachicola’s World War I hero, killed less than a month before the end of the war in a courageous but vain attempt to save a wounded comrade. Marks left the safety of the trench against orders and ventured into no-man’s land in a vain attempt to rescue Lt. George M. Hollister, where he met his death.
As tragic as Marks’s death seems, there was another battlefield casualty during the conflict that was even more unnecessary. On Nov. 11, just hours before the guns fell silent at 11 a.m. that morning, Pvt. Cornelius Rizer was killed assaulting a German position east of the Moselle River in France.
Rizer was born in Homersville, Georgia, a small town in the southeastern portion of the state. Sources conflict on the exact date of his birth. His tombstone lists his birthday as Nov. 16, 1890, while the date of his birth is listed as Feb. 1890 in the 1900 census. Military records list his birthday as Oct. 25, 1888. Whatever the exact date, he was one of 10 children born to Cornelius and Laura Rizer. His father died prior to 1900.
The 1900 census lists Cornelius living in Berrien County, Georgia with his mother, brother and sister. His brother, C. H. Rizer, was a laborer in a turpentine camp; he could not read or write. Cornelius and older sister, Lilly, both attended school. and could read and write.
Ten years later, in the 1910 census, Cornelius was listed in Jefferson County, Alabama, near Birmingham, working as a laborer in a grade camp along with 31 other men. By 1917, when he signed up for the draft during the First World War, he was living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and working for Westinghouse Electric in Lester, just south of Philadelphia. He was a tall man of slender build. As of June 5, 1917, when he signed his draft registration card, he was still single. At some point Cornelius Rizer found time to marry his wife, Addie. They had one daughter together, Frances.
Rizer was inducted into the Army as a private at Philadelphia on May 28, 1918. His first assignment was to Camp Joseph E. Johnston in Florida, on the St. Johns River south of Jacksonville, where the Jacksonville Naval Air Station is now located. The camp specialized in training troops for the Quartermaster Corps, to which Rizer was assigned. After less than a month in the service he was selected as part of the June replacement draft to fill the ranks of units already in France, and transferred to Camp Hill in Virginia, a post on the James River at Newport News for troops waiting for transportation across the Atlantic Ocean.
On July 10, 1918, Rizer embarked from Newport News on the USS Martha Washington, originally an ocean liner for the Austro-American Line, sailing between Trieste and New York City. The outbreak of the war in 1914 found the liner on the wrong side of the Atlantic, and she was interned at Hoboken, New Jersey. When the United States entered the war in 1917, it took over the ship and outfitted her as a troop ship. Her fifth voyage transporting American troops, including Rizer, to France ended on July 21.
Rizer was temporarily assigned to the 524th Engineers before being permanently transferred to Company G, 366th Infantry Regiment, an all-black unit mainly composed of men from Alabama. It was the first all-black fighting unit to have black officers; previous black units had white officers.
The 366th Infantry had arrived in France from the United States just a month prior to Rizer’s arrival, the regiment part of the 92nd “Buffalo” Division, formed in Nov. 1917 from black draftees. The division took its name from the nickname “buffalo soldiers” given to black U. S. soldiers by the plains Indians.
The division was first assigned to a training area around Bourbonne-les-Bains, a town in northeastern France about 30 miles southeast of the American Expeditionary Force’s headquarters at Chaumont. Here soldiers received final training to prepare them to enter combat in the trenches of the Western Front. It was also here Rizer joined his unit, but he had little time to receive training in the martial arts. He was assigned to Company G on July 30, and about a week later the division started moving up to the front lines.
On Aug. 25, 1918, the 92nd Division took over the St. Die sector, an area at the southeastern end of the line of trenches that stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss border. The St. Die sector, located in the Vosges Mountains, was considered a quiet section of the front. The mountainous terrain made attacks difficult so the front lines had remained in essentially the same location since the beginning of the war. It was considered an ideal area by both sides to deploy veteran units for a rest, and new units for an introduction to trench life.
Here the 366th Infantry and Rizer were introduced to the harsh realities of trench warfare: artillery bombardments, poison gas attacks, aerial attacks, patrols out into the no-man’s-land between the opposing trenches, and raids on enemy trenches. The Americans took their first casualties here. Rizer was slightly wounded about Sept. 8, but not enough to take him out of the front lines.
After about a month in the relative quiet St. Die sector, the 92nd Division was ordered to move 300 miles northwest. The American Army under Gen. Pershing was about to launch the Meuse-Argonne offensive, and the Buffalo division was designated as a reserve unit. The offensive commenced on Sept. 26. The men of the 366th Infantry did not see any combat but were used to assist the divisional engineers in constructing roads.
In early October, the 92nd Division was ordered eastwards to the Marbache sector of the front, and assigned to the U.S. 2nd Army being organized there. They occupied the section of front astride the Moselle River, approximately 15 miles south of Metz. Most of the division, including the 366th Infantry, was posted on the east bank of the river. The 366th Infantry formed the far right formation of both the 92nd Division and the 2nd Army. To its right flank was a French division.
Nov. 10 saw the 2nd Army launch an offensive with the aim of capturing Metz, a main railroad junction and supply center for the German Army. During the day the American forces captured the Bois Voivrotte and the Bois Frehaut, small and large woods respectively, south of the village of Bouxieres sous Froidemont. At 5 a.m. the next morning, the 366th Infantry launched an attack across the open fields between the Bois Voivrotte and Bouxieres. The two attacking companies reached the southern edge of the village, but were forced to retreat to their starting point in the woods by 9:30 a.m. Another attempt to take the village was made, but with the same results. The 366th Infantry were holding their position at the northern edge of the Bois Voivrotte when the Armistice went into effect at 11 a.m.
The cruel irony is that most of the fighting that morning was unnecessary. Word had been received locally at 7:18 a.m. that the Armistice had been signed, but troops were ordered not to stop fighting until 10:45 a.m., nearly three-and-one-half hours after notice of the end of the war was received. The commander of the 2nd Army, Lt. Gen. Robert Bullard, was criticized after the war for not immediately ordering all offensive operations to cease as soon as word of the Armistice was received.
It is not certain exactly when on Nov. 11 Rizer was killed. His service record just notes he was killed in action on that date. It is very possible he was one of the unlucky few killed after word of the Armistice was received and the fighting actually stopped.
The military gave the next of kin the option of bringing their loved ones back to the United States for burial, or to leave the remains in Europe. Addie Rizer elected to have her husband brought back. In 1921 his remains were returned on the U. S. Army Transport Cambrai along with 1,524 other deceased personnel. He was buried in Magnolia Cemetery.
Addie Rizer lived in Apalachicola for the rest of her life. Her house at 83 Avenue H still stands, kept up by members of the family. The black American Legion post in Apalachicola was named for Cornelius Rizer, and a street in Apalachicola is named after him.