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Vet would rather recall Buffalo’s Cpl. Jesse W. Clipper than time with Elvis

The Rev. Eugene Pierce at the grave of Cpl. Jesse W. Clipper, the first black soldier from Buffalo to die in World War I, in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial in Seringes-et-Nesles, France. (Courtesy of Rev. Eugene Pierce)
February 05, 2018

The Rev. Eugene L. Pierce can tell you about his time in the Army with Elvis Presley. They were drafted and ended up in the same unit for basic training at Fort Hood, Texas.

Pierce can tell you how young women would drive to the fort in search of the pop star.

But Pierce says that in deference to February being Black History Month, he would rather talk about a famous African-American who was working as a singer and dancer here in Buffalo before he was drafted into the Army for World War I.

Cpl. Jesse W. Clipper never made it home from that war and is remembered as the first black from Buffalo who sacrificed his life in the First World War.

His death occurred on Feb. 21, 1919, some three months after the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918.

“His death certificate says he died from pleurisy and pneumonia, and it is believed that was caused by him being gassed by the Germans,” Pierce said.

Clipper is among more than 6,000 other Americans buried at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial in the Seringes-et-Nesles, some 70 miles from Paris.

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  • Eugene L. Pierce, 82
  • Hometown: Bay Springs, MS.
  • Residence: Cheektowaga
  • Branch: Army
  • Rank: sergeant
  • War zone: Vietnam Era veteran
  • Years of service: 1958 – 1964; continued in New York Air National Guard, Army National Guard and Army Reserves until 1997.
  • Most prominent honors: Army Overseas Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal and American Defense Commendation Award
  • Specialty: intelligence specialist

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Pierce can also tell you how he and Presley and other members of the 2nd Armored Division were sent to Germany after basic training. And how in Germany, Pierce met an African-American who would rise to the top of the American military as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later serve as secretary of state.

In 1960, a young 1st Lt. Colin Powell was the company commander of the unit to which Pierce was assigned, Company D, 48th Infantry Battalion in Gelnhausen.

And though Pierce has immense respect for Powell, he again prefers to talk more about Clipper and how, when he returned to Germany last November, he made a pilgrimage to Clipper’s grave.

Pierce and his brother, Bobby, traveled to Germany to attend a promotion ceremony for their nephew, Pierre R. Pierce, an Army dentist and native of Buffalo. The nephew was elevated from major to lieutenant colonel.

Several days after the ceremony, Pierce asked his nephew if he would drive him and Uncle Bobby to the cemetery where Clipper was buried – some 272 miles away. Pierce explained to his nephew it would mean a great deal to him because he had served as a commander of the American Legion Jesse Clipper Post 430 on Buffalo’s East Side.

When they arrived at Oise-Aisne cemetery, Pierce said they went to the office for directions to the burial plot. But instead of receiving directions, he was told there was no one by the name of Jesse W. Clipper buried there.

“I could not believe it. I had seen a picture of a cross on a grave with the name Jesse W. Clipper and information listing him as buried at that cemetery. The worker checked the master list of graves and said there was a Cpl. James W. Clipper at the cemetery. She said I had made a mistake and suggested I check to see if there was a Jesse Clipper buried at the American cemetery in Normandy,” he recalled.

Though in a state of shock, Pierce said he asked if cemetery workers would escort them to the grave of James W. Clipper.

“Two workers took us to the grave, and one of them was a little bit ahead of us and shouted, ‘You won’t believe this. The name on the cross is Jesse W. Clipper.’

“We hastily proceeded to the grave site and with joy in our hearts said, ‘Yes! We have found the grave site of Jesse W. Clipper,’ ” Pierce said.

A minister, he then began a memorial service, reading verses from the Gospel of St. John:

“‘In my father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you, and if go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you. That where I am, there you may be also.”

And as he recited the words, far from Clipper’s adopted home of Buffalo, Pierce said he could feel the strength of God.

The service continued with a prayer of thanksgiving for Clipper’s life and a request that the members of the American Legion post namesaked for Clipper would receive “divine guidance” in how best to help veterans back home in Buffalo.

A day later, Pierce contacted the superintendent of the cemetery to point out the mistake with Clipper’s first name.

“He apologized and said they had computerized information from the grave sites in 1990 and at that time he believes the incorrect name was entered into the system. I said to him, ‘That’s 17 years ago. How long would this problem have existed if I hadn’t brought this to your attention?’

“He said it probably would have been that way until someone found the mistake. He assured me the mistake would be corrected,” Pierce said, adding that the cemetery computer records were updated eight days later.

Pierce, who has been an ordained minister since 2000, said he has officiated at many veterans funerals and realizes the importance of accuracy when tending to the final affairs of a veteran.

Many may remember Pierce, now 82, as a man who has stood up against racism. In 1974, he was arrested in Buffalo for protesting police brutality. Three years later, he was again arrested in Cheektowaga for protesting job discrimination by the town.

With a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Buffalo State College and a master’s degree in American studies from the University of Buffalo, he was a success in his professional life – serving as deputy superintendent of the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden before retiring.

But Pierce again returns to Jesse Clipper, a Salt Lake City native who came to Buffalo in 1915, a year after his wife, Della Clipper, a professional singer, died.

“They had performed together as the ‘Two Clippers.’ He was a singer and a dancer, and they had a vaudeville act. After coming to Buffalo, he joined the Colored Musicians Club. Because blacks were not allowed to join the musicians local and could not get the good paying union jobs, he and other black musicians formed the Colored Musicians Club Local 533, and Jesse was vice president,” Pierce said.

Clipper was drafted into the Army and sent to France.

Pierce left the Army in 1964 and continued to serve in the National Guard and Reserve for several years. Life did not provide him with any further chance encounters with Colin Powell or Elvis Presley.

But Pierce says he is overjoyed that he was able to pay his respects to Cpl. Jesse W. Clipper and correct the records in France.

On Memorial Day this year, Pierce adds, the City of Buffalo will rededicate an updated Jesse Clipper Square memorial at William Street and Michigan Avenue.

“The square itself will be expanded and the monument relocated near the center,” Pierce said. “The significance of Jesse Clipper is coming full circle.”

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© 2018 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.