Portraits of War: George Allen Owl

Author: 
Jessica A. Bandel

On October 4, 1917, twenty-two-year-old George Allen Owl, clad in the “full dress and war gear of his [Cherokee] ancestors,” boarded a train in Asheville bound for Camp Jackson, South Carolina. The Swain County native had been inducted just two days earlier and was accompanied by seven other Cherokee men, almost all destined for service in Company I of the 321st Infantry Regiment.

Owl’s athletic prowess, natural leadership abilities, and advanced education—he had attended Hampton Institute in Virginia—caught the attention of his white commanders, and before the regiment departed Camp Jackson, Owl had been promoted to private first class. Another promotion, this time to corporal, followed in February. By July 1918, he had attained the rank of sergeant.

Around the first of August, the 321st disembarked for the European continent, arriving safely in England about ten days later. Advanced training with the French in quieter sectors of the warzone occupied much of the men’s time for the first few months they were in Europe. The Cherokee troopers proved particularly adept at scouting, and many attached to the 321st accepted their dangerous assignments with a coolness few could rival. White commanders gushed about the military bearing and aptitude of one man in particular: George Owl.

Company I’s captain, John Emerson, wrote that Owl was “without fear and has proven himself a very capable leader of men….” He concluded his assessment with the assertion that Owl was the best scout in his battalion. Praise for Owl came down from as high as his brigade commander, George Wilcox McIver, who singled the young man out in his autobiography: “[Owl] was soon promoted to be a sergeant and served well in that grade up to the end of the war…and was looked upon as a first-rate leader in scouting and patrol work….”

On November 10, the 321st was called to the frontlines northeast of Verdun, where they anxiously awaited the early morning’s signal to begin their first true “over the top” assault of the war. No one knew at the time that it would prove to be the war’s last.

The war’s final pitched battle began promptly at 6:00 AM on November 11, 1918. As part of the regiment’s Third Battalion, Company I advanced through an open marsh south of Grimacourt, facing frontal and oblique fire from German machine gunners. The company continued its advance until news of the Armistice swept swiftly down the line. All firing suddenly stopped at exactly 11:00 AM, an eerie silence replacing the rattle and boom of war that had permeated the field just seconds before. It was over. The Allies had triumphed.

Owl was discharged from the service shortly after the regiment’s return to the United States in June 1919. He went on to start a family and played professional baseball in Connecticut, North Carolina, and Florida. At the conclusion of his baseball career, Owl moved on to public service, serving in later life as tribal council chairman and as a member of the Executive Council of the National Congress of American Indians. Throughout his life, he was very active in reunion efforts for the veterans of the 81st Division.

It should be noted too that several of Owl’s siblings were also World War I veterans. Brothers Henry and David served in the army while George’s older sister, Lula, joined the Army Nurse Corps, in which organization she held the rank of 2nd lieutenant.