Urbane Francis Bass, MD
Urbane Francis Bass’ Personal Narrative was derived from information found in public records, military personnel files, and local/state historical association materials. Please note that the Robb Centre never fully closes the book on our servicemembers; as new information becomes available, narratives will be updated to appropriately represent the life story of each veteran.
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Distinguished Service Cross: Posthumousy awarded 1919
Citation: The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pride in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross (Posthumously) to First Lieutenant (Medical Corps) Urbane F. Bass, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism in action while serving with 372d Infantry Regiment (Attached), 93d Division, A.E.F., near Monthois, France, October 1 - 6, 1918. During the attack on Monthois Lieutenant Bass administered first aid in the open under prolonged and intense shell fire until he was severely wounded and carried from the field.
Life & Service
- Birth: 14 April 1880, Richmond, VA, United States
- Place of Residence:
- Race/Ethnicity: African American
- Death: 6 October 1918 Monthois, France
- Branch: French 157th Division, French Fourth Army, French XXI Corps Army
- Military Rank: First Lieutenant
- Infantry Regiment: 372nd
- Division: 93rd
Born to Richard and Rosa Bass on 14 April 1880, Bass grew up in a segregated south still recovering from the ravages of civil war. He was one of six children within the household on East Duval Street. His father’s occupations included selling shoes, clothes and insurance. Bass graduated from Virginia Union University in 1902 and the Leonard Medical School of Shaw University in 1906. He remained in Richmond starting a small medical practice on William Street, but within three years had closed the practice and moved to Fredericksburg to open a larger practice on Amelia Street and two years later a pharmacy on Commerce Street. His new practice was well received by the African-American community, although local hospital privileges were denied. He “often treated . . . patients in their own homes, doing surgery on kitchen tables if necessary.”
Civic duty and community engagement seemed to be a foundation for Bass as he was a founding member of Richmond’s Astoria Beneficial Club in 1901, serving as vice president, while still an undergraduate student. The objective of the Club was “to inspire the members to a higher religious, moral, intellectual, civic and social standing and to relieve the distressed members.”
Following the nation’s official entry into World War I, U.S. Surgeon General William C. Gorgas, in July 1917, declared that it was “not desirable” to train African-American and white doctors at the same training facilities, thus stationing African-American medical trainees at Fort Des Moines where they would be “with whom they will later serve.” Bass reported in mid-August 1917 to Fort Des Moines, in Iowa, and received military training at the Medical Officers’ Training Camp.
Training focused on drill and ceremonies, administrative tasks, and medical issues. “Living conditions were poor . . . because the non-medical African-American officers . . . had taken the better buildings and the medical personnel were relegated to converted stables . . . with only four showers for all the medical personnel.” By early November 1917, Bass reported for duty at Camp Funston, Kansas, and eventually departed Newport News, Virginia, aboard the USS Susquehanna on 30 March 1918 for Europe. Bass was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 372nd Infantry Regiment, 93rd Division which was attached to the French 157th Division, French Fourth Army. In late September 1918, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was operational.
Lt Bass received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions near Mathois, France, on 1-6 October 1918,
“The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pride in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross (Posthumously) to First Lieutenant (Medical Corps) Urbane F. Bass, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism in action while serving with 372d Infantry Regiment (Attached), 93d Division, A.E.F., near Monthois, France, October 1 – 6, 1918. During the attack on Monthois Lieutenant Bass administered first aid in the open under prolonged and intense shell fire until he was severely wounded and carried from the field.”
Lt Bass was killed in action on 6 October 1918, the result of wounds from an enemy shell. Noted African-American journalist and war correspondent Ralph W. Tyler stated, “He [Bass] was directing the affairs of his temporary aid station just behind the crest of a hill, while the battle was raging, when a shell from the enemy’s guns combed the hill and struck among the group of workers being directed by him, tearing off both legs of the physician. Lt. Bass, with remarkable fortitude, as calmly instructed his hospital corps how to give him first aid as if he was back writing a prescription for one of his patients back in his Virginia office. He died a few moments later, from blood hemorage [hemorrhage]. Thus went a most promising colored physician who, although beyond the draft age, volunteered his services; left behind a splendid practice, wife and children, to serve his country in France, and by doing so helped to advance the interests of his race in America.” Frank E. Roberts notes that “An artillery shell blasted the forward section of the aide station he [Bass] was placed in, severing both of Lt. Bass’ legs around the thigh region resulting in Lt. Bass dying within minutes of the explosion from shock and blood loss.” The Richmond Planet commented upon notification of his death that he was “highly respected by both white and colored.”
Bass was initially buried at the La Cheppe Cemetery, Marne, France on 7 October 1918. Military records note that Bass was buried in his uniform and covered in a blanket. Identification of the remains was complicated because records note different grave numbers. Eventually identification was by “means of adjacent graves and officer’s insignia” including an officer’s braid on sleeve and collar ornaments “U.S.R.” on his blouse. The “Report of Disinterment and Reburial” notes that his left leg was missing below the knee, right leg was broken at the ankle, there was a shot into the face, and the cheek bone was missing.
On 23 July 1921, Dr. Urbane Francis Bass’ remains returned home to be reburied in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery aboard the U.S. Army Transport Ship Wheaton, which departed Antwerp, Belgium, on 19 June 1921 and arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey on 2 July.
The death of Bass devastated his family. He had married a classmate’s sister, Maude Lillian Vass, in June 1907 shortly after completing medical school. They had four children together prior to Bass departing for Europe, the oldest approximately 10 years, while the youngest was just months old. Maude became depressed and mentally impaired by her loss. She was hospitalized, for a short time, at the St. Elizabeth’s Psychiatric Hospital, Washington, D.C. Maude never re-married and lived over one-hundred years (28 March 1886-22 October 1986). She eventually taught music at the State School for the Blind and Deaf in Morganton, NC.