365th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Infantry Division
Bernard Yolles was born on August 14, 1916, to David Leon Yolles and Ray Yolles, the only Jewish family in Winona, Mississippi. The family owned a department store called Yolles & Schneider.
His cousin, Reva Schneider Hart, remembered Yolles as a handsome, bright-eyed, inquisitive prankster. One notorious prank occurred at the expense of a fellow retailer in town, Gordon’s. Reva recalled: “Gordon’s two sons overnight painted footprints leading from our store [Yolles & Schneider] to their store. The very next night, Bernard and another youth painted footsteps from Gordon’s store right back to our store.”
Yolles rose to the position of store manager at Yolles & Schneider, the family business. According to the Winona Times, Yolles was one of the first three men drafted from Montgomery County into military service. He was inducted into the U.S. Army at Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. A few days later, Yolles wrote to the paper’s editor to say, “I, as yet, do not know where I will go. Army life is fine.”
Yolles completed Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia, and wed Babette Rubel of Memphis, Tennessee, on July 26, 1942. His mother, Ray, told her daughter-in-law that her son had found his “Blue Heaven.” Their daughter, Barbara, was born on June 26, 1943.
In late 1942, Yolles served as an officer with the 318th Infantry Regiment, 80th Infantry Division in Camp Forrest, Tennessee. By July 1943, he was promoted to the rank of captain and was serving at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
By January 1944, Yolles transferred to the 365th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Infantry Division. The 92nd Infantry Division, known as the Buffalo Soldiers, was an African-American infantry division that traced its roots back to the post-Civil War Indian Wars. The symbol of a black buffalo on olive drab symbolized the rugged nature they brought to war. Their motto was “Deeds, Not Words.”
In the segregated World War II U.S. Army, the division was commanded by white officers, and the black soldiers faced discrimination at multiple levels. Despite these challenges, the 92nd Infantry Division in the Mediterranean and the 93rd Infantry Division, who served in the Pacific, distinguished themselves as the only all-African-American infantry divisions to serve in combat during World War II.
The 92nd Infantry Division trained in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, before deploying to Italy, arriving in late 1944. On December 31, 1944, Yolles wrote his wife from Rome that many of his African-American troops were frustrated by their lack of supplies, “Gee Sweetheart I wish I could talk to you in Person so I could make you relize [sic] over here some of the people in the Army or at war do not have access to lots of things that some other people have. Don’t get me wrong. I am not at other people with Lustfull [sic] eyes and I am not unhappy about my lot.”
In December and January Yolles wrote multiple paged letters home to his wife. He noted how much he missed her and how much he appreciated her letters. He even sent a Valentine card “to my only Valentine” on January 20, 1945.
Yolles and the 92nd Infantry Division entered combat when they crossed the Arno River in January 1945. In February 1945, Major General Edward M. Almond launched a major offensive against the German lines. The 365th Infantry Regiment was sent into the Serchio Valley to attack entrenched German troops.
Advancing from the town of Gallicano, Italy, on February 6, 1945, Yolles led Company F in an attack to capture Lama di Sotto Ridge and Hill 940. His troops faced fierce resistance and suffered heavy casualties. Captain Yolles died in the attack. The Hill changed hands several times until recaptured by the men of 365th Infantry Regiment on February 10.
After the war, an African-American soldier who shared a foxhole with Yolles came to the family store in Winona and told them that Yolles was killed instantly when hit with a mortar shell.
Originally reported as Missing in Action on February 6, 1945, his remains were identified on June 12, 1945.
He was buried in a temporary U.S. military cemetery in Follonica, Italy, on June 18, 1945 alongside Private First Class Willie D. Thurmond. Thurmond was an African-American soldier who served under Yolles in Company F. In Yolles’ Mississippi hometown, such burials would never have occurred because the cemeteries were segregated by race.
On January 19, 1948, Babette Yolles designated that her husband be buried overseas. The family of Captain Bernard Yolles received notice of the permanent interment of their husband, brother, father, and son in Florence American Cemetery on June 10, 1949.
92nd Infantry Division; Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, World War II Combat Operations Report 1941-1948, Record Group 407 (Box 11281); National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.
92nd Infantry Division; Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, World War II Combat Operations Report 1941-1948, Record Group 407 (Box 11283); National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.
92nd Infantry Division; Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, World War II Combat Operations Report 1941-1948, Record Group 407 (Box 11288); National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.
92nd Infantry Division; Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, World War II Combat Operations Report 1941-1948, Record Group 407 (Box 11316); National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.
“Bernard Yolles.” American Battle Monuments Commission. Accessed November 5, 2015. https://www.abmc.gov/node/382574#.V1sxc6JOI9o.
Bernard Yolles, Individual Deceased Personnel File, Department of the Army.
Bernard Yolles, Official Military Personnel File, Department of the Army, RG 319, National Archives and Records Administration - St. Louis.
Hargrove, Hondon B. Buffalo Soldiers in Italy: Black Americans in World War II. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 1985.
Hart, Ellis. Personal interview by the author. March 11, 2016.
Hart, Macy B. Personal interview by the author. March 11, 2016.
Hodges, Jr., Robert. “African American 92nd Infantry Division Fought in Italy During World War II.” HistoryNet. Last modified June 12, 20016. Accessed June 1, 2016. http://www.historynet.com/african-american-92nd-infantry-division-fought-in-italy-during-world-war-ii.htm.
Johnston, Carolyn, R. My Father’s War: Fighting with the Buffalo Soldiers in World War II. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012.
Letters between Bernard and Babette Yolles. 1942-1945. Courtesy of Nina Sugamori.
Records for Bernard Yolles; World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946 [Electronic File], Record Group 64; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD [retrieved from the Access to Archival Databases at http://aad.archives.gov/aad/series-description.jsp?s=3360&cat=WR26&bc=,sl, December 1, 2015].
Sugamori, Nina. Personal interview by the author. March 11, 2016.
The Winona Times. “They’re in the Army Now.” December 7, 1940.
Yolles Family Photographs. 1940-1945. Courtesy of Nina Sugamori.