6 World War I
With the United States’ commitment to enter the European conflict, African Americans quickly "closed ranks" to help defend liberty and democracy in Europe.
World War I
by Keith Krawczynski
Declaration of War
While Pershing was chasing Villa throughout northern Mexico, relations between the United States and Germany had grown critical. In January 1917, Germany initiated a policy directing their submarines to attack vessels entering any port controlled by their enemies in Britain, Ireland, western Europe, and the Mediterranean. President Woodrow Wilson responded by severing diplomatic ties with Germany. During the same month the British notified the United States of a German plot to entice Mexico into allying themselves with the Central Powers. The infamous Zimmerman telegraph proposed to Mexico that in the event of a war with the United States, Germany would allow them to reconquer territory lost in 1848 (Texas, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona) in return for persuading Japan to break her alliance with the Allies and join the Central Powers. As disturbing as this was, the final incident that drove the United States into the fray was Germany’s indiscriminate attacks against American vessels, including hospital and relief ships (Center of Military History United States Army [CMHUSA] 1992: 7-13; subsequent citations: CMHUSA 1992).
This series of events compelled President Wilson to address a special session of Congress on 2 April 1917. In his speech, Wilson asked for a declaration of war against the Imperial German Government, explaining that "the world must be made safe for democracy." Congress approved the request 4 days later with only a few dissenting votes.
African American Call to Arms
Before Wilson’s announcement, blacks, like all other Americans, possessed differing opinions regarding the European conflict. However, with the United States’ commitment to enter the hostilities, African Americans quickly "closed ranks" to help defend liberty and democracy in Europe. Black leaders, after obtaining promises by government officials of improved racial conditions after the war, rallied young African Americans to enlist in the Army and Navy (Williams 1923:18; Williams 1918:400; Foner 1974:109).
One of the most influential black spokesmen was W.E.B. DuBois, editor of the African American newspaper the Crisis. In a July 1918 editorial, DuBois told his readers:
We of the colored race have no ordinary interest in the outcome, that which the German power represents today shall spell death to the aspirations of Negroes and all darker races for equality, freedom, and democracy. Let us not hesitate. Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy (DuBois 1918a:111).
One month later, DuBois reminded his subscribers not to "bargain" with their loyalty or to "hesitate the fraction of a second when the God of Battles summons his dusky warriors to stand before the armposts of His Throne" (DuBois 1918b:164).
Moved by such patriotic discourse, African Americans eagerly joined the war effort. An even greater influence in their decision was the feeling that their race’s patriotism and loyalty was on trial. Again, they viewed the conflict as an opportunity to prove their worthiness for greater democracy at home and a chance to discard their second-class citizenship (Scott 1969:89; Crisis 1917 15:35; Coffman 1968:69). African Americans hoped to inscribe their "position and purpose in deeds of valor and sacrifice high upon the scrolls of heroes, so that future generations will not be in doubt as to the bravery, loyalty, and patriotism of the American Negro" (Lawrence 1918:400).
Osceola McKaine, a soldier from Sumter, South Carolina, exemplified this enthusiastic attitude, proclaiming, "I am eager for the fray. Death does not matter, for it will mean life for thousands of my countrymen, and for my race, for right must triumph" (McKaine 1918:592). Like many others, McKaine truly believed that participation in the war would bring positive changes to African Americans. "I am not apprehensive of the future of my people in the States," continued McKaine, "for the free allied nations of the world will not condone America’s past treatment of her colored citizens in the future" (McKaine 1918:592).
Prior to the war, there were only 75,000 men in the American army, 20,000 of whom were soldiers in the 4 all-black regiments — the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry (Williams 1923:17; Department of Defense 1991:50). With so few men in uniform, authorities in Washington DC realized that the volunteer system was inadequate for recruitment of soldiers. To obtain a sufficient number, Congress passed the Selective Service Act on 18 May 1917, requiring the registration of all male citizens between the ages of 21 and 31. The government ordered its first draft on 5 June, and eventually announced three additional registrations during the war. Once men were registered, local draft boards classified, examined, and selected them for induction into the military. Draft boards eventually declared 24,234,021 men acceptable for military service; blacks comprised 2,290,527 or 9.63 percent of the total registration (Johnson 1943:298).
But from the outset, Federal, state and local officials instituted discriminatory policies in the draft and recruitment of African Americans. Draft boards and other agencies of the Selective Service were entirely white. In fact, only five or six blacks sat on draft boards during the war. In addition, the military’s policy of segregation ensured that blacks were inducted separately from whites, for although draft legislation contained no specific racial provisions, local draft boards required black registrants to tear off one corner of their registration card so they could be more easily identified (Murray 1971:58; Crisis 1917 15:34; Coffman 1968:70).
In a reversal of the usual racial discrimination policy that had kept blacks out of the military in the past, discrimination during World War I consisted of bias review of registrants. For instance, a Fulton County (Georgia) exemption board discharged 44 percent of white registrants on physical grounds, while exempting only 3 percent of black registrants (Wilson 1939:43). Similarly, southern draft boards frequently inducted blacks who owned their own farms and had families to support, while exempting young, single men who worked for large planters. Southern local postal and police officials were known to have created schemes to arrest alleged "draft dodgers." In this racket, postal authorities deliberately failed to send registration cards to eligible black men. Policemen would then arrest these delinquent "draft dodgers," enabling officers to collect the $50 reward, half of which would go to the postmen (Williams 1923:21-22; Barbeau and Henri 1974:37; Johnson 1943:300).
Despite this bias in recruitment, the Army was far ahead of other military departments, opening opportunities for blacks to serve in almost every branch except the pilot section of the aviation corps. During World War I, African Americans served in cavalry and infantry regiments, engineer, signal, medical, hospital, ambulance and veterinary corps, sanitary and ammunition trains, coast and field artillery, and depot brigades. Blacks also served as regimental adjutants, judge advocates, chaplains, intelligence officers, chemists, surveyors, draftsmen, truck drivers, and mechanics.
The Marines, on the other hand, excluded African Americans entirely from their forces. The Navy and Coast Guard, although not barring blacks from serving, discouraged enlistment by bluntly telling them that they would be employed only as messmen, water tenders, and coal passers (Moton 1918:74). Rather than serve in these degrading positions, most black men went to Army recruiting stations in the hope of serving in a combat unit (Franklin 1956:450). Consequently, blacks comprised only 1 percent of seamen in the Navy during the war (Nalty and MacGregor 1981:91; Davis 1943:345-346; Mueller 1945:111-112).
Appeasement of African Americans
To alleviate African Americans’ concerns over their treatment in the military and to diminish tensions between the races following the summer riots of 1917, Secretary of War Newton Baker appointed Emmet J. Scott (Secretary of Tuskegee Institute) as his Special Assistant on 5 October 1917. In this capacity, Scott was to serve as "confidential advisor in matters affecting the interests of the 10,000,000 Negroes of the United States, and the part they are to play in connection with the present war" (Scott 1969:40). Despite his influential position, Scott did not earnestly fight for the African American cause while serving in Washington. Instead, he chose to serve as an effective middle man, conveying decisions of the War Department to his black brethren, while relaying their concerns to military leaders. Blacks throughout the country commended Baker for selecting an African American to such an important post. Whites, too, were generally pleased with the selection, believing that an African American was best suited for solving problems special to their race (Outlook 1917:117:279; Coffman 1968:70; Scott 1969:41).
Creation of Black Units
Overall, the military continued to discriminate against African Americans by limiting their assignments primarily to labor battalions. Black men hoped to demonstrate their patriotism and loyalty by serving in combat units, fighting the Germans on the front lines. The War Department, gave few of them this opportunity, explaining that it would:
select those colored men of the best physical stamina, highest education and mental development for the combatant troops. After this cream has been skimmed off, there remains a large percentage of colored men of the ignorant, illiterate, day-laborer class (Nalty and MacGregor 1981:80).
Military leaders believed that this large laboring class of African Americans did not have the physical, mental, or moral character necessary to withstand combat. Consequently, the Army assigned them to labor battalions, constructing wharves, docks, railroads, and warehouses. They also loaded and unloaded freight, felled trees, repaired roads, and buried soldiers killed in action. Of the 200,000 African American soldiers in the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), over 160,000 (or 80 percent) served in this capacity (Table 6.1). In fact, blacks comprised more than one-third of all labor troops, although they formed less than 10 percent of the expeditionary force (Barbeau and Henri 1974:89; Wilson 1939:44).
Table 6.1 Labor and Other Service Units
|Butchery Companies||Nos. 322, 363|
|Engineer Service Battalions||Nos. 505-550 inclusive|
|Labor Battalions||Nos. 304-315 inclusive, 317-327 inclusive,
329-348 inclusive, 357
|Labor Companies||Nos. 301-324 inclusive|
|Pioneer Infantry Battalions||Nos. 801-809 inclusive, 811, 813-816 inclusive|
|Stevedore Battalions||Nos. 701, 702|
|Stevedore Regiments||Nos. 301, 302, 303|
The War Department rationalized their policy of placing blacks in labor battalions on several grounds. First, there was a shortage of common labor in the Allied Armies; France, especially, was in desperate need of manual labor. Second, many whites, especially southerners, were still afraid of training large numbers of blacks in the use of firearms, and it conformed to their long-held views that blacks were fit only for manual labor. Assigning African Americans to labor units helped alleviate both these problems. Third, the larger number of blacks in labor battalions allowed more whites to serve in the combat units (Williams 1923:38; Wilson 1939:44).
Regular Army Regiments
While some justification, albeit thin, could be made for placing many African Americans in labor battalions in that discriminatory behavior had left many uneducated, the policy of the Army not to use the all-black Regular Army units overseas seems illogical. However, the War Department announced that they would not assign any of the four all-black Regular Army regiments (9th and 10th Cavalry and 24th and 25th Infantry) in combat roles overseas. The War Department feared that these units, some of which were involved in racial incidents at home, might cause trouble in France. Consequently the Army dispersed these all-black regiments throughout American-held territory. They sent the 9th Cavalry to Stotsenberg Camp in Luzon, Philippines, for the duration. The 10th Cavalry spent the war years patrolling the United States-Mexican border around Fort Huachuca near Tombstone, Arizona. In the summer of 1917, the three battalions of the 24th Infantry (stationed in Columbus, New Mexico) received orders to relocate to several camps in Texas and New Mexico. The 25th Infantry, stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, had high hopes for service in France until early summer of 1918 when they received orders to transfer to Camp Little in Nogales, Arizona, for the remainder of the war (Barbeau and Henri 1974:27-28; Muller 1972:n.p.; Nankivell 1972:144-145).
The experience of these veterans, however, was not completely wasted. Over 1,600 men belonging to these units were transferred into newly formed black divisions of officers, specialists, and noncommissioned officers. Nevertheless, African Americans vigorously denounced this lack of opportunity for black soldiers to serve in combat. In response to this protest, the War Department created two all-black infantry divisions late in 1917 — the 92nd and 93rd (Foner 1974:117; Williams 1923:156).
Although military leaders desired to put remaining African American recruits into labor battalions, black public sentiment demanded that they assign them to combat units. As a result, the War Department in October 1917 created the 92nd Division under the command of Brigadier General Charles C. Ballou. Unlike the 93rd, the Army organized the 92nd along similar lines as other American Divisions. Components of the 92nd Division included four Infantry Battalions, three Field Artillery Battalions, three Machine Gun Battalions, an Engineer Regiment, an Engineer Train, a Signal Corps, and Trench Mortar Battery (Table 6.2). Most officers were African American; however, blacks were unable to attain a rank higher than first lieutenant, and in no unit did a black officer outrank a white. Unfortunately, members of the 92nd never trained together while stationed in the United States. Recent incidents involving black troops in Texas had compelled the War Department to distribute the various units among seven camps in the North, depriving the division the opportunity to develop pride, trust, and cohesiveness (Barbeau and Henri 1974:81-82; Williams 1923:156; American Battle Monument Commission [ABMC] 1944a:1, subsequent citations: ABMC 1944a; Lee 1966:5; CMHUSA 1988:431).
Table 6.2 Elements of the 92nd Division
|183d Infantry Brigade||365th Infantry, 366th Infantry, 350th Machine Gun Battalion|
|184th Infantry Brigade||367th Infantry, 368th Infantry, 351st Machine Gun Battalion|
|167th Field Artillery Brigade||349th Field Artillery, 350th Field Artillery,
Artillery, 317th Trench Mortar Battery
|Divisional Troops||349th Machine Gun Battalion, 317th Engineers, 325th Field Signal Battalion, Headquarters Troop|
|Trains||317th Train Headquarters and Military Police,
Ammunition Train, 317th Supply Train, 317th Engineer Train, 317th Sanitary Train (Ambulance and Field Hospitals 365-368)
The 93rd Division, commanded by Brigadier General Roy Hoffman, a white officer, was organized at Camp Stuart, Newport News, Virginia, in December 1917. This unit was different from most infantry divisions because it was limited to four infantry regiments, three of which were National Guard units from New York, Illinois, Ohio, Maryland, Tennessee, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Washington DC. Draftees from North and South Carolina filled the division’s fourth infantry regiment. Because the 93rd was comprised of a mixture of national guard units and draftees, it lacked uniformity in its experience and leadership. Possessing neither artillery brigades, divisional troops or trains, the division also lacked its full complement of combat units and support elements (Table 6.3). As a result, the 93rd never attained full divisional strength and never really functioned as a division. The 93rd Division did have African American officers of junior grades but were otherwise commanded by white officers (CMHUSA 1988, 2:437; ABMC 1944b:1; Williams 1923:195, 208, 219, 229-230; Lee 1966:5).
Table 6.3. Elements of 93rd Division.
|185th Infantry Brigade||369th Infantry, 370th Infantry|
|186th Infantry Brigade||371st Infantry, 372nd Infantry|
Demands for African American Officers
The Army had very few black officers in its ranks before America’s entry into war, hanging on to the argument that "the experience of our own and other armies had demonstrated undeniably that colored troops cannot be made efficient unless they have white officers" (Judy 1930:57). African American leaders were dissatisfied with this explanation. In December 1917 a committee of black leaders, led by Joel E. Spingarn, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), initiated efforts to have black servicemen obtain reserve officer training in the newly created Plattsburg camps. Not wanting to suggest any equality between the races, the Wilson Administration and the Army refused to integrate officer training camps. Spingarn responded that if the military refused to allow black officer candidates to train with whites, then they should "give them a camp of their own" (Crisis 1917 14:60). Although some African Americans disagreed with Spingarn’s proposal for a segregated camp, they all concurred that black soldiers should have the opportunity for officer training (Chase 1978:298-299; Patton 1981:54-55; Williams 1923:36).
Constant pressure by African Americans (especially in Washington, DC where the decision would be made) and wartime expediency finally forced the War Department to authorize the establishment of a Volunteer Negro Officers’ Training Camp in May 1917. Yet additional roadblocks were contrived, for the proposal of the camp required Spingarn and his followers to obtain letters of intent from 200 college-educated men. A letter to the Atlanta Independent reflected the view of many blacks concerning this new opportunity:
There is a terrible responsibility resting upon us. The government has challenged the Negro race to prove its worth, particularly the worth of its educated leaders. We must succeed and pour into camp in overwhelming numbers. Let no man slack (Nalty and MacGregor 1981:76).
The black collegiate community responded aggressively in fulfilling the required stipulation, eventually providing over 1,500 names to the War Department (Scott 1969:82-84; Patton 1981:54).
Creation of Fort Des Moines
Government officials decided to locate the new training camp in Des Moines, Iowa, hoping that its relative isolation and small black population would reduce the possibility of racial conflict. To help prevent such an event from occurring, the commander of Fort Des Moines, Lieutenant Colonel (later General) Charles C. Ballou, reminded black candidates of their place in society: "this country is nine-tenths white and one-tenth colored and that we need not expect democratic treatment" (Long 1943:310; Patton 1981:55).
Approximately 1,250 men attended Fort Des Moines during its brief existence from June to October 1917. Two-hundred and fifty candidates were noncommissioned officers while the remainder came from the civilian population. There is evidence that the Army intentionally selected the poorest candidates to ensure their failure and prove that blacks were not officer material (DuBois 1919a:69). In classification tests conducted by the Army, for example, only 12 percent of the men at Des Moines had above-average ratings, compared to 75 percent of white candidates. Moreover, black candidates needed only a high school education, while the Army required whites to have a college degree (Hastie 1943:317; Barbeau and Henri 1974:58).
Ballou, his staff of 12 West Point Graduates, and a group of noncommissioned officers from the 4 black regiments, put the candidates through a rigorous training routine. A typical day at Fort Des Moines included:
5:30 a.m. -- reveille and flag raising.
6:00-7:00 -- breakfast.
7:00-8:30 -- infantry drill without arms.
8:30-9:00 -- physical training.
9:15-10:15 -- infantry drill with arms
10:45-11:45 -- a practice hike without arms.
12:00-1:30 -- lunch.
1:30-2:30 -- training in arms.
2:30-3:00 -- semaphore signaling.
3:00-4:30 -- instruction on care of equipment.
4:30-6:00 -- dinner.
6:00-9:00 -- instruction on organization of the regiment.
9:30 -- call to quarters.
9:45 -- Taps.
As candidates advanced, instructors added bayoneting, maneuvering, map reading, and rifle practice to their regimen. Despite this seemingly intensive training schedule, candidates at Fort Des Moines received poor and inadequate instruction. Unfortunately, they did not realize this until placed on the front lines, when much of it proved "to be so utterly useless" (Long 1943:310). In all fairness, however, all U.S. Army units had received training and instruction irrelevant to the potential combat situations to be found in the front lines of the Great War (DuBois 1919a:69; Williams 1923:41-42; Chase 1978:307; Patton 1981:58-59).
On 15 October 1917, 639 members of the first (and only) class at Fort Des Moines received their commissions as either Captain or First and Second Lieutenant and were assigned to infantry, engineer, and artillery units with the 92nd Division. Soon after their departure, the War Department closed Fort Des Moines and announced that future black candidates would attend regular officer training facilities. The military had no official policy regarding the integration of black candidates within these camps. Instead, they allowed each facility to determine its own policy. Consequently, some camps such as Fort Sill (Oklahoma) practiced segregation, while others like Camp Pike (Arkansas) and Camp Hancock (Georgia) integrated their candidates. Posts using the latter policy experienced the fewest problems between black and white candidates (Hastie 1943:316). Over 700 additional African Americans graduated from these camps, bringing the total number of black officers who served in the war to 1,353. However, this figure comprised only about 0.7 percent of all officers in the American Army, although blacks constituted 13 percent of draftees (Davis 1948:502-503; Barbeau and Henri 1974:58).
Discrimination Against Black Officers
The new status of these black servicemen did not exclude them from discrimination and persecution. The most frequent insult, for instance, was refusal of white enlisted men to salute black officers. White officers also demonstrated intolerance towards their black counterparts by barring them from officers’ clubs and quarters. In addition, white officers would not tolerate a black of the same grade in their unit. Such overt insolence resulted in numerous altercations. To reduce the number of possible conflicts, commanders transferred black officers to other divisions and replaced them with whites (Foner 1974:118-119; Barbeau and Henri 1974:65).
Because its primary mission was to win a war, and not to solve the race problem, the War Department ignored discrimination both at home and overseas (Barbeau and Henri 1974:64-66). The abuse and mistreatment of these officers only added to the increasing animosity between the races. One African American officer described his feelings toward whites:
I am beginning to wonder whether it will ever be possible for me to see an American (white) without wishing that he were in his Satanic Majesty’s private domain. I must pray long and earnestly that hatred of my fellow man be removed from my heart and that I can truthfully lay claim to being a Christian (Davis and Hill 1985:181).
Training in the United States
Southern Fear of Armed Blacks
While African American officers were training at Fort Des Moines, the conscripted soldiers began arriving at various cantonments throughout the country. Many of these conscripts received hostile receptions from white military personnel and civilians. Southerners, who feared large numbers of armed blacks, were particularly hostile. Previous confrontations between black troops and white citizens had instilled fear among southerners that additional armed black servicemen would provoke further violence. As a result, governors, mayors, and congressmen throughout the South vehemently protested the placement of black soldiers in their states (Coffman 1968:69).
A conference in Washington addressed these trepidations and concluded that while southerners might protest African American soldiers from other states in their camps, they could not legitimately prevent blacks from their own states from training in their cantonments. Still, to mollify their apprehensions, the War Department stipulated that black troops could not comprise more than one-fourth the total number of military personnel at any camp (Scott 1969:72-75, 92-93; Embree 1918:537; Wilson 1939:44). Consequently, African American soldiers were stationed at nearly 50 camps throughout the country (Chapter 9).
Despite southerners’ fears of racial conflict, few serious clashes occurred between black servicemen and white citizens. The most serious incidents occurred at Camp Wadsworth, South Carolina, where soldiers of the 15th New York regiment (369th) were forced out of the state by local citizens only 2 weeks after their arrival, and at Camp MacArthur, Texas, where black soldiers became involved in a shoot-out with local police. Fortunately no casualties resulted from the altercation (Christian 1986:68-69). Black troops at Camps Jackson, South Carolina; Stuart, Virginia; and Logan, Texas, experienced little racial violence throughout their training (Coffman 1968:73). This was due primarily to the discipline and behavior of black soldiers, who viewed their placement in southern cantonments as an opportunity to allay whites’ concerns by conducting themselves honorably. Such an attitude is exemplified by an officer of the 370th Infantry, who, upon his arrival at Camp Logan in Houston, Texas remarked:
Hardly had we arrived at our Training Camp before we were impressed with the fact that it was up to us to make good by converting the whites of Houston from hate to love, to make a people who regarded the regiment as a bunch of lawless men, to realize that we would wade through the fires of Hell to gain and hold for our race a large place in the sun (Bradden n.d.:28).
Military leaders helped prevent racial conflicts with civilians by ordering their black soldiers to respect local segregation restrictions. In a bulletin issued to his men on 28 March 1918, General Charles Ballou (commander of the 92nd Division), explained that his order had:
nothing to do with any policy of segregation, or with any policy outside of the military establishment. Its purpose was to prevent race friction, with the attendant prejudice to good order and military discipline. Good order and military discipline are the foundation stones of the military service. They are indispensable (Scott 1969:100).
He concluded the message, warning that "White men made the Division, and they can break it just as easily if it becomes a trouble maker" (Coffman 1968:72). This order caused great disappointment among black soldiers in the 92nd Division, who quickly lost confidence in their commander.
As in previous wars and conflicts, African American soldiers received inadequate and inferior provisions. Black soldiers often went for long periods without shoes and overcoats — even in winter. Quartermasters at Newport News, Virginia, gave black troops old Civil War uniforms. Camp commanders often crammed up to 30 men into 16- by 16-foot tents, while housing white servicemen in comfortable barracks. Such inadequate furnishings were sometimes fatal. During the winter of 1917-1918 over 20 black servicemen at Camp Alexandria, Virginia, froze to death in their tents. Black soldiers stationed there also lacked access to bathing facilities or a change of clothing during one 4-month period. During winter months, cooks and mess attendants served food outdoors; the food frequently froze before the troops could consume it. Not all black soldiers, however, received such gross mistreatment. Those housed at newly constructed national army cantonments where barracks were plentiful, lived comfortably in dwellings with heat, ventilation, sanitary latrines, and spacious mess halls (Williams 1923:25-26, 141; Foner 1974:119; Wilson 1939:44).
In addition to obtaining inadequate provisions, most black soldiers received insufficient training. Those assigned to labor battalions received virtually no military instruction, although regulations specifically required camp commanders to provide labor battalions with a "minimum of training under arms" (Nalty and MacGregor 1981:78). What training non-combat troops did receive usually consisted of parade drilling, with some target practice; most never participated in gas attack drills. One soldier assigned to a labor battalion described his company’s training as "marching to and from work with hoes, shovels, and picks on our shoulders" (Williams 1923:27).
Defending their neglect of African American conscripts, the War Department explained that since these troops would not actually fight, they required little training. Moreover, their Allies in France and Britain were in desperate need of laborers, and further training would delay their arrival overseas. Racial discrimination evidently played the determining factor, for all white soldiers — even those in labor battalions — received full basic training (DuBois 1919a:65; Barbeau and Henri 1974:97-99; Williams 1923:27).
Adding insult to inadequate training, the Army contracted out black soldiers to white civilians. While these servicemen cleared land, built roads, and harvested crops, camp commanders kept the profits their labor generated. This practice suggests that the Army viewed African American soldiers merely as conscripted labor to use for their own monetary gain (Scott 1969:106; Barbeau and Henri 1974:100).
African American soldiers assigned to combat units received more training than those belonging to labor battalions. But the amount of instruction these combat troops received varied considerably, depending on their commanding officer. Many black soldiers received full combat training: they were taught the importance of discipline and organization, practiced sighting and shooting, and participated in bayonet, gas, and grenade exercises. Other camp commanders, however, made their black soldiers (even officers) perform menial tasks such as cleaning camp, making repairs, digging trenches, scrubbing floors, and pulling sentinel duty, while allowing less than an hour per day for drill instruction. Some instructors limited their training to military courtesy (Crisis 1918:228; Heywood 1928:11).
Labor Battalions Overseas
The first African American troops sent overseas were the to labor units, commonly referred to by blacks as "Slave Battalions" (Bradden n.d.:48). Regardless of its ignominious role, labor battalions provided the core of the Allied logistics system in Europe. The success of any military campaign, in fact, depends on efficient supply and transportation. To motivate black stevedores, military leaders promised special leave if they attained specified goals.
With such incentives, black stevedores often worked in 24-hour shifts under grueling conditions. At one French port they unloaded 1,200 tons of flour in 9˝ hours, a task usually requiring several days (Franklin 1956:454). This "army behind the army," working at numerous bases, ports, and railroad depots in France and Britain, successfully supplied and transported more than 4 million American servicemen (Marcossan 1919: 66-67, 101).
The duties of labor battalions were not limited to unloading ships and transporting men and material. After battles, military authorities assigned non-combat troops the grisly task of burying the bloated, decomposed, and mutilated bodies of soldiers killed in action. They also filled trenches, carefully removed unexploded shells from fields, and cleared equipment and barbed wire (Barbeau and Henri 1974:165).
Despite the crucial, back-breaking labor they performed, African American stevedores received the worst treatment of all black troops during the war. In their journeys to France, for instance, black stevedores were forced to sleep on the lowest decks, with little or no ventilation. Upon arrival in France, white officers worked them up to 16 hours a day, frequently subjecting them to physical violence for perceived slowness. The Army also did not provide labor battalions with adequate food. Exhausted after work, they were forced to sleep in poor housing (frequently barns and stables), and were rarely provided opportunities for relaxation and recreation in nearby towns and villages. Additionally, few of these men received promotions or citations for their important contributions (Williams 1923:147; Barbeau and Henri 1974:106; Dubois 1919a:65; Bradden n.d.:48).
Combat in France
The performance of the two black combat divisions is a story of contrast. On the one hand, units belonging to the 93rd Division, particularly the 369th regiment, performed admirably on the front lines. On the other, the 92nd faltered under heavy fire, especially members belonging to the 368th regiment. Such contrast in performance revealed more about the training and provisioning than the capabilities of the troops as combat soldiers. Nevertheless, the less than outstanding performance of the 92nd Division had a lasting effect on white military leaders, who already believed that blacks (especially black officers) were unfit to fight in or lead men into battle.
The first African American combat troops to arrive in France belonged to the 369th Infantry of the 93rd Division. The division sailed from Hoboken, New Jersey, on 12 December 1917 aboard the USS Pocahontas. The ship arrived at the port city of Brest, in northwestern France, just 15 days later despite experiencing engine trouble, an onboard fire, and colliding with a British oil tanker. Additional units of the division arrived in various stages during March and April 1918 (CMHUSA 1988, 2:437; Little 1936:77-98).
When the 93rd arrived in France, the situation was desperate for the Allies. After nearly 4 years of fighting, France’s army, composed primarily of men either too old or too young to be effective fighters, was near defeat. Although Britain’s troops possessed higher morale, they were also weakened by years of intense fighting and could offer little assistance. Russia’s military was also rapidly declining. The weakened Allies could not hold out much longer (Esposito 1964:103; CMHUSA 1992:7, 21).
The Central forces, on the other hand, were still strong with their resources untouched by hostile occupation. German troops were near Paris, preparing to attack the city. Arthur Little, a black officer with the 369th Infantry, described the situation in France upon his arrival in the final days of 1917:
When we first landed in France we found the morale of the country at a very low ebb. France was bled white. The cry for help which for months, even for years, had been going out to sister republics across the sea, had given way to a cry of despair. France was beaten. And she was so sick of body and heart that the common people of the towns and the soldiers of the ranks not only sensed defeat but admitted it (Little 1936:185).
With the United States’ entrance into the war, the Allies breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Members of the 92nd Division were anxious to prove themselves in battle. William S. McNutt exclaimed to his comrades in arms:
Now is our opportunity to prove what we can do. If we can’t fight and die in this war just as bravely as white men, then we don’t deserve an equality with white men, and after the war we had better go back home and forget about it all. But if we can do things on the front; if we can make ourselves felt; if we can make America really proud of ole_______th, then I am sure it will be the biggest step toward our equalization as citizens (McNutt 1918:179).
However, their enthusiasm was soon diminished upon witnessing the grim realities of war. One black serviceman recounted his first exposure to the human carnage resulting from combat:
After while us landed where there was a whole lot of blind men, and one-legged men, and one-armed men, and sick men, all coming this way. Man! It was sure a bad looking sight. Then I asked a white man, "Where did all these wounded men come from?" And he says, "Nigger, they come from right where you are going to be day after tomorrow" (MacIntyre 1923:56).
Integration Into French Army. France, her armies depleted and exhausted, begged the United States for additional manpower. John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, promised them four American regiments. He decided to give them the four regiments of the 93rd Division because France’s military had experience in using Senegalese soldiers, and this arrangement would also solve the problem of integrating his own troops. The 93rd Division joined France’s 4th Army approximately 2 months after their arrival in France and remained with them until the close of hostilities (Barbeau and Henri 1974:112; Nalty and MacGregor 1981:81-82).
The French military armed, equipped, and organized the 93rd as a French division. The 93rd adjusted quickly to their new assignment, but not without some difficulties. Used to three substantial meals a day (usually consisting of meat stews and cornbread), it took the black soldiers some time to become accustomed to the French Army ration of soup and bread served twice daily. The French also replaced the 93rd’s American equipment with their own rifles, pistols, helmets, machine-guns, horses, and even wagons. In addition to provisions, American soldiers experienced typical problems with communication and monetary exchange (House Report 1925:1-3; Scott 1969:216).
369th. The overseas contribution of the 369th began rather ignominiously. Instead of placement behind the front lines for intensive training, the American Army ordered the 369th to move to St-Nazaire and Camp Coetquidan on the western coast for duty with the Services of Supply (S.O.S.). For nearly 2˝ months they unloaded ships, guarded German prisoners, drained swamps, laid railroad track, and constructed store-houses, roads, docks, hospitals, and dams (Racshke 1977:51; Scott 1969:201; Coffman 1968:232). Members of the 369th were insulted by their placement with the S.O.S. This "pick and shovel" work destroyed the morale of these combat soldiers. "We put up with it, and the incidental indignities, for a long time," exclaimed one serviceman, "but the condition was not to be endured indefinitely" (Little 1936:99).
The 369th did not have to endure this mistreatment indefinitely, for on 10 March they received orders to join the French 16th Division (4th Army) in Givry en Argonne for additional training. After nearly 3 weeks of instruction in modern tactics of trench warfare, the battalion began moving up to the front lines in a region just west of the Argonne Forest near the Aisne River. For nearly a month they defended a 5-kilometer section against several German assaults. Although the 369th comprised less than 1 percent of American troops in France, it held 20 percent of all territory held by American troops at the time (ABMC 1944b:4 Raschke 1977:52; Williams 1923:197-198; Scott 1969:202; CMHUSA 1988, 2:438).
After a brief respite from fighting, the 369th was placed in the path of the German offensive at Minacourt (their fifth in the Champagne-Marne Offensive). Just before the attack on 6 July, the Germans attempted to soften Allied defenses with heavy artillery fire. These shellings often inflicted a tremendous amount of damage, as described by one survivor:
stones, dirt, shrapnel, limbs and whole trees filled the air. The noise and concussion alone were enough to kill one. Talk about shell shock. The earth swayed and shook and fairly bounced with the awful impact. Flashes of fire, the metallic crack of high explosives, the awful explosions that dug holes fifteen and twenty feet in diameter, the utter and complete pandemonium and the stench of hell, your friends blown to bits, the pieces dropping near you — even striking you (Ross 1920:54).
The German shelling failed to have the desired effect, enabling the Allies to thwart the assault. This failed offensive had a devastating psychological effect on the German military. The Germans expected the attack to be the crushing blow that would end the war.
On 18 July the Allies launched a counter-offensive (Aisne-Marne, 18 July-6 August) in the Marne bulge. The 369th regiment, still supporting the French 161st, helped drive the Germans from their entrenchments at Butte de Mesnil. The Germans attempted a counter-offensive against the 369th, dropping over 9,000 shells on them in a 45-minute period (ABMC 1944b:4; Esposito 1964:117). The 369th managed to repulse the attack. By 3 August the Allies had eliminated the Marne salient, forcing the Germans to retreat behind the Vesle and Aisne Rivers.
The Germans made many small night raids into enemy Allied territory. During one of these raids, Henry Johnson, a member of the 369th Infantry, was guaranteed immortality when he fought off an entire German raiding party using a pistol and a knife. He killed four of the German raiders and wounded many more. His daring exploit prevented an injured comrade from certain capture and allowed the Allies to seize a stockpile of weaponry. Both Johnson and his comrade were wounded during the raid and received the French Croix de Guerre for their gallantry. Johnson was subsequently promoted to sergeant and became one of the most well known African American soldiers of the War.
From 26 September until 5 October, the 369th participated in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. With the successful reduction of the Marne salient, French military leaders believed the time was appropriate for a major offensive. The Allies hoped the Meuse-Argonne Offensive would sever the German line of supply in the Western Front, destroying vital railroads and railroad junctions, particularly at Aulnoye and Mezieres. The Allies planned to do this by driving a wedge into enemy lines with frontal assaults. Troops were to penetrate the enemy’s defenses, outflanking the Germans and forcing them to evacuate the Argonne Forest. This would clear a path north to the Carignan-Sedan-Mezeries railroad, and help ensure a successful offensive (ABMC 1944a:7-8; ABMC 1944b: 8-9; Esposito 1964:123, 126; CMHUSA 1992:169-170).
At 11:00 p.m. on 25 September, the Allies began an artillery bombardment in preparation for their assault, "the like of which I have never heard," exclaimed one soldier. "The thunder and the roar of the massed artillery shook the earth and the sky was alight with the flashes of the guns" (Heywood 1928:160). After more than 6 hours of shelling with heavy artillery and poisonous mustard gas, the 369th went over the top "shouting like maniacs and pouring over the embankments through the few remaining strands of barbed wire...." (Mason and Furr 1921:117). Flanked by the French 163rd on the right and 2nd Moroccan Division on the left, the 369th advanced toward the enemy. Meeting an onslaught of machine-gun and grenade fire, the troops suffered horribly, the wounded and dying emitting "groans of agony, curses, prayers, and all manner of heartrending cries...." (Mason and Furr 1921: 118). The survivors continued to push back the Germans until they evacuated the town of Ripont. (Williams 1923:201-202; ABMC 1944b:12-13; CMHUSA 1992:359-360).
The 369th continued fighting well throughout the offensive. Elements of the battalion participated in capturing the Bellevue Signal station and the strategic railroad junction at Sechault (ABMC 1944b:15; Williams 1923:202-203). The latter assault was particularly difficult as the troops encountered heavy fire from well fortified machine-guns and snipers. Only through methodical and dangerous house-by-house attacks did they succeed in forcing the enemy from the town.
In 5 days of relentless combat, the 369th incurred 851 casualties; so many losses that the regiment could not continue the advance. African American leaders back home charged Colonel Hayward (commander of the 369th) and his officers with needlessly sacrificing the lives of their men (DuBois 1919a:73). This reaction was understandable but cannot be supported considering the casualty rate incurred by other regiments throughout the war. With the regiment so depleted, the French transferred it to a quiet sector in the Vosges Mountains for rest and reorganization (Williams 1923:202-204; ABMC 1944b: 20, 23; CMHUSA 1992:423).
The combat record of the 369th should have forever put to rest concerns about African Americans’ will to fight. The regiment fought in the front lines for a total of 191 days, 5 days longer than any other regiment in the AEF. During this time the unit never lost a foot of ground or a prisoner to the enemy. Their tenacity and fearlessness in battle earned them the nickname "Hellfighters" from the Germans. France awarded the entire unit with the Croix de Guerre, that country’s highest military honor. Additionally, 171 members received individual awards for exceptional gallantry in action. This record is amazing considering the 369th received less training than many other American infantry regiments (Raschke 1977:52; Williams 1923:204-205).
370th. The 370th did not see action until early July when the regiment joined the French 36th division on the Meuse-Argonne front. Just before going into the trenches, their chaplain reminded them of the importance to perform bravery in battle:
Fellows, you stand as pioneers on the frontier of your Race’s progress. If you fail the hands on the dial of your Race’s progress will be pushed back fifty years. The whites over there are expecting you to fail because you are officered by your Race men, now go to it and show them how, when led by your own officers, you can and will charge hell with a bucket of water (Bradden n.d.:59).
The regiment did not let him down. In a drive against German lines in early July, the battalion captured 1,900 prisoners, 4 cannons, 45 trench mortars, and 200 machine guns (Barbeau and Henri 1974:124; Scott 1969:216). A few weeks later the regiment was relieved from front line service and sent to second line positions in preparation for their role in the Oise-Aisne Offensive (CMHUSA 1988, 2:441; Scott 1969:218; Bradden n.d.:71, 85, 89; ABMC 1944b:5).
The 370th proved themselves again during the Oise-Aisne Offensive — a secondary operation during late August and early September to fill the gap between the converging Meuse-Argonne and Cambrai-Saint Quentin assaults where they helped drive the Germans from Ecluse, Ferme de la Riviere, Mont-des-Singes, and Bis de Mortier. Under heavy machine gun and rifle fire they eliminated well-fortified German positions, and eventually pushed the Germans north of the Oise-Aisne Canal. Such intensive fighting took a staggering toll on the 370th. The regiment suffered the loss of about 500 officers and men during the operation, half this number in just 5 days. After this assault, the war-torn 370th acted as division reserve, patrolling south of the Oise-Aisne Canal (Scott 1969:220; Williams 1923:214-215; CMHUSA 1988, 2:441-442; ABMC 1944b: 27-29; CMHUSA 1992:91-93; Barbeau and Henri 1974:125, 127).
October was relatively quiet for the 370th division. Their only engagement occurred in the middle of the month when they participated in the advance toward Laon. With little opposition, the 370th, with assistance from the French 31st division, crossed the Oise-Aisne Canal and Ailette River and captured the town of Bois de Mortier. (ABMC 1944b:30-31; Williams 1923:214-215). The division suffered its greatest loss that month while stationed in reserve near Chambry (northeast of Laon). Here a German shell landed among a large group gathered around the kitchen, resulting in over 80 casualties and 41 deaths (Williams 1923:215; ABMC 1944b:30-31; DuBois 1919a:78). The division’s final combat duty occurred during the final days of the war, when they pursued retreating Germans and assisted in evacuating them from the towns of Beaume, Aubenton, and Signy le Petit. The 370th also had the honor of fighting in the last battle of the war, capturing a German wagon train ˝ hour after the armistice went into effect (Franklin 1956:455).
During their combat service, the 370th suffered 20 percent casualties and lost only 1 man as a prisoner. Although they did not achieve the record of the 369th, the 370th did performed very well. They were not awarded a unit Croix de Guerre, but 71 individual servicemen did receive the medal and another 21 accepted the Distinguished Service Cross, America’s second highest military decoration. Company C, however, received a Croix de Guerre with palm for conspicuous bravery (Williams 1923:215-216; Barbeau and Henri 1974:127; ABMC:32-33; CMHUSA 1988, 2:442; CMHUSA 1992:91-93: Scott 1969:230).
371st. After receiving intensive training in the French military system, trench warfare, and proper use of gas masks and grenades, the 371st was sent to the Verdun area in early June to replenish the badly depleted French 157th division (the famous "Red Hand" under General Goybet). The regiment remained on the front lines for more than 3 months. Most of its duty consisted of patrols and nightly raids on enemy outposts. On 14 September the French military command ordered the 371st to Somme Bione, Champagne, to participate in the upcoming Meuse-Argonne (Champagne) Offensive (Heywood 1928:65, 66, 76, 97-100; Williams 1923:222-223; Barbeau and Henri 1974:134; CMHUSA 1988, 2:439; ABMC 1944:6).
The regiment’s first combat assignment was to fill a gap between the French 161st division and 2nd Moroccan division. In heavy fighting (often hand-to-hand) the regiment captured 60 prisoners, 3 field guns, 2 anti-tank rifles, and large quantities of ammunition. Over the next 2 days the regiment forced the Germans from Bussy Farm and assisted in the capture of Ardeuil and Montfauxelle. These were hard-won victories. At times the Germans had their machine guns "runnin’ like a millrace on us" commented one black soldier (Literary Digest 1919:57). Ravaged by a 45 percent casualty rate, the 371st was elated when they were relieved of combat duty and sent to a reserve area in Vosges. One soldier described the regiment’s march from the front lines:
A dirty, tired, haggard, nerve-shattered bunch of men we were, but as we moved to the rear and the din of battle grew fainter we breathed easier and knew that for the time being at least, we were safe from the death that had stared us in the face for days. It was a quiet and somber column of men that pulled out of that sector (Heywood 1928:193).
The 371st remained in the relative quiet Vosges region near the German border until the Armistice.
During its participation in the Champagne offensive, the 371st had captured 3 German officers, 90 men, and large amounts of weaponry including 8 trench mortars, 37 77mm guns, 47 machine guns, a munitions depot and several railroad cars. All this came at a heavy price; the regiment lost 4 officers and 122 men; an additional 41 officers and 873 men were wounded. For its extraordinary bravery the regiment was awarded the Croix de Guerre with palm. Additionally, 3 officers won the French Legion of Honor, 123 men earned the Croix de Guerre, and 26 won the Distinguished Service Cross — more and higher honors than any other regiment in the 93rd Division (Franklin 1956:455; Barbeau and Henri 1974:135-136).
372nd. Although the 372nd arrived in France in mid April 1918, assignment to stevedore work at Montoir and further training prevented it from reaching the front lines until early June. During the summer, the regiment served under several different French divisions, primarily in the Verdun sector, a relatively quiet part of the front; the unit saw little action (CMHUSA 1988, 2:439; ABMC 1944b:6). Probably their most gruesome and unpleasant task during the hot summer months was redigging the bombed trenches. One soldier assigned to this grisly duty recounted:
In digging new trenches all sorts of relics of the previous fighting were uncovered, skulls, bones, and putrid clothing, rusted and rotting equipment of all kinds. The odor became so offensive and dangerous that medical attention was called to it and disinfectant constantly employed to keep down disease and other infection (Mason and Furr 1921:86).
During August white officers of the 371st and 372nd Infantry regiments began a campaign to discredit their black counterparts. On the 24th of that month Herchel Tupes, commander of the 372nd requested permission from General Pershing to replace his African American officers with whites. He explained that there was a tendency for the black officers to "neglect the welfare of their men and to perform their duties in a perfunctory manner." It appears, however, that Tupes’s main reason for the request was to maintain racial barriers in his division (Davis and Hill 1985:176-177).
Upon General Pershing’s approval, Tupes immediately placed the black officers of the 372nd on trial by all white "efficiency boards." These courts found most officers incompetent for military duty — either because of a lack of training or inadequate education. The military discharged some, transferred a few to other units, and placed the remainder in labor battalions. African American officers in the 371st went through a similar experience. Ultimately, the military relieved over 80 black officers in these two regiments. Black servicemen in these regiments were furious and contemplated mutiny. Only after regiment commanders threatened to transfer them to labor battalions were these protests suppressed. The unit, however, never regained its morale (DuBois 1919b:16; Mason and Furr 1921:75, 98-99; Barbeau and Henri 1974:129).
Regardless of the letdown in morale, the 372nd performed admirably during the American assault in the Champagne. Only 2 days into the battle when the 372nd reached the front lines on 28 September, the area was marked by much death and destruction. "The dead were everywhere," remarked one soldier, "and the wounded suffered in the churned up fields" (Heywood 1928:161). The regiment helped drive the Germans from Bussy Farm and assisted the 369th in their attack at Sechault, where enemy resistance was heaviest. In fact, the 1st and 3rd battalions incurred such heavy losses in this attack that afterward they were combined into a single battalion.
After reorganizing, the regiment relieved the 371st at Trieres Farm on 1 October and assisted in the capture of Monthois (an important railway center and base of supply). Here the regiment met strong resistance and counterattacks, often forced to repel the enemy in hand-to-hand fighting. The regiment was finally relieved on 7 October by the French 125th division.
In less than 2 weeks of front line service, the 372nd received nearly 600 casualties (ABMC 1944b:24). Many of those not physically wounded "were in such a mortally shaken and nerve-racked condition" that they required medical care (Mason and Furr 1921:135). The success and sacrifice of the 372nd compelled Colonel Quillet of the French 157th to remark that their actions "gave proof, during its first engagement, of the finest qualities of bravery and daring which are the virtues of assaulting troops" (Mason and Furr 1921:125). The exploits of the regiment earned it a unit Croix de Guerre with palm. In addition, 43 officers, 14 noncommissioned officers and 116 privates received either the Croix de Guerre or Distinguished Service Cross (Barbeau and Henri 1974:131).
The 92nd Division did not perform as well in battle as its counterpart. In fact, contemporary military authorities deemed its actions in France a failure. The division suffered handicaps similar to the 93rd — discrimination, brief and inadequate training, separation of its regiments, and efforts to replace its black officers with whites. However, it suffered from one obstacle it could not overcome: a bitter career competition between General Robert Bullard, commander of the American 2nd Army and General Ballou, whose 92nd Division was under Bullard’s command. Bullard, a "thoroughgoing Negro hater" (Barbeau and Henri 1974:138), maligned the efforts of black soldiers in order to discredit his rival. Even Ballou’s chief of staff, Colonel Allen J. Greer, spread misinformation about blacks in the division to staffs and superiors (Barbeau and Henri 1974:139-140). No matter how well the 92nd performed on the battlefield, it would be unable to overcome the malicious slander thrown at it from prejudiced military commanders.
Lorraine. Upon completing their training on 12 August, the 92nd began moving to the St. Die Sector (Lorraine) near the Rhine, southeast of Metz. Two weeks later the division engaged the enemy for the first time when it assaulted and captured German positions in the region. On 30 August the Germans counter-attacked near the town of Frapelle. Elements of the 92nd intercepted the enemy and beat them back. The following day the division repeated their success against the Germans at Ormont, despite being bombarded with more than 12,000 shells in a 2˝-hour period (Williams 1923:162-163; CMHUSA 1988, 2:433; Barbeau and Henri 1974:145). The 92nd remained in the sector, performing an average of 13 patrols a day, until 20 September when they were ordered to proceed to the Argonne Forest, northwest of Clermont in preparation for the Meuse-Argonne Offensive (ABMC 1944a:4; Barbeau and Henri 1974:149).
Muese-Argonne Offensive. The 92nd Division reached the front lines just before the first assault. The 368th battalion immediately received instructions to maintain an 800-meter combat liaison (gap) between the American First Army (77th Division) and the French Fourth Army (37th Division). Since it was crucial for the two armies to maintain contact with each other, the 368th played an important role in the battle. However, their unfamiliarity with the rough and broken terrain and lack of experience or training as a liaison unit, severely hindered the 368th’s successful completion of the assignment. Their superior’s failure to provide the battalion with grenade launchers, signal flares, wire cutters, maps, and specific objectives ensured the battalion’s failure. The experience of the 368th left an indelible mark that the division could not remove no matter how well they performed thereafter. This failure also was used by military authorities for more than 30 years to prove the inadequacy of black soldiers and officers (DuBois 1919a:80; Barbeau and Henri 1974:150, 154; CMHUSA 1992:367).
In the early morning of 26 September the 2nd battalion of the 368th led the attack, with the 3rd battalion following behind in support. Unfortunately, the artillery barrage failed to destroy the heavily wired enemy positions, forcing the troops to advance through either trenches or paths. The regiment’s advance was further hampered by heavy machine-gun and artillery fire, as well as huge craters created by earlier fighting. As a result, utter confusion reigned throughout the assault, making lateral communication (their first priority) very difficult. By mid-afternoon the 2nd battalion lost contact with the American 77th Division, and a few hours later with the French 37th. The regiment finally reestablished liaison with these two divisions later that evening (ABMC 1944a:12-13; Williams 1923:164; Scott 1969:141; Barbeau and Henri 1974:150; Esposito 1964:127).
The next day General Durand ordered both battalions of the 368th to advance toward the enemy position near Clotilde. Slowed by wooded terrain and the extended width of the sector, the battalion commander lost contact with some of his units, causing a disjointed and haphazard advance. Additionally, a portion of the 3rd battalion (just 200 meters before contacting the Dromodaire trench line) broke under heavy artillery, grenade, machine-gun, and rifle fire. To regain control of his troops, the battalion commander ordered his men to withdraw to their original positions (DuBois 1919a:81-82; Williams 1923:164-165; Coffman 1968:315-317; ABMC 1944a:17-18).
After reorganizing that night, the 368th (reinforced by two companies of the 351st Machine Gun Battalion, French artillery units, and a squadron of the French 10th Dragoons) attacked in the direction of Binarville the following morning. Intense fire from trench mortars and 77mm machine-guns, inability to cut through wire entanglements, and lack of artillery support, once again forced the regiment to break their lines and retreat in turmoil. When French authorities received notice of the withdrawal, they ordered the 1st battalion of the 368th (which had been held in reserve) to relieve them and renew the attack on Binarville. Fortunately, recent Allied successes in the Champagne forced the Germans to withdraw, allowing the 1st battalion to advance 6 miles past Binarville with few obstructions and less confusion while maintaining liaison between the French and American armies (DuBois 1919a:82; Williams 1923:165; Barbeau and Henri 1974:151-152).
Marbache Sector. Because of the 368th’s lackluster performance, the entire division was relieved of duty in the region and sent to a relatively quiet portion of the front in the Marbache sector. Entering the region on 7 October, their primary mission was to harass the enemy with frequent patrols. Such assignments were quite dangerous, as reflected in the 462 casualties suffered in just 1 month of patrol activity (Barbeau and Henri 1974:157). Members of the 365th Infantry and 350th Machine Gun Battalion were decorated by French commanders for aggressiveness and bravery in this duty (Barbeau and Henri 1974:159). Yet American military commanders were not satisfied with the division’s achievement, complaining that they did not bring back enough prisoners (Barbeau and Henri 1974:159).
By 6 November the Germans were in full retreat along the entire front. The Allied Commander in Chief ordered vigorous pressure against the retreating enemy. The 92nd’s objective in this assault was to seize the heights east of Champney and continue to advance along the Moselle River. Just prior to their assault on 10 November, the commander of the 365th walked sadly along his front line troops:
looking into the face of each man, each so busy with his thoughts. How pinched, how tired — how worn they looked. Many cheeks were wet with tears. Each man made an effort to smile. Many chins and lips trembled. The very chill and the darkness seemed charged and potent with death (Ross 1920:43).
Nervousness and fear quickly faded among the troops as they advanced through heavy barbed wire entanglements, machine-gun fire, gas bombs, and booby traps (Ross 1920:52-53). By the time hostilities ceased at 11:00 the next morning, various battalions of the division had proceeded to the woods of Cheminot, Voivrette, and Frehaut surrounding Metz. Although the attack lasted only 1 day, fighting was fierce and costly for the 92nd, which suffered over 500 casualties, mostly from poisonous gas (ABMC 1944a:31-33; Barbeau and Henri 1974:160; Williams 1923:168-169; CMHUSA 1988, 2:434; DuBois 1919a:84; Garvin 1928:385).
Supporting Units. The 92nd’s infantry and artillery regiments were not the only elements of the division to make a significant contribution to the war effort in France. Non-combat battalions such as the Engineers, Signalers, and Supply trains also performed vital roles. For example, the 317th Engineers loaded baggage and constructed roads, barracks, mess halls, bath houses, warehouses, stables, and railroad yards. This regiment also labored for 3 months in the front lines where they dug and repaired trenches, mined bridges, cleared and built roads, and delivered material to the forward units (DuBois 1919a:84; Williams 1923:174-178).
Divisional trains (motor supply, ammunition, sanitary) also contributed to the successful operation of the 92nd Division. The Motor Supply and Ammunition Trains transported desperately needed rifles, ammunition, and other support materials. Sanitary Trains, which included field hospitals and ambulance companies, established "dressing stations" just behind the front lines. Here they provided necessary medical care — ranging from changing dressings to complicated surgery. Many members of this regiment also served as litter bearers, cooks, and blacksmiths (DuBois 1919a:83-84; Williams 1923:178).
Accolades. Despite the unit’s reputation as a failure, men of the 92nd received numerous commendations, awards, and citations. General John J. Pershing, the highest ranking American military leader in France, remarked, "The 92d Division stands second to none in the record you have made since your arrival in France. I commend the 92d Division for its achievements not only in the field, but on the record its men have made in their individual conduct" (Scott 1969:167). Every officer and enlisted man of the 351st Field Artillery received one Service Chevron (Ross and Slaughter n.d.:50), and the 367th Infantry received a unit Croix de Guerre for bravery in its drive toward Metz. Fifty-seven other members of the division received the Distinguished Service Cross (Scott 1969:174; Crisis 1919 17:192).
Campaign to Dishonor the 92nd. Immediately following the 368th’s debacle during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, military authorities, especially those within the 92nd Division, instituted a campaign to discredit the bravery and sacrifice of African American soldiers. They placed most of the blame on the "cowardly" behavior of the black officers. In subsequent military trials, 30 African American officers were relieved from duty and 5 were court martialed. Four men received death sentences while a fifth was given life in prison. The military eventually freed all five (Coffman 1968:317).
Robert L. Bullard, commander of the 2nd American Army, was the most vociferous critic of the African American division. "The Negro division seems in a fair way to be a failure," remarked Bullard. "They are really inferior soldiers. There is no denying it. Poor Negroes! They are hopelessly inferior" (Bullard 1925:294-295). Colonel Fred Brown, commanding officer of the 368th, investigated the charges of cowardice and incompetence of the black soldiers under his command. Brown’s report, entitled "The Inefficiency of Negro Officers" glorified his own role in the battle while depicting the lack of leadership among black officers, their refusal to follow orders, and cowardice of their retreating men. Commanders of the 1st and 3rd battalions of the 358th also joined in the criticism, claiming African American soldiers were cowards with no desire to engage the enemy.
However, such condemnations today appear to have been attempts to cover their own failures in combat and pitiful efforts to promote their belief in black inferiority. Major B.F. Norris, commander of the 3rd battalion later admitted hiding in a ditch during the failed assault. Major Max Elser, commander of the 2nd battalion, which lead the attack, broke down during the battle, begging others to take him back to safety (Barbeau and Henri 1974:153-157).
These attacks on African American troops were unjustified. Responsibility for the 368th’s inadequate performance must lay with the leaders who failed to adequately organize, train, supply, and support the division. A campaign of negligence began early in the selection and training of the division’s black officers. As General Charles C. Ballou, commander of the 92nd Division explained, "For the parts of a machine requiring the finest steel, pot metal was provided" (Nalty and MacGregor 1981:85). Army commanders assigned black officers without regard to training or education, creating a foundation for failure. For example, over 300 illiterates were selected to outfit a machine gun battalion, a very technical branch of warfare, while assigning some of the most highly educated recruits to labor battalions. As a result of such practices, over 40 percent of soldiers in the 92nd division were illiterate (Colson and Nutt 1919:22-23; Lee 1966:13).
This program for failure continued in France. Instead of receiving intensive training in trench warfare, military authorities forced the 92nd to devote most of its attention to police duty. The training and instruction they eventually received was often vague. Frequent changes in staff officers only exacerbated problems of leadership and morale. When Allied commanders ordered the battalion to join the fierce fighting at the Argonne Forest, it was ill-prepared for the encounter. This, coupled with a lack of artillery support, rifle grenades, wire cutters, maps, or even leadership during the attack, ensured the muddled performance of the battalion (Colson and Nutt 1919:24; Barbeau and Florette 1974:154).
Having noted the failure of the U.S. Army in the treatment of this unit, it must be noted that the Army in 1919 investigated the conduct of the 368th in the Argonne Forest, and exonerated it of any cowardice or failure. In their report, investigating officers concluded that the reasons for the "failure" of the battalion were the inexperience of the unit, the difficult terrain, and the lack of maps, wirecutters, and artillery support (Coffman 1968:317). This investigation and report stand as testimony to the U.S. Army’s continuing institutional effort to treat African Americans with fairness despite personal bias of certain officers and the general attitudes of the country. Unfortunately, this exoneration did not remove the tarnished reputation of African American soldiers. For the next 30 years military leaders continued to believe blacks were incompetent soldiers and restricted their duties accordingly.
Attempts to Malign Black Troops. The black soldiers’ conduct off the battlefield also came under attack. White servicemen during the war were known to have spread reckless rumors of wanton rape committed by African American troops, especially by members of the 92nd Division. Even the Chief of Staff of the 92nd, Allen J. Greer, told Congress that at least 30 members of the division had sexually assaulted females, while an additional 22 had even gang-raped one woman (DuBois 1919b:19). Subsequent investigations, however, confirmed only one charge. African American soldiers, in reality, behaved honorably while on furlough. In fact, no other American division had a better record of conduct while overseas (Williams 1923:72-75; Barbeau and Henri 1974:143; DuBois 1919a:87; Coffman 1968:232). One mayor even wrote the commander of an African American brigade, remarking:
The entire population is unanimous in reaching the conclusion that the attitude and behavior of your soldiers have been above reproach. They have earned our high regard by their discipline and their faultless behavior and have likewise endeared themselves to us by their good nature and kindliness to all (Miller 1925:304d).
The contributions of African Americans to the war effort increased their expectations and self-conceptions as American citizens, "confident that after democracy was rendered safe abroad they would receive some few crumbs of democracy at home" (The Nation June, 931). Lieutenant Osceola McKaine of the 367th infantry asked: "Is the servant to remain without compensation for his services? These self-inquiries are recurrent and constant. His homecoming will give him the answer" (McKaine 1919:50). A white man addressing a group of Negroes in New Orleans just prior to the Armistice provided the answer to McKaine’s query. "You are wondering how you are going to be treated after the war," he chided. "Well, I’ll tell you, you are going to be treated exactly like you were before the war; this is a white man’s country and we expect to rule it" (Blanton 1919:20). Realizing that they would have to fight for equal treatment, one black leader raised a clarion call to his brethren:
We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting. But by the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over, we do not marshall every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land (Crisis 1919 18:14).
Believing that the Negroes’ increased efforts for equal rights posed a threat to the established order, many whites renewed their reign of terror to maintain African American subordination. The Ku Klux Klan, dormant since the 1880s, reinstituted tactics of fear and violence against blacks. As black troops returned home, racial violence increased. During the summer and fall of 1919, race riots erupted in 26 cities across America. The most violent conflicts occurred in New York City, Chicago, Charleston, Norfolk, Knoxville, Longview in Texas, and Bisbee in Arizona. Lynchings also increased from 58 in 1918 to 77 the following year. At least 10 of the victims, moreover, were war veterans (Barbeau and Henri 1974:177; Donaldson 1991:100-101; Foner 1974:125-126).
Despite their treatment in the armed forces, a large portion of African American servicemen and officers volunteered for postwar duty. Most of these men reenlisted because of the restricted range of economic opportunities open to them and the greater chances for social recognition and relative economic security provided by the Army. Whites, with better employment opportunities in the civilian sector, left the military en masse. Military leaders were fearful that should this trend continue, the Army might possibly become disproportionately black (Foner 1974:127; Donaldson 1991:102; Lee 1966:3-4).
To prevent this from happening, the War Department acted as it had in previous non-war years imposing restrictions on African American enlistment in the cavalry and infantry. Ignoring their record in the war, military leaders argued that blacks, due to certain racial characteristics, were intellectually, physically, and biologically inferior to whites, and were unfit for modern combat. The military discouraged enlistments, and accepted reenlistments only conditionally. The four black regiments created shortly after the Civil War (9th and 10th Cavalry and 24th and 25th Infantry), which could not be disbanded without Congressional approval, were reduced significantly and used primarily as service battalions. African Americans soldiers, though, continued to serve in all-black National Guard units in New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia.
The lack of military opportunities continued for African Americans throughout the 1930s. The Army accepted blacks only when there were vacancies. Since most blacks reenlisted, few others had the opportunity to enroll. To enter the Army, a black man had to find out what posts had black units assigned to it, discover if there were any vacancies, apply to the commander of the base, and present himself at the post once enlistment was authorized. The difficulty of this procedure ensured few blacks would ever enlist. Therefore, it is no surprise that African Americans comprised only 2 percent of servicemen in the Army and National Guard (Donaldson 1991:101-102; Nalty 1986:128-129; Johnson 1969:55; Nalty and MacGregor 1981:92-93; Foner 1974:128; Lee 1966:24-27).
The Army also continued to bar blacks from the Air Corps, arguing that Congress had not made provisions for such a unit; moreover, they claimed that not enough black men possessed the education or technical training in operating and servicing aircraft to comprise an entire unit. Eugene Jacque Bullard, a southern black who left the United States for Europe to escape increasing racism, proved these military policymakers wrong when he became the first (and only) African American to pilot an aircraft during the war. While in Europe, Bullard lived a bohemian life until joining the French Foreign Legion soon after hostilities erupted in 1914. After recovering from serious wounds he received while fighting as an infantryman, Bullard volunteered for flight training. He quickly mastered the limited skills necessary to pilot the crude aircraft (nicknamed "chicken-coops") and joined a pursuit squadron in 1917. On 7 November of that year he shot down a German triplane. Throughout his service as a pilot for France, Bullard offered his assistance to the United States air corps, but was rebuffed by the Army, which wanted this elite corps to remain white (Nalty 1986:123-24).
Army leaders continued to ignore the achievements of black pilots after the war. Flight training schools at Tuskegee Institute and other black institutions were successfully training hundreds of African Americans to service and fly airplanes. In reality, military and political leaders were afraid that if blacks excelled as fighter pilots, then they would have a legitimate reason to seek and demand more important roles in both the military and civilian sectors (Donaldson 1991:104; Nalty 1981:130, 133-135; Nalty and MacGregor 1986:94).
African Americans faced discrimination in other branches of the military, too. The Marine Corps continued to exclude blacks altogether during this period. The Navy continued to use blacks in their traditional roles as laborers, messmen, servants, and housekeepers. They also paid them less than other sailors and provided them with no advancement opportunities. In fact, not one of the 20,000 officers in the Navy was black. As African American seamen retired, the Navy replaced them with white men (Donaldson 1991:106-107; Foner 1974:129).
Such was the situation of African Americans in the military just prior to World War II. Despite all their sacrifice, contributions, and continued record of bravery and service, their status changed little between the Argonne and Pearl Harbor. With racism still prevalent throughout American society, blacks had little chance of increased opportunity in the Armed Forces. Although black soldiers and officers proved they were as proficient as whites in combat when given a fair chance, military leaders ignored such evidence. Only with the slow crumbling of racism and America’s need for increased manpower during the Second World War would military and political leaders provide increased opportunities for blacks in the Armed Forces.
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