They were volunteers and many of their veteran soldiers had served full careers on the Great Plains. They were the Buffalo Soldiers. In the First World War they were left on the frontier and a new generation of draftees and volunteers became the nucleus of two infantry Divisions, the 92nd and 93rd. However in the beginning they were regulated to labor service units until the protests of organizations such as the NAACP and men like W.E.B.DuBois and Phillip Randolph forced the War Department to reconsider the second class status of these men and form them into combat units.
Despite this the leadership of the AEF, or the American Expeditionary Force refused to allow these divisions to serve under American command. Instead they were broken up and the regiments of the 93rd Division were attached to French divisions. The 369th “Harlem Hellfighters” were assigned to the French 16th Division and then to the 161st Division. The 370th “Black Devils” to the French 26th Division and the 371st and 372nd to the French 157th (Colonial) Division also known as the Red Hand Division. The 371st was awarded the French Croix de Guerre and Légion d’honneur and Corporal Freddie Stowers of the 1st Battalion 371st was the only African American awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in the First World War. The 372nd was also awarded the Croix de Guerre and Légion d’honneur for its service with the 157th Division.
The 157th Division had suffered badly during the war and been decimated in the unrelenting assaults in the trench warfare of the Western Front. It was reconstituted in 1918 with one French Regiment and two American regiments, the Negro 371st and 372nd Infantry. On July 4th 1918 the commanding General of the French 157th Division, General Mariano Goybet issued the following statement:
“It is striking demonstration of the long standing and blood-cemented friendship which binds together our two great nations. The sons of the soldiers of Lafayette greet the sons of the soldiers of George Washington who have come over to fight as in 1776, in a new and greater way of independence. The same success which followed the glorious fights for the cause of liberty is sure to crown our common effort now and bring about the final victory of right and justice over barbarity and oppression.”
The citation for Corporal Stowers reads as follows:
Corporal Stowers, distinguished himself by exceptional heroism on September 28, 1918 while serving as a squad leader in Company C, 371st Infantry Regiment, 93d Division. His company was the lead company during the attack on Hill 188, Champagne Marne Sector, France, during World War I. A few minutes after the attack began, the enemy ceased firing and began climbing up onto the parapets of the trenches, holding up their arms as if wishing to surrender. The enemy’s actions caused the American forces to cease fire and to come out into the open. As the company started forward and when within about 100 meters of the trench line, the enemy jumped back into their trenches and greeted Corporal Stowers’ company with interlocking bands of machine gun fire and mortar fire causing well over fifty percent casualties. Faced with incredible enemy resistance, Corporal Stowers took charge, setting such a courageous example of personal bravery and leadership that he inspired his men to follow him in the attack. With extraordinary heroism and complete disregard of personal danger under devastating fire, he crawled forward leading his squad toward an enemy machine gun nest, which was causing heavy casualties to his company. After fierce fighting, the machine gun position was destroyed and the enemy soldiers were killed. Displaying great courage and intrepidity Corporal Stowers continued to press the attack against a determined enemy. While crawling forward and urging his men to continue the attack on a second trench line, he was gravely wounded by machine gun fire. Although Corporal Stowers was mortally wounded, he pressed forward, urging on the members of his squad, until he died. Inspired by the heroism and display of bravery of Corporal Stowers, his company continued the attack against incredible odds, contributing to the capture of Hill 188 and causing heavy enemy casualties. Corporal Stowers’ conspicuous gallantry, extraordinary heroism, and supreme devotion to his men were well above and beyond the call of duty, follow the finest traditions of military service, and reflect the utmost credit on him and the United States Army.
Corporal Stowers is buried at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. The award of the Medal of Honor was not made until 1991 when President George H. W. Bush presented it to Stowers’ two surviving sisters.
The contrast between the American treatment of its own soldiers and that of the French in the First World War is striking. The fact that it took President Harry S. Truman to integrate the U.S. Military in 1948 is also striking. African Americans had served in the Civil War, on the Great Plains, in Cuba and in both the European and Pacific Theaters of Operation in the Second World War and were treated as less than fully human by many Americans.
Men of the 371st and 372nd Infantry Regiments of the French 157th Division Awarded the Croix d’Guerre
Unfortunately racial prejudice is still rampant in the United States. In spite of all the advances that we have made racism still casts an ugly cloud over our country. Despite the sacrifices of the Buffalo Soldiers, the leaders of the Civil Rights movement and others there are some people who like the leaders of the AEF in 1917 and 1918 cannot stomach having blacks as equals or God forbid in actual leadership roles in this country. A good friend of mine who is a retired military officer, a white man, an evangelical Christian raised in Georgia who graduated from an elite military school in the South, who is a proponent of racial equality has told me that the problem that many white people in the South have with President Obama is that “he doesn’t know his place.” Yes racism is still real and rears its ugly head all too often.
Today is the anniversary of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive where American troops helped break the back of the German Army in World War One. As we remember the brave men who went “over the top” and suffered over 117,000 casualties in that battle let us not forget the intrepid Buffalo Soldiers who blazed a way to an equality that some would still seek to deny those of color.