Harlem Hellfighters in Action
Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
One of the things about history is that we tend to forget the sacrifices of men who fought for the ideals of liberty, even when they were denied it themselves. That was the case with the African American men who served in the Army after the Civil War and well into the 1960s, fighting the external enemies of the United States, while being subject to the discrimination of Jim Crow and the Black Codes at home.
They were Americans who in spite of prejudice and in spite of intolerance and persecution loved their country. They were men who labored under the most difficult circumstance to show all Americans and the world that they were worthy of being soldiers and citizens of the United States of America.
They were all volunteers and many of them were veteran soldiers had already served full careers on the Great Plains. They were the Buffalo Soldiers, and when the United States entered the First World War, they were not wanted. Instead, the veterans were left on the frontier and a new generation of African American draftees and volunteers became the nucleus of two new infantry divisions, the 92nd and 93rd.
However in the beginning they too were kept out of action. These men were initially regulated to doing labor service behind the lines and in the United States. But finally, 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 of General John Pershing refused to allow these divisions to serve under American command. Somehow the concept of such men serving alongside White Americans in the “War to end All War” was offensive to the high command.
Instead these divisions were broken up and the regiments sent to serve out of American areas on the Western Front. The regiments of the 93rd Division were attached to French divisions. The 369th “Harlem Hellfighters” were first assigned to the French 16th Division and then to the 161st Division.
The 370th “Black Devils” were detailed to the French 26th Division and the 371st and 372nd Infantry Regiments were assigned to the French 157th (Colonial) Division, which was also known as the Red Hand Division.
These units performed with distinction. 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 (Colonial) 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.”
While many white American soldiers depreciated their French hosts and attempted to sow the seeds of their own racial prejudice against the black soldiers among the French, Southerners in particular warned the French of the “black rapist beasts.” However the French experience of American blacks was far different than the often scornful treatment that they received from white American soldiers.
“Soldiers from the four regiments that served directly with the French Army attested to the willingness of the French to let men fight and to honor them for their achievements. Social interactions with French civilians- and white southern soldiers’ reactions to them- also highlighted crucial differences between the two societies. Unlike white soldiers, African Americans did not complain about high prices in French stores. Instead they focused on the fact that “they were welcomed” by every shopkeeper that they encountered.”
Official and unofficial efforts by those in the Army command and individual soldiers to stigmatize them and to try to force the French into applying Jim Crow to laws and attitudes backfired. Villages now expressed a preference for black over white American troops. “Take back these soldiers and send us some real Americans, black Americans,” wrote one village mayor after a group of rowdy white Americans disrupted the town.”
The citation for Corporal Stowers award of the Medal of Honor 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
Even after President Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948, African Americans, as well as other racial minorities, women and gays have faced very real discrimination. The military continues to make great strides, and while overt racist acts and other types of discrimination are outlawed, racism still remains a part of American life.
Today things have changed, and that in large part is due to the unselfish sacrifice in the face of hatred and discrimination of the men of the USCT and the State Black Regiments like the 54th Massachusetts and the Louisiana Home Guards who blazed a way to freedom for so many. Those who followed them as Buffalo Soldiers and volunteers during the World Wars continued to be trail blazers in the struggle for equal rights. A white soldier who served with the 49th Massachusetts wrote “all honor to our negro soldiers. They deserve citizenship. They will secure it! There would be much suffering in what he termed “the transition state” but a “nation is not born without pangs.”
Unfortunately racial prejudice is still exists 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.