Black Heroism; Delayed Recognition
The 93rd Division’s 369th Regiment was the first American unit to see combat, deployed to the front in mid-April 1918 and assigned a four-and-a half-mile sector by the French. At the time, the regiment comprised less than one percent of American troops in Europe, yet it held twenty percent of the territory defended by American forces. In all, the regiment spent 191 days in combat — longer than any other American unit. The Germans dubbed the regiment “Harlem Hellfighters” while they called themselves “Black Rattlers” and French admiringly termed them “Men of Bronze,” Secretary of War Baker reportedly judged the regiment “the all-round most serviceable regiment sent to France.” The French awarded the entire 369th regiment the Croix de Guerre, along with two other of the division’s four regiments. Chicago’s 370th Infantry was the only regiment that did not receive the Croix de Guerre as a unit, although seventy-one of the unit’s members received the award individually, along with four Médailles Militaires and another twenty-one Distinguished Service Crosses.
Two soldiers of the 369th, Private (later Sergeant) William Henry Lincoln Johnson, a railroad porter from Albany, New York and Private Needham Roberts, achieved national fame for their actions while serving in a listening post attacked by a unit of 12-24 Germans the night of May 13, 1918. Throwing grenades, shooting as many of the enemy as possible until his gun jammed, Johnson used his rifle as a club and took on the rest with his bolo knife. Having had enough, the German raiding party began to withdraw, as Johnson continued to hurl grenades until he collapsed from 21 wounds. He managed to kill four Germans and seriously wounded about a dozen more. The incident became known as “The Battle of Henry Johnson” and earned Johnson the sobriety “Black Death.” The press had a field day, although its use of stereotype and caricature invoked images of African savagery. Although this action was widely recognized as heroic, Johnson did not receive the Medal of Honor and Distinguished Service Cross until seven decades had passed, due to the virulent racism of the time.
Although he rode triumphantly in a Cadillac during the 369th’s joyous victory parade through New York City and Harlem, decades would pass before Johnson received awards from the American government. After dying in obscurity and poverty in 1929, he was awarded the Purple Heart in 1996 and the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002. Previous efforts to secure the Medal of Honor failed, but on June 2, 2015 President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor for Johnson symbolically to the Sergeant Major of the Army.
Private Roberts survived the war, although he was disabled by his wounds and thus unable to hold steady employment. He occasionally gave paid lectures about his wartime experiences, and in the early 1940s gave radio addresses and other speeches as part of the Army’s effort to recruit African-Americans for World War II. He died in Newark, New Jersey on April 18, 1949; according to some accounts, Roberts and his second wife committed suicide, hanging themselves in the basement of their home. Today we would likely recognize this as the result of post-traumatic stress. The French awarded Roberts the Croix De Guerre with Palm; in his portrait he is wearing two service stripes and two wound stripes.
371st Infantry Regiment
Since no additional National Guard units were available to complete a fourth regiment for the 93rd Division, the 371st was raised with draftees from the cotton fields of the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida and Alabama. Although the soldiers complained that three-quarters of their officers had blatantly racist attitudes, and even though most black draftees arrived illiterate, frightened, and underfed, they rapidly adapted to military life, excelled in marching and close order drill, took great pride in their uniforms and weapons, and soon developed a remarkable esprit de corps. After two weeks of drill and training with the French, General Pershing inspected the regiment and left impressed.
Corporal Freddie Stowers, a twenty-two-year-old squad leader and farm laborer from Sandy Springs, South Carolina, took charge early on the morning of September 28, 1918, when nearly half of his company was killed or wounded while attacking Hill 188. eliminated a machine gun nest, and continued to lead the attack, despite serious wounds. The slaughter of his company was mainly due to a ruse: the Germans indicated their intention to surrender, but and when Stowers’ company approached their trenches, the Germans opened up again. The lieutenant commanding Stowers’ platoon went down, as well as the senior noncommissioned officers. Stowers immediately took charge and began crawling toward a German machine gun nest, shouting for his men to follow. The platoon successfully reached the first German trench line and reduced the machine gun. Stowers then reorganized his force and led a charge against the second German line of trenches. During this assault, Stowers was cut down by an enemy machine gun, but kept going until he was struck a second time. He collapsed from loss of blood but ordered his men to keep going and take out the German guns. Inspired by Stowers’ courage, the men forged ahead and successfully drove the Germans from the hill and into the plain below while Stowers succumbed to his wounds. Freddie Stowers is buried with 133 comrades in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.
On April 24, 1991 — seventy-three years after he was killed in action — Stowers’ surviving sisters, Georgina and Mary, received his Medal of Honor from President George H.W. Bush at the White House after a review of the rampant discrimination that had prevailed in the American Expeditionary Force..
A sample of the attitudes these heroic soldiers faced is provided by the regimental intelligence officer, Lieutenant Ernest Samusson, who requested that civil authorities in the regiment’s sector “take steps” to prevent “harmful relationships” with black soldiers because “The question is of great importance to the French people and even more so to the American towns, the population of which will be affected later when the troops return to the United States.” He urged that “undue social mixing” of the races “be circumspectly prevented.” A French liaison officer declared that he could not understand why Americans could “treat each other so harshly and cruelly when it was momentarily expected that the division could be plunged into battle.” One still wonders! Sadly, this pattern would be repeated in World War II as well, when six African Americans received the Medal of Honor only in the 1990s for their actions on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific.