The nation's entry into World War I raised the question of how to utilize African American troops. The Army's existing African American units were kept on patrol in the Southwest or sent for duty in the Philippines. The majority of African American draftees or enlistees were assigned to stevedore units at ports or to labor units as quartermaster troops. Of the more than 400,000 African American soldiers who served during the war, only about 10 percent saw combat duty, assigned to either of two infantry divisions: the 92nd Infantry Division and the 93rd Infantry Division (Provisional). The 92nd was mainly comprising draftees, while the 93rd had three regiments made up of National Guard units from Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Tennessee and the District of Columbia, with a fourth regiment made up of draftees. Neither infantry division trained together as a unit in the United States. As many white citizens feared arming a substantial number of African Americans in a single location, the Army stationed the individual regiments of each division in widely-separated areas of the country. The regiments did not link up together as divisions until they reached France.
The most difficult problem for the War Department was the demand that African Americans be trained as commissioned officers. Initially, the idea was dismissed as ludicrous, as it was said to be "common knowledge" that African Americans inherently lacked leadership qualities. Only the persistence of the NAACP, the Urban League and such African American newspapers as The Chicago Defender helped change War Department policy. An African American Officer Training School was established at Fort Des Moines, Iowa. On October 14, 1917, the school graduated and commissioned the first class of 639 African American officers. By the close of the war, 1,200 African American officer candidates had earned commissions from the school. Although that number was far greater than had been commissioned in prior wars, it still represented only seven-tenths of 1 percent of the officer corps. By comparison, African American troops accounted for 13 percent of the total active duty force. In addition, the War Department had an ironclad rule that no African American officer could command white officers or enlisted men.
To comply with this rule, the War Department needed to find a way of skirting the problem posed by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Young, the Army's highest-ranking African American officer and a West Point graduate. Young had trained African American troops for combat and led them in action, causing some white officers to fear that he would assume command of the 10th Cavalry, which was otherwise commanded by whites. Pressured by these officers, the United States senators who represented them in Congress, and President Wilson, the War Department developed a strategy to eliminate Young from consideration. Young, who had contracted Bright's disease, but whose physical health appeared excellent otherwise, was given a medical examination in July of 1917. The medical report was forwarded to a retiring board that recommended that he be removed from active duty due to ill health; the War Department concurred.
To prove his fitness for active duty, Colonel Young rode on horseback (walking a quarter of the distance for good measure) from Xenia, Ohio to Washington, D.C. Starting on June 6, 1918, he covered the 497-mile distance in 16 days, taking just one day off to rest. While Young received support from the African American press and many powerful friends, the War Department relented only five days before the end of World War I. Though he was promoted to full colonel while in retirement, he was called to active service to command a company of trainees at Camp Grant, Illinois—an assignment usually given to officers at the rank of captain. Young never was given the opportunity to command troops in Europe, which likely would have resulted in his promotion to brigadier general. Though he remained on active duty until his death on January 8, 1922, Young never received another promotion.
One solution used by the military to solve the issue of utilizing African American officers and soldiers during the war was to offer African American regiments to foreign forces. The 93rd Infantry Division was attached to the allied French Army and used French weapons, wore French helmets, and ate French rations—only their uniforms were provided by the U.S. Army. Colonel William Hayward, commander of New York's 369th Infantry Regiment that constituted one of the four regiments of the 93rd, criticized General John J. Pershing for this decision. Colonel Hayward charged that Pershing "simply put the black orphan in a basket, set it on the doorstep of the French, pulled the bell, and went away."
Despite this status, it was the 369th Infantry Regiment (15th New York) that established the best World War I record of any U.S. Army infantry regiment. Attached to the French 4th Army, the 369th served for 191 consecutive days in the trenches, longer than any other U.S. unit. In that time they never lost a foot of ground to the enemy, nor had a single soldier taken prisoner by the Germans. The 369th gathered many nicknames. They called themselves the "Black Rattlers," while the French dubbed them the "Men of Bronze" and the Germans labeled them the "Harlem Hell Fighters."
In 1919, Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler gave Harper's Weekly his assessment of the 369th Infantry Regiment, "No American soldier saw harder or more constant fighting and none gave better accounts of themselves. When fighting was to be done, this regiment was there."
Unlike the 93rd Infantry Division, which only came together as a unit in France before being broken up and parceled out to various French commands, the 92nd Infantry Division remained intact. Unfortunately, the 92nd did not fare nearly as well as did the 93rd. The commander, Major General Charles C. Ballou, shared the prejudices of many white officers and rarely stood up for his African American troops. Ballou seldom ensured that the soldiers of the 92nd were provided with proper training, equipment, and support services. Upon their arrival in France, the ill-prepared African American soldiers under his command were immediately sent into the fray. Led by white senior officers and unseasoned African American junior officers, the disorganized regiments suffered heavy casualties during several key offenses late in the war.
Ballou's response to the failings of the 92nd was to blame his junior officers, bringing 30 up for court-martial on charges of cowardice. Several officers were convicted by an all-white court-martial board and given harsh sentences before the trials were suspended with the transfer of the 92nd to the command of Lieutenant General Robert L. Bullard. Under Bullard, the morale and training of the 92nd increased, as did its fighting effectiveness. Nevertheless, the damage was done. Bullard was unhappy with the general performance of the division and worried about its reflection on him as a leader. As soon as the war ended, he recommended the immediate transfer of the division back to the United States. The result of the 92nd Infantry's substandard performance was to bolster the already negative opinions of critics of African American units.
Despite the "Jim Crow" atmosphere, African American soldiers still earned an impressive number of awards for combat bravery in defeating German troops. Sergeant Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts of New York's 369th Infantry Regiment were the first Americans, black or white, to receive the French Croix de Guerre. France awarded its Croix de Guerre to 34 African American officers and 89 African American enlisted men during the war. In the 92nd Infantry, 14 African American officers and 43 African American enlisted men earned the U.S. Army's Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). Some 10 officers and 34 enlisted men of the 93rd Infantry were DSC recipients.
The African American presence in the U.S. Navy during World War I was negligible. Restricted to ratings in the messmen branch (cooks, stewards, mess attendants), few African Americans enlisted in the Navy. Of a total naval strength of 435,398, only 5,328 were African American by June 30, 1918. Thus, African Americans accounted for only 1.2 percent of the Navy. Continuing its policy of preventing African Americans from earning commissions, the naval officer corps remained completely white. In addition, some naval captains refused to transport African American army troops home after the war.
Although they were not permitted to serve in the Armed Forces, African American women contributed to America's efforts in World War I. They made bandages, worked in hospitals and troop centers, and promoted the purchase of Liberty Bonds to finance the war effort. They also served in the Red Cross, YWCA, and other relief organizations.
Posthumous Medal of Honor Awarded
No Medal of Honor was awarded to an African American serviceman during World War I. In 1988, the Department of the Army researched the National Archives to determine whether racial barriers had prevented the awarding of the nation's highest decoration for valor to an African American. The archives search produced evidence that Corporal Freddie Stowers of Anderson County, South Carolina, had been recommended for the award. For "unknown reasons," the recommendation had not been processed. Stowers was a squad leader in Company C, 371st Infantry Regiment, 93rd Infantry Division. On September 28, 1918, he led his squad through heavy machine-gun fire and destroyed the gun position on Hill 188 in the Champagne Marne Sector, France. Mortally wounded, Stowers led his men through a second trench line. Unable to proceed any further, Stowers continued to yell encouragement to his comrades until dying on the field of battle. On April 24, 1991, President George Bush belatedly presented Stowers' Medal of Honor to his surviving sisters in a White House ceremony.