Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Black Combat Units of World War I

By Allison Griffey

During World War I, options were limited for black men who enlisted or were conscripted into the military. The Army was segregated; only white men were allowed to serve in the Marines; and the Navy and Coast Guard offered only low level, unskilled positions to black men. The majority of African American men in the military served in non-combat positions such as stevedores, and some of these men were regularly exposed to the dangers of the front lines despite the fact that they were unarmed.

“Our Colored Heroes” was published in 1918 to celebrate the bravery of Sgt. Henry Johnson and Pvt. Needham Roberts of the 369th Infantry Regiment, 93rd Division who defended themselves against at least 12 German soldiers during a raid. Sgt. Johnson managed to defend himself and save Pvt. Roberts using hand-to-hand combat and a knife and saved both men from becoming prisoners of war. Sgt. Johnson was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for this courageous act in 2015.

The only combat divisions for black men at the time were the 92nd and 93rd Divisions. The 92nd Division, also known as the “Buffalo Soldiers Division,” was composed of drafted men from all over the United States. Most of the men in the 93rd Division were members of National Guard units in Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts New York, Ohio and Tennessee or men drafted from South Carolina.

Service abstract of Pvt. John Tender of Union City, TN. He was a member of Co D, 369th Infantry Regiment, 93rd Division was severely wounded in action around October 20, 1918. The men of the 369th Infantry Regiment are famously known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” because the majority of the men in this regiment came from the militarized New York National Guard 15th New York Infantry Regiment.

Black men in these combat divisions, like Sgt. Henry Johnson and Pvt. Needham Roberts of the 93rd Division, were initially celebrated for their heroic feats, but their fame faded quickly. A century later, these men are two of the most famous servicemen to fight in World War I. At this time, only two African American men have been awarded the Medal of Honor for their World War I service: Cpl. Freddie Stowers and Sgt. Henry Johnson, both of the 93rd Division. There are doubtless many other black servicemen whose stories of bravery are waiting to be told.

Photograph from the Gold Star Record of Pvt. Jim Granberry of Mt. Pleasant, TN. He was a member of Co L, 368th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Division was killed in action on September 29, 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Due to strictly enforced segregation during training and military official rivalries, the 92nd Division was given little to prepare them for their role in this offensive, especially the men of the 368th Infantry Regiment.

The Library and Archives holds gold star records for black servicemen who died during the war, as well as service abstracts for black Tennesseans who served during the war.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett

No comments:

Post a Comment