Fort McCoy News March 9, 2018

Guest speaker: Black WWI Soldiers persevered

despite obstacles

Public Affairs Staff

Fort McCoy community members gathered Feb. 15 at McCoy's community Center to celebrate Black History Month with a luncheon and educational speaker.

The Department of Defense's theme for the 2018 observance was "African-Americans in Times of War."

"For far too long, African-Americans bravely fought and died in the name of freedom, while at the same time struggling to attain equality, respect, and the full privileges of citizenship. … Their valorous acts in the face of grave injustice revealed the true meaning of American patriotism — service before self," states the Black History Month presidential proclamation issued Jan. 31 by President Donald J. Trump.

Guest speaker William Thompson, a historic interpreter from Minneapolis, focused on black and African-American troops who served during World War I (WWI).

Freelance historic interpreter William “Bill” Thompson of Minneapolis gives his presentation during the installation observance of African-American History Month on Feb. 15 at Fort McCoy.
Freelance historic interpreter William "Bill" Thompson of
Minneapolis gives his presentation during the installation
observance of African-American History Month on Feb. 15 at Fort
Photo by Scott T. Sturkol

About 10 percent of the U.S. population was black during the 1910s, but they made up 13 percent of the Army during World War I. Reasons for this varied, Thompson said. In some areas of the country, black Americans were drafted at a higher rate, but they might also have been motivated to volunteer by patriotism or the promise of opportunity.

The Army was segregated at the time, and new black recruits were seen as a source of unskilled labor. African-Americans were typically put in support jobs during World War I for a number of reasons, Thompson said. One was that an influx of immigrants from Europe made some government officials wary of divided loyalties in draftees and recruits.

"One of the first jobs given to African-American Soldiers was guarding the White House, (other) federal buildings, and crucial infrastructure because they thought there was no way African-Americans have loyalty to anybody else except the United States," Thompson said.

About 80 percent of African-Americans who joined the military during WWI ended up in pioneer infantry battalions, stevedore regiments, labor battalions, or development battalions.

"The most prestigious of the labor battalions was the pioneer infantry battalions, and that was considered a really good position to end up in if you were African-American," Thompson said. "My grandfather was in a pioneer infantry battalion because he was a mechanic."

Other labor battalions were primarily used for unskilled labor and received minimal training and supplies, Thompson said. White units were given priority for lodging and supplies, so an African-American unit might sleep in tents and eat outside. Most didn't receive official uniforms.

The African-American Soldiers who were assigned to combat units experienced similar deprivations, Thompson said. Black Soldiers were often trained in small, scattered groups after locals objected when whole units were sent to one base (especially in the south) for training. Some didn't meet the other members of their unit until arriving in Europe just before battle.

One of these units, the 368th Infantry Regiment, was ordered into battle without essential tools like maps, then ordered to liaison with French troops. When the unit failed in its mission, the black Soldiers were deemed cowards, despite the fact that units of white Soldiers also failed with the proper equipment, Thompson said.

"That reputation would carry into World War II," Thompson said. It wasn't until the Army desegregated during the Korean War that the reputation began to change.

The 93rd Infantry Division, another segregated unit, was handed over to and commanded by the French Army. The French Army thought much more highly of its black American Soldiers than the U.S. Army, Thompson said. By the end of the war, the 371st Infantry Regiment — a subordinate regiment — had earned 184 Croix de guerre medals from France. The Croix de guerre is a military decoration that rewards feats of bravery, either by individuals or groups, in WWI and WWII. The medal could be given to any member of the armed forces, both French citizens and foreigners, who had been mentioned in army dispatches.

"And then they came home, and there were parades … but at the end of the day, they were still living in Jim Crow(-era) America," Thompson said.

He said he didn't want to end the presentation on a sad note, but he was glad that enough progress had been made to study and acknowledge the contributions that had formerly been ignored.

"It's a victory that we're here talking about them today," Thompson said.

The observance was coordinated by Regional Training Site-Maintenance. The next Equal Opportunity observance will be for Women's History Month on March 22.