The 93rd Division comprised of four infantry regiments, including the 372nd Colored Infantry Regiment, staffed by 900 men from the 9th Separate Colored Infantry Battalion of the Ohio National Guard. 9th Battalion units from Springfield, Ohio made up the 372nd’s Company E. In 1918, United States military commanders refused to let black and white Americans fight side by side, but French leaders had no such objection. So when the 372nd Infantry Regiment arrived in France they were immediately assigned to the 157th Infantry of the French Army—the renowned Red Hand Division—to help fight in the famous Meuse-Argonne offensive. In two weeks of combat, the 372nd suffered 616 casualties and 107 deaths, but their advance was decisive in ending the war and the entire unit received the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest military honor. The French commanding general paid tribute, stating, “The ‘Red Hand’ sign of the Division, thanks to you, became a bloody hand. . . . You have well avenged our glorious dead.” The U.S. command never made any such acknowledgment. Indeed, some returning African American soldiers, seen as overeager believers in the ideals of the democracy for which they had just fought, were lynched while in uniform. The following is a digest of information contained on pages 187-205 of History of the American Negro in the Great World War, W. Allison Sweeney, Chicago: Cuneo-Henneberry, 1919
No other regiment of the 93rd Division made a more gallant record than the 372nd regiment. Throughout its service in France it was a part of the famous French 157th Division known as the "Red Hand" division, under the command of General Goybet. It was this division which first opposed the Huns at the Marne in 1914. To brigade the Negro soldiers with such famous veterans was a rare mark of distinction and placed the black men on their mettle at all times.
The 372nd arrived in France on April 14 and went into training with the French eleven days later. On May 29 the regiment took over a sector in the Argonne and on June 20 was sent to the trenches just west of Verdun, occupying the famous battle-swept Hill 304, and sections at Four de Paris and Vauquois. On Hill 304 thousands of French and Germans had fallen as the battle line swung back and forward. That this hill was given to the Negroes to hold demonstrated that as soldiers they had already won the confidence of the French.
The regiment's first engagement was in the Champagne sector with Monthois as an objective. Here came the real test. The Negroes were eager to get into the fight. They cheered and sang when the announcement came that their opportunity had arrived--but the question was; back of their enthusiasm had they the staying qualities drilled into European troops through centuries of training in the science of warfare.
The answer was that some of the heaviest and most effective fighting of the day was done by the Negro regiment. From June 6th to September 10th, the 372nd was stationed in the bloody Argonne forest or in the vicinity of Verdun. On the night of September 25th they were summoned to take part in the Argonne offensive and were in that terrific drive, one of the decisive engagements of the war, from September 28th to October 7th.
In the nine days' battle the Negroes not only proved their fighting qualities in an ordeal such as men rarely have been called upon to face, but these qualities in deadly striking power and stubborn resistance in crises, stood out with such distinction that the coveted Croix de Guerre was bestowed upon the regiment.
The casualty list of the 372nd in this and previous fighting carried 500 names of men killed, wounded and gassed. For their achievements they were at once cited for bravery and efficiency in General Orders from the corps commander transmitted through their French divisional chief. It was dated October 8th and read as follows:
In transmitting you with legitimate pride the thanks and congratulations of General Garnier Duplessis, allow me, my dear friends of all ranks, American and French, to address you from the bottom of the heart of a chief and soldier, the expression of gratitude for the glory you have lent to our good 157th Division. During these nine days of hard fighting you have progressed eight kilometers (4.8 miles) through powerfully organized defenses, taken 600 prisoners, captured 15 heavy guns, 20 minenwerfers and nearly 150 machine guns, secured an enormous amount of engineering material and important supplies of artillery ammunition, and brought down by your fire three enemy aeroplanes. The "Red Hand" sign of the division, has, thanks to you, become a bloody hand which took the Boche by the throat and made him cry for mercy. You have well avenged our glorious dead. GOYBET.
In a communication delivered to the colonel of the regiment on October 1st, General Goybet said:
Your troops have been admirable in their attack. You must be proud of the courage of your officers and men, and I consider it an honor to have them under my command. The bravery and dash of your regiment won the admiration of the Moroccan Division, who are themselves versed in warfare. Thanks to you, during these hard days, the division was at all times in advance of all other divisions of the Army Corps. I am sending you all my thanks and beg you to transmit them to your subordinates. I call on your wounded. Their morale is higher than any praise.
The high honor of having its flag decorated with the Croix de Guerre was bestowed upon the regiment in the city of Brest just a few days before it embarked for the return to America. Vice Admiral Moreau, the French commander of the port of Brest, officially represented his government in, the ceremony. It was intended as France's appreciation of the services of these Negro fighters. The decoration took place at one of the most prominent points in the city and was witnessed by thousands of French soldiers and civilians, as well as by sailors and soldiers of several nations.
One of the conspicuous components of the 372nd was the battalion, formed from what formerly was known as the 1st Separate Battalion of the District of Columbia National Guard. This famous old Washington organization has a long, proud history. Many of the members were veterans of the Spanish-American war. At the close of the European war, the organization numbered 480 men from the city of Washington, twenty of whom had been decorated one or more times for individual bravery under fire.
The battalion was first assembled at Potomac Park on the Speedway in Washington, shortly after the declaration of war. The men spent almost half a year at the camp, during which time they had the important assignment of guarding railway and highway bridges and adjacent points around the National Capitol. They also had the proud distinction of guarding the secret archives and departments at Washington, a duty which required unquestioned loyalty and for which the Negroes were well selected.
It seemed at the time an inconspicuous bit of war time soldiering, and they were long trying days to the men. But it was a service which required intelligence and nerve, as the likelihood was great that the enemy's agents in this country would strike in the vicinity of the seat of government. That such responsible duty was delegated to the Negroes was a high compliment from the military authorities. The manner in which they discharged the duty is shown in the fact that no enemy depredations of any consequence occurred in the vicinity of Washington.
After a period of training at Camp Stewart, Newport News, Va., the battalion was sent to France. Its colored commander was dead. Other colored officers were soon superseded, leaving the chaplain, Lieutenant Arrington Helm, the only colored officer attached to the organization.
Arriving at St. Nazaire, France, April 14, 1918, the battalion was soon sent to Conde en Barrois, where it underwent a period of intensive training with special preparation for sector warfare. The instructors were French. Lessons were hard and severe, but the instructors afterwards had much cause for pride in their pupils.
From the training camp the battalion and regiment proceeded to the Argonne front, at first settling in the vicinity of La Chalade. It was there the soldiers received their first taste of warfare, and it was there their first casualties occurred.
September 13th the outfit withdrew and retired to the rear for a special training prior to participation in the general attack from Verdun to the sea. On the morning of September 28th the District of Columbia battalion was sent to the front to relieve a regiment of famous Moroccan shock troops.
It was at this time that the Champagne offensive took such a decided turn and the Washington men from that time on were taking a most active and important part in the general fighting. They distinguished themselves at Ripont just north of St. Menehold. They suffered greatly during their valiant support of an advanced position in that sector. Despite its losses the battalion fought courageously ahead.
Prior to that it had occupied Hill 304 at Verdun. It had the distinction of being the first American outfit to take over that sector. The battalion fought doggedly and bravely at Ripont and succeeded in gaining much valuable territory, as well as enemy machine guns and supplies and ninety Hun prisoners.
Later the battalion held a front line position at Monthois, and it finally formed a salient in the line of the 9th French Army Corps. It was subjected to a long period of gruelling fire from the Boches' famous Austrian 88s and machine guns, and an incessant barrage from German weapons of high caliber.
The regiment moved south to the Vosges, where the battalion took up a position in sub-sector B, in front of St. Marie Aux Mines, where it was situated when word of the armistice came.
The record of the Negro warriors from the District of Columbia is very succinctly contained in a diary kept by Chaplain Lieutenant Arrington Helm. It relates the activities of the unit from the time they sailed from Newport News, March 30, 1917, until the end of the war. It is also a condensed account of the major operations of the 372nd regiment. The diary follows:
March 30--Embarked from Newport News, Va., for overseas duty on the U.S.S. Susquehanna.
April 17--Disembarked at St. Nazaire and marched to rest camp.
April 21--Left rest camp. Base section No. 1 and entrained for Vaubecourt.
April 23--Arrived at Vaubecourt at 7 p.m. Left Vaubecourt at 8:30 p.m. and hiked in a heavy rainstorm to Conde en Barrois.
April 25--Assigned to school under French officers.
May 26--Left Conde en Barrois at 8 a.m. in French motor trucks for Les Senades.
May 29--Our regiment today took over the sector designated as Argonne West.
May 31--In front line trenches.
June 20--Changed sectors, being assigned to the Vauquois sector, a sub-sector of the Verdun front. The 157th Division is stationed in reserve. The enemy is expected to attack.
July 13--Left for Hill 304 on the Verdun sector. Colonel Young has been relieved from command and Colonel Herschell Tupes has assumed command.
July 25--Left Sivry la Perche to take over Hill 304. Arrived at Hill 304 at 9 p.m.
August 16--Heavily shelled by regiment of Austrians opposing us. Two Americans and one Frenchman in the regiment killed.
August 20--Lieutenant James Sanford, Company A, captured by the Germans.
August 21--Fight by French and German planes over our lines. Very exciting.
September 8--Left Hill 304. Relieved by 129th infantry of the 33rd Division. Hiked in rain and mud for Brocourt.
September 14--Arrived at Juvigny at noon.
September 17--Left Juvigny for Brienne la Chateau at 8 p.m. Passed through Brienne la Chateau and reached Vitray la Francois this afternoon. The city is near the Marne.
September 18--Hiked to Jessecourt. All colored officers left the regiment today.
September 28--Arrived at Hans. The regiment was in action in the vicinity of Ripont. The third battalion took up a battle position near Ripont.
September 29--The third battalion went over the top. The Germans are in retreat. Our positions are being bombarded. The machine gun fire is terrific and 88 millimeter shells are falling as thick and fast as hailstones. We are unable to keep up with the enemy. This afternoon it is raining. This makes it bad for the wounded of whom there are many.
September 30--The first battalion is now on our right and advancing fast despite the rain and mud. The machine gun opposition is strenuous. Our casualties are small. We have captured a large number of prisoners.
October 1--Our advance is meeting with increased opposition. The enemy has fortified himself on a hill just ahead. The ground prevents active support by the French artillery. Still we are giving the Germans no rest. They are now retreating across the valley to one of their supply bases. The enemy is burning his supplies. We have taken the village at Ardeuil. Our losses have been heavy but the Germans have lost more in killed, wounded and taken prisoner than have our forces. On our right the first battalion has entered the village of Sechault, after some hard fighting by Company A.
October 4--The Second battalion is going in this morning. We are resting at Vieux three kilometers from Monthois, one of the enemy's railroad centers and base hospitals. The enemy is destroying supplies and moving wounded. We can see trains moving out of Monthois. Our artillery is bombarding all roads and railroads in the vicinity. The enemy's fire is intense. We expect a counterattack.
October 5--The enemy's artillery has opened up. We are on the alert. They have attacked and a good stiff hand to hand combat ensued. The Germans were driven back with heavy losses. We have taken many prisoners from about twelve different German regiments. We continued our advance and now are on the outskirts of Monthois.
October 6--The enemy is throwing a stiff barrage on the lines to our left where the 333rd French Infantry is attacking. We can see the Huns on the run. The liaison work of the 157th Division is wonderful; not the slightest gap has been left open. Our patrols entered Monthois early this morning and were driven out by machine gun fire, but returned with a machine gun and its crew. We will be relieved by the 76th infantry regiment at 8 p.m. We hiked over the ground we had fought so hard to take to Minnecourt, where the regiment proceeded to reorganize.
October 12--Left Valmy today and continued to Vignemont.
October 13--Arrived at Vignemont. Hiked fifteen kilometers to St. Leonard.
October 15--Left St. Leonard for Van de Laveline in the Vosges. We arrived at Van de Laveline at 10:15 p.m. and took over a sector.
November 11--A patrol of Company A took several prisoners from a German patrol. Received word of the signing of the armistice at 11 a.m. today. Martial music was played. The colors of the regiment are displayed in front of the post command.
It is related that the Washington fighters, as well as the other members of the 372nd regiment, received the news of the armistice with more of disappointment than joy, for they had made all preparations to advance with the French through Lorraine."
There was much disappointment in the ranks of the District of Columbia battalion, when the place of its old leader was taken by Major Clark L. Dickson, twenty-seven years of age, one of the youngest--if not the youngest--of battalion commanders in the American army. But their disappointment was soon allayed, for Major Dickson made an enviable record. He received the Croix de Guerre with this citation:
"Most efficient officer, valorous and intrepid, acting in dual capacity as regimental adjutant and operation officer. Displayed the utmost energy in issuing operation orders during the period between September 26th and October 6th, 1918, and especially distinguished himself in crossing a roadway under violent artillery fire to give assistance to a wounded brother officer. His clear view of the situation at all times and the accuracy with which he issued the necessary orders required of him, contributed largely to the success of the regiment."
Many of his men have stated that the citation only hinted at the real accomplishments of Major Dickson.
In the rigors of war and the perils of battle, men serving side by side, forget race. They simply realize that they are sharing hardships in common; are beset by a common foe and are the subjects of common dangers. Under such circumstances they become comrades. They learn to admire each other and willingly give to each other a full measure of praise and appreciation. The Negro soldiers generally, have expressed unstintedly, approbation and praise of their white officers; and the officers have been equally generous. Here is an appreciation by one of the officers of the 372nd regiment, Lieutenant Jerome Meyer of Washington, concerning the men of that organization:
"Casualties were heavy because the colored lads fought to the last, cheerfully accepting death in preference to captivity. Their adeptness in mastering the throwing of hand grenades and in operating the machine guns quickly won them the esteem of the French. Remember, that the colored lads were quite new to warfare. But in the Champagne they fought with a persistence and courage that enabled them to hold permanently the ground they gained and won for many of them their decorations. Not a few of the prisoners taken by the regiment declared that the
Germans were in positive fear of the Negroes, who, they complained, would never quit even under terrible fire."
One of the outstanding heroes of the 372nd regiment was Sergeant Ira Payne, of 325 Fifteenth Street, Washington, D.C. He won the Croix de Guerre and the Distinguished Service Cross, and according to his comrades, "was not afraid of the devil himself." His story as related by himself on his return home, follows:
"During the fighting at Sechault the Germans were picking off the men of my platoon from behind a bush. They had several machine guns and kept up a deadly fire in spite of our rifle fire directed at the bush. We did our best to stop those machine guns, but the German aim became so accurate that they were picking off five of my men every minute. We couldn't stand for that.
"Well, I decided that I would get that little machine gun nest myself, and I went after it. I left our company, detoured, and, by a piece of luck got behind the bush. I got my rifle into action and 'knocked off' two of those German machine gunners. That ended it. The other Germans couldn't stand so much excitement. The Boches surrendered and I took them into our trenches as prisoners."
Not a long story for such an able and courageous exploit, yet it contains the germ for an epic recital on bravery.
First Sergeant John A. Johnson a colored member of Company B, was decorated with the Croix de Guerre with palm for exceptional bravery during a charge over the top, and for capturing single-handed, two Hun soldiers who later proved valuable as sources of information. Sergeant Johnson's home was at 1117 New Jersey Avenue, Washington, D.C. He was equally reticent about boasting of his deeds.
"Near Sechault during the time the District men were making a big effort to capture the town," said Johnson, "I was put in the front lines not fifty feet away from the enemy. A greater part of the time I was exposed to machine gun fire. I suppose I got my medal because I stuck to my men in the trenches and going over the top. Quite a few of the boys were bumped off at that point."
Another hero was Benjamin Butler, a private. The citation with his Croix de Guerre read: "For displaying gallantry and bravery and distinguishing himself in carrying out orders during the attack on Sechault, September 29, 1918, under heavy bombardment and machine gun fire."
"I did very little," Butler said. "During this fight with several others, I carried dispatches to the front line trenches from headquarters. They decorated me, I suppose, because I was the only one lucky enough to escape being knocked off."
Private Charles E. Cross of 1157 Twenty-first street, Washington, D.C. was awarded the Croix de Guerre, his citation reading: "For his speed and reliability in carrying orders to platoons in the first line under the enemy's bombardment on September 29, 1918." In some cases he had to creep across No Man's Land and a greater part of the time was directly exposed to the enemy's fire.
Private William H. Braxton, a member of the machine gun company of the regiment, whose residence was at 2106 Ward Place, Washington D.C., received the Croix de Guorre for "displaying zealous bravery." "An enemy party," reads his citation, "having filtered through his platoon and attacked same in the rear. Private Braxton displayed marked gallantry in opening fire on the enemy and killing one and wounding several others, finally dispersing the entire party."
"The men who stuck by me when death stared them in their faces," said Braxton, "deserve just as much credit as I do. I was only the temporary leader of the men."
Corporal Depew Pryor, of Detroit, Michigan, was awarded the Medal Militaire, one of the most coveted honors within the gift of the French army, as well as the American Distinguished Service Cross. Pryor saw Germans capture a Frenchman. Grabbing an armful of grenades, he dashed upon the Germans killing, wounding or routing a party of ten and liberating the Frenchman.
Sergeant Bruce Meddows, 285 Erskine street, Detroit, Michigan, brought home the Croix de Guerre with silver star, which he won for bringing down an aeroplane with an automatic rifle.
To have forty-six horses which he drove in carting ammunition up to the front lines, killed in five months was the experience of Arthur B. Hayes, 174 Pacific Avenue, Detroit, Michigan. He returned home sick, with practically no wounds after risking his life daily for months.
Sergeant George H. Jordan of Company L, whose home was in Boston, Mass., won the Croix de Guerre and palm for taking charge of an ammunition train at Verdun, when the commanding officer had been killed by a shell. He saved and brought through eight of the seventeen wagons.
Lieutenant James E. Sanford of Washington, D.C., one of the early Negro officers of the 372nd, was captured in Avocourt Woods near Verdun, August 19, 1918. He was endeavoring to gain a strategic position with his men when he was met by an overpowering force concealed behind camouflaged outposts, he was taken to Karlsruhe and transferred to three other German prison camps, in all of which he suffered from bad and insufficient food and the brutality of the German guards.
Major Johnson led his battalion of the 372nd in an attack in the Champagne which resulted in the capture of a German trench, 100 prisoners, an ammunition dump, thirty machine guns and two howitzers. He received the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor decoration from the French, as well as the Distinguished Service Cross from General Pershing.
Company B of the 372nd, took at Sechault in a raid, seventy-five prisoners and four machine guns.
One of the distinguished units of the 372nd, was the old and famous Company L of the Massachusetts National Guard. This unit was assembled at Camp Devens and left soon after the declaration of war for the south. It was stationed for a time at Newport News, and was then incorporated with the 372nd, went to France with that organization and saw its share of service throughout the campaign. Other distinguished units were the well known Ninth Ohio Battalion National Guard, and National Guard companies from Connecticut, Maryland and Tennessee.
Brigaded with the 372nd in the French "Red Hand" division, was another Negro regiment, the 371st, made up principally of selectives from South Carolina. It was commanded by Colonel P.L. Miles. Among the officers were Major Thomas Moffatt and Captain William R. Richey from Charleston.
The regiment saw practically the same service as the 372nd under General Goybet, was mentioned in divisional and special orders, was decorated by Vice Admiral Moreau, Maritime Prefect of Brest, at the same time the honor was conferred on the 372nd. The two regiments were together for seven months. The men of the 371st especially distinguished themselves at Crete des Observatories, Ardeuil and in the plains of Monthois. Seventy-one individual members received the Croix de Guerre and some the Distinguished Service Cross.
The two regiments, besides the regimental Croix de Guerre, awarded for gallantry in the Champagne, won individual decorations amounting in the aggregate to 168 Croix de Guerre, 38 Distinguished Service Crosses, four Medal Militaire and two crosses of the Legion of Honor.
The men of the 93rd Division and other Negro divisions and organizations will never forget their French comrades and friends. It was a lad of the 371st regiment who wrote the following to his mother. The censor allowed the original to proceed but copied the extract as a document of human interest; in that it was a boyish and unconscious arraignment of his own country--for which he with many thousands of others, were risking their lives. "Mammy, these French people don't bother with no color line business. They treat us so good that the only time I ever know I'm colored is when I look in the glass."
The casualties of the 372nd consisted of 91 killed in action and between 600 and 700 wounded or gassed. Like the other Negro regiments of the 93rd Division, there was comparatively little sickness among the men, outside of that induced by hard service conditions.
HEROES OF THE 371ST AND 372ND.
The names listed below are cross and medal winners. The exploits of some are told in detail in the chapters devoted to their regiments. There are many known to have received decorations whose names are not yet on the records.
Cross of the Legion of Honor 372ND REGIMENT. Major Johnson
Medal Militaire 372ND REGIMENT. Corp. Depew Pryor, Corp. Clifton Morrison, Pvt. Clarence Van Allen
Distinguished Service Cross 372ND REGIMENT Major Johnson, Sergt. Ira M. Payne, Corp. Depew Pryor
Croix de Guerre 372ND REGIMENT. Col. Herschell Tupes, Major Johnson, Major Clark L. Dickson, Lieut. Jerome Meyer, Sergt. Major Samuel B. Webster, Sergt. John A. Johnson, Sergt. Ira M. Payne, Sergt James A. Marshall, Sergt. Norman Jones, Pvt. Warwick Alexander, Pvt. George H. Budd, Pvt. Thomas A. Frederick, Pvt. John S. Parks, Pvt. Charles H. Murphy, Pvt. William N. Mathew, Pvt. Ernest Payne, Sergt. Homer Crabtree, Sergt. Norman Winsmore, Sergt. William A. Carter, Sergt. George H. Jordan, Sergt. Bruce Meddows, Sergt. Harry Gibson, Corp. John R. White, Corp. Benjamin Butler, Corp. March Graham, Pvt. Joseph McKamey, Pvt. William Dickerson, Pvt. William Johnson, Pvt. Walter Dennis, Pvt. Charles E. Cross, Pvt. William H. Braxton, Pvt. Nunley Matthews.