Editor’s note: This story was originally published in The State on Nov. 12, 2015. Cpl. Stowers died 100 years ago, just before the end of World War I. He was the first African-American to receive the Medal of Honor for service in World War I.
On September 28, 1918, just six weeks before the end of World War I, Cpl. Freddie Stowers, 21, of Sandy Springs, was killed while leading Company C of the black 371st Infantry Regiment into no-man’s land to capture German positions.
After feigning surrender, the Germans had opened up with machine gun and mortar fire, killing more that half of the company, which was made up of mostly South Carolina soldiers. Stowers rallied the men and led them to knock out one machine gun nest. Though mortally wounded, Stowers urged them on to capture a second trench line, stopping the threat and causing heavy enemy casualties.
His white commanding officer recommended Stowers for the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor. But
it wasn’t until 1991 – 72 years later – that Stowers’ family received the award from President George H.W. Bush in 1991.
It was the highest award given to a member of the highly decorated regiment, which had to fight with French troops in an age when segregation was the law.
”Everyone tried to keep the regiment from serving,” said Janet Hudson, an associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina who was a co-presenter at a Veterans Day talk on the regiment Wednesday. “But they served with honor and they served successfully.”
The talk was sponsored by Historic Columbia and was held at the Mann-Simons Cottage. Author and historian Sonya Hodges-Grantham, the granddaughter of Sancho Thompson, a member of the regiment, was co-presenter.
The 371st Infantry Regiment formed in August 1917 and consisted of African-American draftees, according to a narrative from the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, which has several items from the regiment, including its flag.
The regiment, called the Red Hand, trained at Camp Jackson – now Fort Jackson – and was made part of the African-American 93rd Infantry Regiment. They arrived on the Western Front in April 1918 before other American troops because of white South Carolinians’ fear of having a large force of armed black men in their midst.
Once in Europe, the regiment was placed under the command of the French Army because the French needed fresh troops, and out of fear of conflict between the regiment and the white Southern troops that would soon be arriving.
The 371st was given French equipment and was reorganized to fit the French army structure. The soldiers spent the spring of 1918 training in French tactics and communicating through interpreters.
That summer, the regiment was put into action to relieve exhausted French and Italian units.
The 371st was eventually thrown into the bloody final offensive of the Great War in September and fought well, suffering heavy casualties: more than 1,000 men out of 2,384 were lost in eight days.
”They fought so hard because they had a willingness to prove everybody wrong,” Hudson said.
The regiment won battles, captured many prisoners and seized large quantities of German munitions. Even more startling was the feat of shooting down three German airplanes with rifle and machine gun fire, perhaps a record for small arms’ ground fire.
”The Germans were afraid of them because they had been told the black soldiers had tails,” Hodges said.
Company commander Capt. W. R. Richey of Laurens saw the unit capture five miles of German-held territory, on Sept. 26 and Sept. 27, 1918, without artillery support:
”This was the first time any of them had been under armed shell and machine-gun fire and they stood it like moss-covered old-timers,” he said, according to the Relic Room narrative. “They never flinched or showed the least sign of fear.”
The French Government awarded the 371st the French Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre. Ten officers and 12 enlisted men received the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross.
Upon its return, a community reception was held at Allen University in honor of the regiment. African-American community leaders, including I.S. Leevy and C.A. Johnson, spoke in their honor.
Although the state’s collective remembrance of the regiment faded, Hodges said family members kept the memories alive.
”That picture hung on the wall at my house since I was eight,” Hodges said of a portrait of her father. “I’m proud to stand here today and deliver the history.”
The most famous member of the 371st Regiment was Freddie Stowers of Sandy Springs, who trained at what is now Fort Jackson.
In 1991, Fort Jackson was notified that then-President George H.W. Bush would present the late Stowers with the Medal of Honor — more than 70 years after his service.
”We were very excited to have the only African- American Medal of Honor winner from the First World War,” said Anne Clarkson, a former Fort Jackson captain who volunteered to research Stowers.
Stowers, a 21-year-old corporal when he died, was honored after his neglected nomination for the medal was uncovered following a push to recognize black soldiers not properly recognized after World War I.
President Bush presented the medal to Stowers’ surviving sisters, Georgiana Palmer of Richmond, Calif., and Mary Bowens of Greenville.
From the Army’s commendation
Stowers distinguished himself Sept. 28, 1918, six weeks before the war’s end, while leading his company in an attack on a hill held by German soldiers near Champagne, France. “With extraordinary heroism and complete disregard of personal danger under devastating fire,” Stowers crawled with his men to a machine gun nest causing heavy casualties to his company.
After fierce fighting, the machine gun position was destroyed and the enemy soldiers killed. Stowers died while leading his men against a second trench line. But the Americans took the hill.
”Cpl. Stowers’ conspicuous gallantry, extraordinary heroism, and supreme devotion to his men were well above and beyond the call of duty, follow the finest traditions of military service and reflect the utmost credit on him and the United States Army,” according to his commendation.
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