On Sept. 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, German soldiers 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, eliminating the threat and inflicting heavy enemy casualties.
Stowers’ white commanding officer recommended him for the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor in combat. But it wasn’t until 1991 — 72 years later — that Stowers’ family accepted the award from President George H.W. Bush.
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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 in the United States.
”Whites in the South tried to keep blacks from even becoming soldiers,” said Janet Hudson, a former associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina and author of the book “Entangled in White Supremacy: Reform in World War I-era South Carolina.”
“They were ridiculed,” she said. “And they served when they weren’t even full citizens of the United States. But they served heroically.”
Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
The Red Hand
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 Relic Room presently has an exhibit on World War I’s 30th Division, called the Old Hickory Division, which was made up of National Guard Troops from South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee. Also, Historic Columbia is offering $1 admission to the Woodrow Wilson Family Home from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday. Wilson was president during World War I.)
The 371st, called the Red Hand, trained at Camp Jackson — now Fort Jackson — and was made part of the African-American 93rd Infantry Division. The unit arrived on the Western Front in April 1918, months before other American troops.
Once in Europe, the regiment was placed under the command of the French Army. 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.
In September, the 371st was thrown into the bloody final offensive of the Great War. They fought well, suffering heavy casualties. More than 1,000 men out of 2,384 were lost in eight days.
”They were outstanding,” Hudson said. “And they suffered high casualties, as high as 40 percent. Many of them died in the last two days of the war.”
The regiment won battles, captured many prisoners and seized large quantities of German munitions. Its soldiers even shot down three German airplanes with rifle and machine gun fire.
Company commander Capt. W. R. Richey, a white graduate of The Citadel from 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 the unit’s 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.
But then they faded into obscurity. The United States government didn’t even recognize, through awards or decorations, their service, Hudson said.
“They never got the credit they deserved,” she said.
When Stowers was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1991, he became the first African-American recipient from the Great War, as World War I was first called.
Then in 2015, President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to Sgt. William Henry Johnson, of Winston-Salem, N.C., for actions in the Argonne Forest on May 14, 1918.
Also a member of the 93rd Division, Johnson fought off a 12-man German raiding party, killing multiple German soldiers and rescuing a fellow soldier.
Stowers and Johnson are now the only two African-American Medal of Honor recipients from World War I.
“And it’s interesting that the Carolinas have the only two,” Hudson said.