In 2018 we celebrated the centennial of the African American troops who fought bravely in France during World War I. As documented recently in the WTTW Program, Fighting on Both Fronts, the Eighth Infantry Regiment showed the world that Black soldiers had the temerity and determination to represent their community and their race at a time when they were shunned and ill-treated at home. African Americans could not join the regular army so the regiment was organized in Springfield in April, 1861. In subsequent years the soldiers of the Eighth Regiment served in numerous Civil War campaigns and later, in June 1898 in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, as well as guarded the border town of Columbus, New Mexico when men led by Pancho Villa attempted to invade in 1917.
The storied history continues into the period when President Wilson made the decision to declare war on Germany for its aggressions. Many troops were needed for the engagement in occupied France, however, there was a decision to be made whether to send the Black regiment overseas with its full complement of Black officers. The central issue was whether the Black officers would be effective managing the troops in battle mode. There was little doubt about the competence of Colonel Denison, the commanding officer, who made sure that the men showed discipline and great conduct while preparing for their service in France and while stationed at Camp Logan, Texas, and Camp Stuart in Newport News, Virginia. At this same time, a dedicated and veteran officer, Colonel Charles Young was being retired due to a report from the Board of Medical Examiners that he was physically unfit to lead the regiment into battle. This led to much concern and demoralization among the troops because Colonel Young fervently wanted to lead and serve. Protests and complaints from the community and the press did not reverse the decision.
The 370th Regiment deployed to France under the command of Colonel Denison, becoming the first American regiment to enter Alsace-Lorraine, a territory of France that had been under German control for many years. The regiment was trained by French instructors for six weeks using equipment with which they were not familiar and in a language they did not comprehend. This equipment included “rifles, pistols, helmets, machine guns, horses, wagons, and even French rations,” which were less than the American meals they were used to. Nevertheless, the brave regiment marched forward into Mortvillars and further outposts on June 12-13, intent on fulfilling their mission.
As they began to occupy the front line of battle on June 21, 1918, the troops were combined with French troops in the St. Mihiel sector. Their next position was Loxeville in the Argonne Forest, where they suffered their first casualty, Private Robert Lee, a machine gun operator from Chicago. His service was honored by his own regiment as well as the French general in command of the entire division. He was buried with honor.
From that point on during the months of August and September, the troops were used strategically to advance to various sectors and participate in battles that resulted in the capture of strong enemy positions. Later in September the regiment occupied a full sector on its own without French troops on the Oise-Aisne Canal, at Mont des Tombes and other positions. Other stronger positions were captured in the beginning days of October through the beginning of November advancing into enemy held territories and pushing them further back. These skirmishes resulted in some shelling and some deaths from enemy fire. The brave pursuit and determination of the regiment caused the enemy to retreat further on November 5 until an armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. This victory was not without casualties, including deaths of troops, officers, and the wounding of many.
After the armistice from November 17 to December 12, 1918, the regiment was sent to various stations to clean and repair roads and villages that were in the path of its advancement. The regiment began to prepare for embarkation back to the United States in mid-December and were stationed at The American Embarkation Center in Le Mans, where they had to undergo various examinations and inspections. They moved to the final embarkation point in Brest, in Camp Pontanezen where they stayed until the steamer sailed for the United States on February 2, 1919, arriving in New York on February 9, and stationed at Camp Upton, Long Island.
After the entrainment at Camp Upton, the regiment was transferred to Camp Grant, Illinois. The regiment was received by the Chicago citizens with great enthusiasm at the Chicago Coliseum during a reception there, and afterwards, they paraded through the Loop before returning to Camp Grant.
We celebrate the accomplishments and achievements of these brave young men who earned 71 Croix de Guerre, which were awarded by France to individuals who distinguished themselves by acts of heroism involving combat with enemy forces. In addition, 23 American Distinguished Service Crosses, and one Distinguished Service Medal were awarded by the United States.
In all, 137 were killed and 500 were wounded in battle, a 20 percent casualty rate. There was only one soldier lost as prisoner to the Germans in the time they were in battle, while capturing numerous German cannons and machine guns.
The 370th Infantry was dubbed the “Black Devils” by the Germans because of their tenacity, but they were called “Partridges” by their fellow French soldiers because of the proud way they conducted themselves. Lieutenant Colonel Otis B. Duncan, who was a commander of the Third Battalion, 370th Infantry, described the work of the regiment in very glowing terms: “The 370th Infantry,” according to Colonel Duncan, “was the first regiment of allied troops to enter Petit Chapelle, in Belgium, and the citizens gave them an ovation. In the advance made by Gen. Mangin’s army in its 59-day drive from September 22, 1918, to the date of the Armistice (November 11, 1918), one or another of the units of the regiment was always under shell fire and fighting. In Petit Chapelle the regiment established its lines while German combat troops still were in the town.”
Ironically, the relationships between the French and Black soldiers was very cordial and positive. They were part of an international assemblage of fighters from England, Italy, Russia, China and other countries, but the soldiers reported they were welcomed by the French, not only into their combat facilities, but also into their social spaces such as restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and even their homes. This camaraderie was something they had not experienced at home and would not when they returned to the United States.
The Legacy of the Fighting Eighth
When one visits the Bronzeville Community today there are important Chicago landmarks that honor the men of the 370th Regiment and shows the importance of what they accomplished in France. The Victory Monument is located in the parkway south of 35th Street on Martin Luther King Drive. Dedicated on Armistice Day, November 11, 1928, the Monument was created by sculptor Leonard Crunelle, a former student of Lorado Taft. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places on April 30, 1986 and was eventually designated a Chicago landmark on September 9, 1998. It depicts a female figure holding a tablet with the names of the mortally wounded, and another panel honoring the military leader of the regiment.
The Eighth Regiment Armory located on Giles Avenue was the military home of the same African American troops. Now the Chicago Military Academy, Bronzeville, a Chicago Public School high school, it was the first armory built in the United states for soldiers in an African American regiment. James Dibelka, a Chicagoan and chief architect of the State of Illinois, designed this impressive building. Its façade is brown pressed brick and Bedford limestone.
George L. Giles American Legion Post #87 is the home of the African American veterans of subsequent wars and service to the United States. The American Legion was chartered and incorporated by Congress in 1919 as a patriotic veterans organization devoted to mutual helpfulness. Giles Post was founded by Earl B. Dickerson, former Chicago alderman and first African American to graduate from the University of Chicago Law School in 1920. Dickerson attended the Paris meeting that led to the formation of the American Legion.
Named for George L. Giles, a Second Lieutenant, killed in France during WWI at nineteen years of age, the Post is located at 5745 S. State Street, a building the members purchased in 1945. The George L. Giles Post will celebrate its centennial next August 2019. Since 1945 the Post has inhabited the building and showcased the illustrious history of the African American soldiers who have served in photos, portraits, and documents. The Post and building have endured many deleterious events in history, including harsh weather, civil unrest, vandalism, turnover in leadership that have prompted them to devise a plan to restore the building and rejuvenate the Post.
Besides the activities to support and help African American veterans, the Post hosts a back-to-school event every August on the 4th Saturday and parade on Veterans’ Day from 43rd to 35th and Martin Luther King Drive, and children’s activities throughout the year.
References for photos
Bernard C. Turner