Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Remembering Black Heroes from the First World War

How much do you know about black servicemen? Buffalo Soldiers of World War II are often the first that come to mind, having been immortalized many times over in song, television, and film. In addition, with the recent release of the movie “Red Tails,” many people have learned about the Tuskegee Airmen and their significant accomplishments, but what about black soldiers before the Second World War? Few know of the Harlem Hellfighters, and still fewer know of the Blue Helmets. These brave regiments fought alongside the French in World War I because their American comrades had refused to do so. At a time when “colored” soldiers were always in separate units and rarely got the proper respect they deserved, these men were doubly courageous for their steadfast resolve whilst fighting two wars… the harder of which was amongst their countrymen.

Massachusetts’ Company L, Sixth Infantry was part of the National Guard, and the only black company to come out of the Commonwealth. As part of the 372d Regiment within the 93d Division, it was one of many companies that made up the entire “colored” division- between ten and fifteen thousand men. Originally the 93d Division was to fight under General John J. Pershing, but after pressure from France to provide U.S. assistance, Pershing decided to send the black troops to serve in the French Army.

Unlike the U.S. command, General Mariano Goybet and the French did not discriminate and were more than happy to have reinforcements. New York’s “Harlem Hellfighters” were the first of the 93d to reach France. They were soon joined by the “Black Devils” of Illinois and parts of the 92d “Buffalo Soldier” Division. Eventually the entire 93d would be nicknamed “The Blue Helmets” because of the blue Adrian combat helmets worn by the French Army.

Finally able to engage in combat instead of being relegated to labor-exclusive pioneer infantrymen, the men thrived. The efforts of the Americans were so extraordinary, over 500 awards and decorations were distributed by the French alone. The men of the 372d received a unit award of the Croix de Guerre with Palm (along with a second nickname, “The Bloody Hands”), many men received the Distinguished Service Cross, and Clarence Van Allen from Boston’s Company L even received the M├ędaille Militaire, which is one of France’s highest military honors.

When Company L returned to Boston they were given a parade, celebrated as heroes, and received formal recognition for the military honors that had been awarded at home and abroad. Evidently the pomp and circumstance was short lived, since so few people today remember their unique story. As we celebrate Black History Month, let’s remember not only the men of Company L, but all of the black men who served in the First World War at a time when equality was considered a luxury.

The above photograph of Company L is part of a collection of over 40 group photographs of units from Camp Devens. If you are searching for information on an ancestor from Massachusetts who served in World War I, visit the State Library’s Special Collections Department to check our database of soldier photos, or read even more about World War I in the Boston Globe by way of our microfilm collection.

Bianca Hezekiah
Program Coordinator, Reference Department