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Black History Month: The story of the only regiment commanded entirely by black officers during World War I

  • Published
  • By Kevin Braafladt
  • First Army Support Command historian

History is full of fascinating accounts and lessons if you take the time to study it and do a little digging. 

One of these lessons and pillars of standing against adversity is the story of the 370th Infantry Regiment, 93rd Infantry Division during World War I. Its history and contributions are often lost in the confusion of the war; however, some physical traces of its legacy remain. 

The 370th is one of few African-American regiments that served in combat in World War I and notably was the only regiment commanded entirely by black officers. Yet few people know about this unit of young Black men, which served alongside First Army during World War I.

The unit's lineage is tied primarily to the 8th Illinois Regiment, originally formed in 1898 by Gov. John R. Tanner of Illinois. Gov. Tanner authorized the formation of a regiment of Black Soldiers recruited from communities in Chicago and Springfield. The regiment was making history as it was the only unit to be led by Black officers to fight in the Spanish American War.

The 8th Illinois regiment was mobilized in October of 1917 and re-designated as the 370th Infantry Regiment and shipped south by train to Camp Logan on the outskirts of Houston, Texas, as this was the usual training camp for Illinois Guard units. The regiment was nearly 3,000 strong at the time of mobilization. 

After completion of training in March of 1918, the regiment shipped out to Newport News, Virginia, where the 370th first met the other 93rd Division regiments (369, 371st and 372nd Infantry Regiments). The rest of the Soldiers were comprised of National Guard units from the States of New York, Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio, Tennessee, the District of Columbia and from Black men drafted in South Carolina.

Upon arrival in France, the 93rd Division and its regiments were assigned to the French Army. At the time, it was said to be a temporary arrangement with the plan that they would be regrouped as an American division. This was never done so, as the regiments remained with French Army until the close of hostilities. 

The men of the 370th fought with distinction in France and Belgium during the war.  The Soldiers fought hard, so hard that the Germans who fought them gave them the nickname of Schwarze Teufel, "Black Devils" for their ferocity in combat. The 370th Infantry served with distinction along with the French 34th, 36th, and 59th Infantry Divisions, earning streamers for the battles of Lorraine and Oise-Aisne.

Sectors occupied and engagements participated in were Saint Mihiel with the French in 1918, Argonne Forest, St. Gobain Forest, Bosi de Mortier, Mont des Signes, Oise-Aisne Canal, Laon, Grandlup, Soissons, and Oise-Aisne and Lorraine offensives. One battalion of the Regiment, under the command of Lt. Col. Otis B. Duncan, was engaged in the pursuit of the retreating enemy far in advance, when halted by the Armistice.

For its actions during the war, the members of the 370th received 21 Distinguished Service Crosses, one Distinguished Service Medal and 68 Croix de Guerre. Notably, Lt. Col. Otis B. Duncan was awarded a Croix de Guerre of the 370th and was additionally the highest-ranking African-American officer to serve in World War I combat.

The regiment would wear the distinctive blue helmet patch denoting the wearing of French equipment during the war. Immediately upon the 370th's return from France, the black communities of Chicago began fundraising to erect a monument to the 370th Regiment, "Black Devils." The monument was completed in 1928 and dedicated on 11 November, Armistice Day.

The legacy of the 370th Infantry is borne today by the 178th Infantry Regiment, Illinois National Guard. In 2008, the unit deployed to Paktia Province, Afghanistan, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. The soldiers returned home in 2009.