Herald-Whig

World War I unit became known as 'the Fighting Black Devils'

Lt. Frank Robinson was a member of the 370th Infantry known as the “Black Devils.” He was awarded France's Croix de Guerre for his role in World War I. | Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County
By PHIL REYBURN
Posted: Dec. 3, 2017 12:55 am Updated: Dec. 3, 2017 1:01 am

When the early Chicago train pulled into Quincy's Burlington depot on Feb. 25, 1919, it was met by both a band and a cheering crowd. The Daily Whig reported that hundreds "of men and women of his own race and all the other citizens of Quincy" had come out to welcome Sgt. Emmett Thompson home from the World War. The Daily Herald recorded that "when Thompson swung down from the coach he was caught up by many willing hands."

For conspicuous bravery in France, Thompson, an African-American, had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the U.S. military's second highest medal for valor. The Herald noted that Thompson was "the first Quincy boy to have this honor bestowed on him. . . ."

When war was declared on Germany, several Quincyans joined Thompson and Lt. Frank Robinson in enlisting in Danville's Company L of the Eighth Illinois National Guard Regiment. They had served together on the Mexican border and, until disbanded, in Quincy's all-black National Guard Company. The men were Ben Bryson, John Butler, Lloyd Longress, Dewain Carpenter, William Nichols, Henry Gay and Mason Perkins.

Quincy's Company I existed from June 1902 through April 15, 1915, and was part of the Eighth Illinois National Guard Infantry, "the only regiment of colored militiamen in the United States." A decision to locate two additional companies in Chicago resulted in the company's elimination.

Organized in 1895, the Eighth Illinois was first mustered into federal service for the Spanish-American War. However, from June 30 to Oct. 27, 1916, the regiment was federalized and saw service along the Mexican border. With the United States' entry into World War I in April 1917, the all-black Eighth Illinois was once again called to active duty July 25.

The Eighth Illinois was an anomaly because it was "the only regiment in the entire United States Army ... with almost a complete complement of colored officers from the highest rank of Colonel to the lowest rank of Corporal."

On being incorporated into the American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.) and sent to France in April 1918, the Eighth was redesignated as the 370th Infantry and assigned to the 93rd Division (Provisional).

The U.S. Government organized two divisions of black soldiers for the war. They were the 92nd, mostly made up of draftees, and the 93rd, comprised primarily of National Guard units.

During World War I, 367,000 African-American soldiers served in the armed forces. However, the military restricted most black soldiers to labor battalions where they unloaded ships, built roads and dug trenches. Despite the prejudice of the time, 40,000 African Americans saw combat. And by the war's end, 1,400 black men had been commissioned officers.

The 370th arrived in France in late April 1918. After a training period, the regiment on June 21 was sent to a quiet sector of the front.

Germany's summer offensive brought the French army to the point of desperation. Needing men to shore up depleted divisions, the French asked Gen. John J. Pershing, the A.E.F. commander, for troops. Responding, Pershing turned over the 93rd's four regiments to the French.

Now part of the French army, the men turned in their American equipment for "French rifles, pistols, helmets, machine guns, horses, wagons and even French rations...." The 93rd's regiments were distributed throughout the French army. Over time the 370th fought with three different French divisions.

The 370th first saw action in July and August. Pulled out of the line for a rest, the regiment returned to the front Sept. 1.

On Sept. 16, Company L "was detached from the 370th and assigned to a French battalion. No sooner had the men arrived than orders were issued to attack, Robinson told the Herald. The French artillery supported the attack with a heavy barrage, and the men "went over the top." The Germans' initial fire was light but soon increased, leaving the L Company caught between the barrages. Robinson explained that the attack now stalled, forcing the men to dig and lie in a shallow trench. The men soon began to run low on ammunition, water and food.

To prevent a withdrawal, Robinson volunteered to go and bring the needed supplies forward. Making his way back to a supply dump, Robinson succeeded in loading several wagons and headed back, but he was stopped by "a terrific hail of shells and machine gun bullets" that killed horses, shattered wagons and wounded a number of men.

Thompson came forward and said that he would get Robinson's food, water and bullets to the men. He commented that "a Quincy man had brought the rations thus far; another Quincy man should finish the job...."

For a number of days, Thompson ran the gantlet of German shells, going "back and forth between the front line trenches carrying food, water and munitions." He "only gave up when his physical strength failed."

Company L pushed the Germans back a few yards at a time, and soon the Germans began calling them the "Black Devils." The nickname stuck. The 370th Infantry became known as "the Fighting Black Devils."

The French government awarded Robinson the Croix de Guerre for his part in the action. Emmett Thompson was not overlooked. He was presented with "the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism in action...." The commendation read: "Sergeant Thompson, then a corporal, volunteered and took charge of a detail to secure rations. He succeeded in this mission under very dangerous and trying conditions, and notwithstanding the fact that his detachment suffered numerous casualties, he remained on this duty, and continued to supply the company ... until completely exhausted."

When Thompson died Sept. 15, 1929, The Herald-Whig said this: "Emmett Thompson, national guardsman, regular army soldier and World War hero, one of three Negroes in Illinois to receive the Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry under fire died ... of tuberculosis believed to have been the outgrowth of being gassed in France. Thompson was a real soldier and gallant defender of the flag."

Phil Reyburn is a retired field representative for the Social Security Administration. He authored "Clear the Track: A History of the Eighty-ninth Illinois Volunteer Infantry, The Railroad Regiment" and co-edited " 'Jottings from Dixie:' The Civil War Dispatches of Sergeant Major Stephen F. Fleharty, U.S.A."

 

Sources:

Braddan, William S. Under Fire with the 370th Infantry (8th I.N.G.) A.E.F.: Memoirs of the World War. Chicago: William Braddan, publisher, circa 1920.

 Guistaitis, Joseph. Chicago Transformed: World War I and the Windy City. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 2016.

 Quincy Daily Herald, Feb. 25, 1919, March 8, 1919.

 Quincy Herald-Whig, Sept. 16, 1929.

 Quincy Daily Journal, April 15, 1915.

 Quincy Daily Whig, Feb. 18, 1919; Feb. 25, 1919; March 8, 1919; March 19, 1919; March 21, 1919; Sept. 5, 1919.

Scott, Emmett J. Scott's Official History of The American Negro in the World War. Chicago: Homewood Press, circa 1919.

 Stallings, Lawrence. The Doughboys: The Story of the AEF, 1917-1918. New York: Harper & Row, publishers, 1963.

 Sutherland, Jonathan. African Americans at War, An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2004.

"Yankee Negroes in Horizon Blue Led Way to Rhine," The Stars and Stripes, April 4, 1919.

 

Remembering WWI

In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of America's entry into the World War I, this column will run periodic articles about the area and its involvement in the war. The articles will coordinate with the Remembering WWI exhibit at the History Museum, which runs through 2018.