Today’s Blog is written by Barbara Lewis Burger, a retired National Archives Still Picture Senior Archivist
The above photograph of nine World War I soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment is one of several iconic photographs in the National Archives and Records Administration that document African American soldiers during the war. This particular image has been widely reproduced in print and broadcast media, and on the internet. The photograph (Local ID 165-WW-127A-8/ NAID 26431282) is from the series, American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917-1918 (NAID 533461) in the Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, Record Group 165.
The image was taken on board the USAT Stockholm on February 12, 1919, as the soldiers of the 369th and other African American troops returning home following the Armistice, awaited disembarkation in New York City. The 369th’s service in the war began over one hundred years ago on April 2, 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson asked a joint session of Congress to issue a declaration of war against the German Empire. Within in two days both houses had voted to support the declaration. In the spring and summer, the nine men in the photograph, eager to join the war, volunteered with the 15th Regiment Infantry (Colored) of the New York National Guard. Later that winter, within days of the United States declaring war on December 7th against Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary, the troops of the 15th Infantry set sail on the USS Pocahontas. The ship was bound for the port city of Brest, France and the soldiers were destined for their place in history. Two months later, on March 1, 1918, the regiment was reorganized and designated the 369th Infantry Regiment, 93rd Division.
The history of the regiment is well researched and documented, including its ill treatment and under-utilization by American forces in France. At the time, many Americans, including military leaders, believed African Americans lacked the intelligence and courage to fight. In the summer of 1918 the regiment was integrated into French forces to help replenish its forces and soon faced combat. The 369th proved the skeptics wrong and went on to achieve a remarkable combat record: they served more time in continuous combat than any other American unit — the regiment fought for 191 days on the front, the longest of any unit; never lost a man captured; never lost a foot of ground to the Germans; and was the first Allied unit to cross the Rhine River during the Allied offensive. In recognition of its bravery under fire, the French government awarded the regiment with the country’s military decoration, the Croix de Guerre. In addition, 171 men of the regiment were also presented with an individual Croix de Guerre for their valor. Several soldiers were also awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The 369th was not the only black World War I regiment, nor the only one to fight valiantly, but it is perhaps the most famous. Each soldier in this photograph, who is identified in an accompanying caption, is wearing the Croix de Guerre pinned to his garment. Also visible on the left sleeves of several are two War Service Chevrons signifying a year of service in the theater of operations.