In a half-forgotten field in France stands a worn monument to a regiment of U.S. soldiers who faced down racism at home and in their ranks to become World War I’s most decorated unit of African American soldiers.
In the run up to Veterans’ Day on Nov. 11, campaigners say the record of the 371st infantry regiment needs to be fully recognized. One man is trying to have one of the unit’s soldiers finally decorated with the Medal of Honor — the U.S. military’s highest award — a century after his death.
The 371st was largely made up of poor black laborers from segregated South Carolina.
They were drafted into the army by a military machine keen to keep them away from potential front line glory by putting them in support roles. But they soon found themselves in the heat of battle under the command of the French army, which was desperate for manpower in the dying days of the war.
“You had these African Americans in the early 1900s who were subject to Jim Crow, racism was rampant, the military was segregated,” said Gerald Torrence of the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), a government agency that serves as guardian of U.S. military memorials and cemeteries overseas.
“These men were victimized in their daily life in the United States, yet they were not victims in their minds,” said Torrence, who is co-author of "Willing Patriots: Men of Color in the First World War.”
Until 2015, when President Barack Obama posthumously decorated a soldier from another regiment, the 371st contained the war’s only African American winner of the Medal of Honor. But now Jeff Gusky, a campaigner, explorer and photographer, has dug through the records and believes it deserves another.
Private Burton Holmes was in his early 20s on Sept. 28, 1918 when he was badly injured during an assault on a ridge in Champagne, eastern France. In the face of heavy machine gun fire, he returned to headquarters to re-arm and fought on, rallying the troops before being killed.
He was recommended for the Medal of Honor but it was downgraded to a lesser award, a decision Gusky believes was down to institutional racism.
An African American comrade of Holmes, Freddie Stowers, was also recommended for the Medal of Honor during the war but his paperwork was misplaced for decades and he was only recognized in 1991, 73 years after his death.
Now veterans’ organizations say the case of Holmes needs to be reviewed too.
“I think the burden is on the present day U.S. Army to tell us why he wouldn’t deserve the Medal of Honor,” Gusky said.
In the tiny village of Ardeuil et Montfauxelles in eastern France (population 86), the residents have not forgotten the sacrifice of the soldiers.
Local man Frank Lesjean treks through a field after work to tend to their memorial, accessible only by a muddy track. He touches up the names of those who died with red paint and looks after the roses around the chipped granite.
“Restoring this monument helps their memory to endure,” he told Reuters. “Without it, they’d be even more forgotten.”