When the United States of America entered World War I in April of 1917, men from all walks of life rushed to the register for the draft. African Americans inducted into the U.S. Army to serve during World War I were placed primarily into service units. Service units consisted of different companies and battalions that would be assigned different labor-intensive tasks. These service units were also non-combatant units meaning that they were not trained to fight. Some of these units were armed only with a shovel for digging.1 Many officials feared that if these African American men were trained and armed that they would challenge white supremacy. Many of these service units consisted of Engineers.
African Americans who served within an Engineers company were tasked with a variety of duties that constantly changed depending on what was needed. These units would construct trenches to provide protection for soldiers.2 The Engineers were also entrusted with creating infrastructure such as roads and bridges that allowed essential supplies to reach the front lines.
The Army also created Pioneer Infantry Regiments and they were another essential part of the war effort.3 Men of Pioneer Infantry units were also a part of service units; however, they primarily built bridges and roads and maintained railroads right behind the front lines.4
Despite the racism they experienced, African Americans across America saw this as an opportunity to prove themselves to America, and to bring honor back to their families. Without the men of the service units, America would not have won the war as swiftly, and countless more lives would have been lost. The Pioneer Infantry and Engineers of World War I could easily be considered the backbone of US Army support units. Without them the troops would not have had supplies, protection, nor means of embarking deeper into Europe.
Barbeau, Arthur E. and Florette Henri. The Unknown Soldiers : African-American Troops in World War I. Philadelphia, PA : Temple University Press, 1974.
Bliss, Paul Southworth. Victory: History of the 805th Pioneer Infantry, American Expeditionary Forces. St. Paul, MN: The Infantry, 1919.
Dalessandro, Robert J. and Gerald Torrence. Willing Patriots: Men of Color in the First World War. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2009.
Keene, Jennifer D. World War I: The American Soldier Experience. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2011.
Williams, Chad. Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
1 National Museum of the United States Army. "FIGHTING FOR RESPECT: African-American Soldiers in WWI." The Campaign for the National Museum of the United States Army, accessed August 01, 2018. https://armyhistory.org/fighting-for-respect-african-american-soldiers-in-wwi/.
2Peter M. Lefferts, "Black US Army Bands and Their Bandmasters in World War I," (2012), Faculty Publications: School of Music. 25, accessed August 01, 2018, digitalcommons.unl.edu/musicfacpub/25/.
3 Missouri Historical Society, "Missouri Historical Society | Find Yourself Here," The Missouri Historical Society, accessed August 01, 2018, http://mohistory.org/blog/wwi-artifacts-and-memories-the-805th-pioneer-infantry-bearcats/.
4 Paul Southworth Bliss, Victory: History of the 805th Pioneer Infantry, American Expeditionary Forces (St. Paul, MN: The Infantry, 1919), available on Archive.Org., accessed Sept. 30, 2018, https://archive.org/details/victoryhistoryt00blisgoog/page/n8.
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