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Honoring forgotten heroes: 371st Infantry Regiment had local soldiers
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Honoring forgotten heroes: 371st Infantry Regiment had local soldiers

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A local military historian, along with a number of local soldiers, is helping lead the charge to raise money for a monument for an often-forgotten black Army regiment from World War I with a number of local soldiers.

The 371st Infantry Regiment was a black regiment that fought in several battles in France, Orangeburg resident Russell Wolfe said.

“They’ve pretty much been forgotten,” he said.

He and other organizers of the nonprofit 371st Infantry Regiment WWI Memorial Monument Association are looking to raise $300,000 to erect a monument on the State House grounds.

“It started in the fall a year ago. Sonya Hodges, who is the chairman of our effort, helped restore the Childs Cemetery, a historically black cemetery on the old Hampton Plantation” in Columbia," Wolfe said.

“Some of the soldiers from the 371st were actually buried on the grounds there,” he said. “She (Hodges) got interested in the 371st like five, 10 years ago. And I’ve been helping her work on it, helping her get information.”

After holding a ceremony at the cemetery attended by state legislators, Hodges had a plaque made that she wanted to have placed on the State House grounds, Wolfe said.

“I was talking to her, ‘Why just a plaque? Why don’t we put a monument?’” he said. “These soldiers, they came from South Carolina. There’s no World War I monument on the State House grounds."

“Many more Orangeburg County soldiers died in World War I than World War II,” Wolfe said. “We lost over 130 men – from disease, wounds and (those who were) killed in action.”

Wolfe said he is new to fundraising so Hodges reached out to District 75 Rep. Kirkman Finlay.

“He’s kind of become our champion at the State House,” he said. “We’ve got to get approval. You’ve got to go through the legislative process.”

Unfortunately, things were ramping up just as the state legislature went into recess, he said.

“So we’re now in the new season, and from what I understand, Sonya’s working with Rep. Finlay to get it proposed and to get it put on the State House grounds,” Wolfe said.

“We want to put it near the African American monument that’s currently on the State House grounds.”

Once they decided to pursue the monument, they engaged Jim Legg of the S.C. Department of Archaeology and Anthropology.

“He’s a Western Front-World War I historian, and I knew him. I asked him if he would like to participate,” Wolfe said.

They talked about an existing monument to the 371st in Ardeuil, France.

The monument “was erected by the 371st itself to their dead in the Champagne offensive,” Wolfe said. “It’s a truncated obelisk.”

They decided to base the new monument on this concept, with the pointed top of the obelisk flattened to accommodate a statue.

On the advice of another historian, the group contacted sculptor Maria Kirby Smith of Camden.

“I looked her up. She had done Judge Matthew Perry, she’d done (basketball player) Larry Doby, she did Freddie Stowers, the Medal of Honor winner with the 371st,” Wolfe said.

They told Smith about the regiment and the soldiers, and she came back with the concept -- a trifold design.

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“Rather than a single soldier, it’s a high relief with three soldiers -- one with the French equipment they got when they got to France, one with the U.S. equipment and one of a bugler,” Wolfe said. “She had read about one of the buglers from the regiment ... and just thought that would be interesting."

Buglers were signalmen when they got to France, he said, adding, "They had critical jobs."

He said the base of the monument will list the names of the soldiers killed in action.

So who were the soldiers of the 371st? They were mostly Southern draftees, sent into the bloody trenches of World War I. They came out as heroes -- having earned numerous individual awards for bravery including the Distinguished Service Cross, Croix de Guerre, Legion of Honor, Médaille Militaire and a Congressional Medal of Honor.

Most of the African-American draftees came from South Carolina, with additional members from Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and other southern states, as well as states including Maryland and Pennsylvania. Several hailed from the Orangeburg area, Wolfe said.

“The 371st was the only all-draftee regiment. These men had received no military training prior to coming in,” he said.

And the white officers in command were all “newly minted” out of the training camp, he said.

“You only had a few officers that had prior military experience,” Wolfe said. “And it was probably a good thing that they delayed the arrival of these troops because it gave time for the officers to get trained. And they had no sergeants. They didn’t provide a full cadre.”

“They were mainly from the South, and they all, the regiment, bonded,” he said. “And the men and the officers came together as a team. And that didn’t happen in some of the other black units, like the 92nd division (which) had this terrible leadership, from some of the general officers on down."

After training at Camp Jackson in Columbia, where it was deemed the best-drilled unit, the regiment arrived on the Western Front in April 1918. The regiment was placed under the command of the French Army because of their desperate need for new troops, as well as the belief that the French could better integrate the black soldiers.

“They were arriving (for training) through November 1917. And they were in the trenches in France in April 1918,” Wolfe said. “Within six months, they were overseas and in combat.”

After training in the new French equipment and tactics, on June 12, 1918, the 371st went into the trenches as part of the veteran 157th “Red Hand” Division. The 371st remained in the line for over three months, holding first the Avocourt and later the Verrières subsectors northwest of Verdun.

The regiment was then taken out of the line and thrown into the great September 1918 offensive in the Champagne. It took Côte 188, Bussy Ferme, Ardeuil, Montfauxelles and Trieres Ferme near Monthois.

The regiment captured many German prisoners, 47 machine guns, eight trench engines, three 77 mm field pieces, a munitions depot, many railroad cars and enormous quantities of lumber, hay and other supplies.

The 371st shot down three German airplanes by rifle and machine-gun fire during the advance. During the fighting between Sept. 28 and Oct. 6, 1918, its losses -- which were mostly in the first three days -- were 1,065 out of 2,384 actually engaged. The regiment was one of the most forward units of the attacking army in this great battle.

“You’ve got to think, bunch of white Southern officers, black men, (many of them) illiterate, and hardly any of them had probably been out of the state, probably not out of the county they lived in,” Wolfe said. “And put them together, and they would bond and do so well.”

Wolfe said the logic in putting them together was that the Army thought because many of the black soldiers were farmers, they were used to working with men like the white officers.

“A lot of these officers were farmers or they worked at businesses together,” he said. “And it did work.”

Donations by check can be made out to the 371st Infantry WWI Monument and sent to:

Attn: 371st Infantry Regiment

WWI Memorial Monument Association

1717 Gervais St. #204

Columbia, S.C. 29201

To learn more or to donate online, visit, www.371stmonument.org.

Contact the writer: chuff@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5543.

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