AfriGeneas Military Research Forum Archive
372nd Infantry Arrives in France, 1918
The following excerpt appears on pages 36-41 of:
…On Saturday morning, April 13th, at 9:25 o’clock land was sighted, and a lusty cheer went up from 2,000 throats, for it had been looked for and hoped for al the previous day. At noon we passed Belle Isle, and then numerous smaller islands and a jut of land came into view. Many small ships, probably fishermen, were in the outer harbor. We reached the inner harbor about three o’clock that afternoon, and had to wait an hour and a half for the tide to rise to a sufficient height to allow the vessel to pass through the channel. We were surrounded by numerous small craft, for this regiment was among the first colored troops to arrive in France.
At 4:30 that afternoon the Susquehanna lowly proceeded up the beautiful Loire River and through the submarine net. Amid the cheers of thousands of spectators and the playing of lively tunes by the band she touched the dock at 8:04 P.M. Saturday night, April 13th, 1918.
Early the next morning all hands were astir, for many were anxious to set foot on land again. Others were interested in the preparations to leave the ship, while on shore were many curious and interested onlookers. The companies were formed on deck at 7:30 A.M. and after roll call and other details the men began to leave the boat by companies, and were formed on the pier awaiting further orders. From each company was selected a detail to handle the baggage and to load and unload the trucks. The men worked in feverish haste, and truck-load after truck-load rolled off. The distance to camp was nearly three miles and consequently considerable time was employed in moving the regimental baggage from the boat, but at noon it was practically unloaded, and the afternoon was spent in designating billets, assigning guards and patrols, and other necessary duties after arrival at a new camp.
The billets or barracks were very poorly constructed, when compared with those of America. The roofs, for instance, were made of thin and poor material, which overlapped, but even then leaked badly when it rained. There were not floors and the ground was very damp as it had been raining for several days. The beds or cots were rudely constructed, consisting only of coarse wire stretched across strips of wood which were fastened to uprights or supports and were arranged in tiers. At five o’clock a hastily prepared meal was served and shortly afterwards the men retired to their very uncomfortable beds, but even these were welcome to the tired fellows, who had labored unceasingly the whole day. In a few moments all was quiet. The men were enjoying their first sleep on foreign soil.
The morning dawned cloudy and the budding foliage was wet from the rain of the day before, but it found all hands refreshed and ready to start their routine of camp duty.
The camp was situated on a hill which afforded a fine view of the town of St. Nazaire, through the regiment had passed on their way. The scenery was odd, but picturesque. In the distance the Loire River wound in and out. On either side were gardens and shrubbery so artistically and fantastically arranged that they were much admired. Here and there in the distance could be seen the church tower, which is the chief characteristic of every French village and hamlet.
Between the scene and the camp lay the quiet village of St. Nazaire, a typical seaport town. The streets were narrow and crooked, with the exception of the main thoroughfare, which was more modernly constructed. The houses were in most instances built of clay, similar to our cement, and in building very little attention had been given to the strictness and symmetry, consequently the outside of the house did not present a very favorable appearance to the casual observer. The interior of these houses was more cheerful and agreeable, with some exceptions. These exceptions were the dwellings of the poorest class or “peasants”. Fireplaces were employed for cooking and heating, and as cola was very scarce at the time, wood was the main fuel. In the yards of all the middle and poorer classes could be seen large bundles of branches and sticks which had been gathered and bundled for us in the fireplaces. In some houses there were tile floors, while others had wooden floors, and many had no floors at all. The walls were bedecked with many small articles made and arranged in the artistic manner which characterizes the French. The roofs of these houses were built of all sorts of material. Now and then one would see an old fashioned thatched roof. The streets were kept in wonderful condition as the soil in France is especially well adapted for roadmaking. This was a valuable asset to the Allies in the war, because it greatly aided the transportation by motor trucks and wagons.
There were numerous “Cafes” and “Epiceries” where one could obtain the best vintage of France for a comparatively reasonable price. These stores and shops were kept by “jolies madamoiselles”, who were very popular among the newly arrived American soldiers. The inhabitants were all of the true democratic spirit, catering alike to all. A warm reception was in the heart of every French inhabitant of the town, and the townspeople did not refrain from expressing it.
Additionally, Cpl. William Brady, company clerk of Co. I wrote in his diary of having had a leftover piece of bread from the evening meal of April 14th, which he placed in his pocket and planned to eat later. When he awoke on the morning of the 15th, he found that while he slept a rat had chewed a hole in his overcoat pocket and had eaten his bread.
Also, another very important note about the arrival of the 372nd in France is the fact that when 1st Lieut. Arrington Sylvester Helm, one of the two regimental chaplains, came down the gangplank he became the first black chaplain to set foot on French soil. Lt. Helm was a native of Washington, DC, and had been a member of the 1st Separate Battalion, DCNG. In September, 1918, Lt. Helm would be among the four black officers to remain with the regiment after Col. Herschel Tupes' "Courts of Elimination" were held.