The United States joined World War I on April 6, 1917, and Americans fought their first major engagement in the Battle of Belleau Wood in June 1918.
The American Expeditionary Force was forced to learn how to fight in a world where warfare had become more aggressive, mechanized and deadly. The U.S. Army’s last engagement was the Spanish American War in 1898.
The other Allied nations had already learned this lessons the hard way, through senseless slaughter and finally the implementation of new military techniques. As a consequence, the United States’ casualty rate during the war was 320,710.
Burning to Join the Fight
Some groups felt the United States should have entered the war sooner.
One such group was the Preparedness Movement. It believed the nation should play a more active role in the war and should require universal military service. Its best known member was Theodore Roosevelt.
Groups that were part of the movement included the American Defense Society, the American Rights Committee, the League to Enforce Peace, and the National Security League.
They created camps for men’s military training and held parades to rally people behind their cause.
Men who wanted to join the fight before April 1917 found ways around the problem of America’s neutrality. They traveled to Canada, Britain and France and joined the fighting there, either with those nation’s armies or with the foreign legion.
“They were intellectuals, writers, drifters, a lawyer from New York, a newspaper correspondent from Boston and a black boxer from Alabama, among others,” The Washington Post says of the volunteers. “Several had money and fine Ivy League educations.”
The first American believed to have been killed in the war was Edward Mandell Stone who died in late winter 1915.
Eugene Bullard is perhaps the best known volunteer. Born in Georgia in 1894, he was half African-American and half Native-American.
As a child, he witnessed his father escape a lynching and left home in the hopes of finding a place where he could be treated fairly. Eventually, he made his way to France — the place, his father said, he would be judged by his merit, not his skin color.
In France in 1914, Bullard joined the French Foreign Legion and later the French Air Force where he became history’s first black fighter pilot.
He flew 20 missions and was credited with two kills. Bullard also won numerous medals including the Croix de Guerre, the highest French military honor, for his bravery at the Battle of Verdun where he was twice wounded.
In 1917, he tried to join the U.S. Army, which was actively recruiting Americans serving with the French, but was turned away because the Army thought the morale of white soldiers would suffer from associating with a black man.
The Linard Memo advised the French military that “although a citizen of the United States, the black man is regarded by the white American as an inferior being with whom relations of business or service only are possible.”
Bullard would remain in France until 1940. He died in 1961 and was posthumously made a United States Air Force second lieutenant in 1994.
Updated: 15 October 2020
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