Remember Muslim-American soldiers on Veterans Day
Pvt. Omer Otmen’s Company K was ordered to join the first wave of the 360th Infantry’s attack against German forces, including the division called the “Kaiser’s favorites.” This was part of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the U.S. military’s most important campaign in World War I.
Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing led over a million troops in the battle that finally brought the “war to end all wars” to a conclusion. The price in blood and treasure would be high — over 26,000 killed and almost 96,000 wounded.
On an ominous Halloween night in 1918, the German army waited in a system of trenches designed to stop the advance of Otmen’s company. The Americans were supposed to begin bombing German positions at 3:30 in the morning. But the Germans discovered their presence beforehand, and by the midnight hour, they directed massive artillery fire toward the American side.
The Americans had no cover. For Otmen and his fellow soldiers, the Halloween night sky was ignited by bombs in what was described as a horrifying rain of fire. Thirty-six soldiers were injured or killed, and the German forces even hit a U.S. command post.
The U.S. assault finally began on schedule. After bombing the German positions for two hours, Otmen’s second platoon advanced toward the German lines, overwhelming the Germans in their trenches. They captured 70 men along with their machine guns and other military equipment. Later, the commanding general of the Ninetieth Division cited Otmen by name for his bravery.
The regiment suffered heavy casualties over the next several days, but on Nov. 11, the armistice was declared and the fighting stopped. Company K and others now set their sights both on maintaining order as German troops withdrew from Belgium and, eventually, on occupying Germany itself.
The story of Omer Otmen may seem rare. It was not. According to Philip Hitti in “The Syrians in America,” the U.S. War Department reported that 13,965 Syrian Americans, or 7 percent of the total Syrian-American population, served in uniform during World War I.
As Arab-Americans, they shared, more or less, a common language — Arabic — and held in common many cultural traditions. But they subscribed to an incredibly diverse set of religious traditions. The majority of them were Christian, members of Maronite, Melkite, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or other Christian sects. Some were Druze, an Eastern Mediterranean religious group with a heritage that dates from the eleventh century. Still others were both Sunni and Shia Muslims.
Ten percent and maybe more of Syrian-Americans in uniform were Muslims. They were the largest ethnic group of Muslim-Americans to serve, but they were not alone. Other Muslims registered with the draft came from Bengali, Punjabi, Bosnian, Tatar, and other backgrounds.
Only now — in the aftermath of a presidential election in which the parents of a fallen Muslim soldier played an important role — is the long story of Muslim-Americans in the military coming to light. Their names and their service deserve more attention than they have received in American history. From the War of 1812, when enslaved Muslim scholar Bilali Mahomet stood ready to defend against British invasion on Sapelo, Georgia, to Sgt. Nicholas Said’s service in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry (Colored) in the U.S. civil war, Muslims have always defended the country.
Willing to spill their blood for a country that sometimes doubts their loyalty, Muslim service members have been injured or killed in every major U.S. war from World War I to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like Muslim-Americans as a whole, they are black, brown, and white; they trace their ethnic roots to every inhabited continent. Thousands of them wear the uniform today.
They are America. This Veterans Day, it is time to remember them.
Edward Curtis IV is author of “Muslim Americans in the Military: Centuries of Service.”