'The Harlem Hellfighters': WW1's African-American regiment

Soldiers of the 369th (15th N.Y.), awarded the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action, 1919. Left to right. Front row: Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Storms, Pvt. Joe William

‘My men never retire, they go forward or they die’ – Colonel William Hayward.

In 1914, as war erupted across Europe, American President Woodrow Wilson declared that his country would remain neutral. With little vital interests at stake, public opinion agreed with him.

However, subsequent German U-boat attacks on passenger ships and ocean liners, including the British Lusitania, began softening public opinion to the possibility of war. The final straw was the British intercepted Zimmerman Telegram, an encrypted message sent by the Germans proposing an alliance between themselves and Mexico. The Americans could no longer remain neutral and declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917.

At the time of WWI, the American military was entirely segregated. For African Americans, enlisting to fight for their country was incredibly difficult. Prejudiced opinions at the time had people believing that African Americans would not do well in battle. However, the U.S. needed troops, so in 1917 the War Department decided to include black Americans in the draft and over 2 million new recruits were registered.

'They are one of the most important regiments in American History'

Around 375,000 African Americans served during the war and of those 200,000 were shipped overseas. The vast majority of those did not even see active combat duty. In fact, most were employed in backbreaking support services and labour duties, such as unloading ships, road building and latrine construction.

Two African American units, however, did see combat, accounting for around 42,000 troops. One of those was the 369th Infantry Regiment (formally the 15th New York National Guard Regiment), commonly known as the ‘Harlem Hellfighters’.

‘They are one of the most important regiments in American History, ‘ said Christopher P. Moore, historian and Senior Researcher at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. ‘In WWI they helped to establish to the entire world the power of black soldiers in the military.’ For many African Americans, the war felt like an opportunity to change perceptions for the better, to rid the U.S. of racial discrimination once and for all.

The 15th New York Regiment was founded on 2 June 1913 but not formally organised until June 1916, when New York Governor Charles Whitman appointed William Hayward, a white attorney and former Nebraska National Guard colonel, as the regiment’s commanding officer. Hayward understood the importance of incorporating African American’s into the unit’s officer corps. He also made it clear to any white officer candidates that they had to ‘meet men according to their rank as soldiers,’ and warned any who felt the need to ‘take a narrower attitude’ to stay out of his regiment.

At the end of 1916, the unit enlisted famed black musician and composer James Reese Europe, a leading figure in the New York music scene and a major figure in the transition from ragtime to jazz. Europe established a world-class regimental band and recruitment for the unit soared, with most enlistees coming from the neighbourhood of Harlem in Manhattan.

Three months after the U.S. entered WWI, the 15th New York was sent for basic training and in October 1917 they travelled to Camp Wadsworth in South Carolina for combat training. Here they faced considerable racial harassment and verbal abuse from a local community governed by Jim Crow laws of segregation.

The regiment had also been denied an opportunity to march down Fifth Avenue in New York for a farewell parade given to divisions about to be shipped overseas. Hayward asked for his unit to be included with the 42nd Division in the march, nicknamed the ‘Rainbow Division’. He was reportedly informed that ‘black is not a colour of the rainbow’.

By the end of December 1917, the 15th finally found itself on French soil, arriving in the port of Brest. The first weeks saw the unit performing construction projects and labour duties, a frustrating and belittling start for a regiment trained in active duty and raring to go. On 1 March 1918, the unit was re-designated as the 369th Infantry Regiment and would finally get their wish to see active duty just one month later, although not as part of the army they had come to represent.

Unlike the Americans, however, the French were less concerned with race and fully integrated the 369th into their forces.

The 369th were reassigned to the French Army. The French and British had been asking for reinforcements from the Americans for a while but John J. Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, refused to allow his army to be broken up and fed piecemeal to the Allies. However, his feelings of American military unity clearly didn’t apply to the 369th who he handed over to the French. Racial prejudices on behalf of white soldiers within the American army also played a part in Pershings decision to hand the unit over.

After reassignment to the 16th Division of the French Army, the American government even felt the need to warn the French about treating the members of the 369th as equals, sending over a memo highlighting the supposedly inferior nature of African Americans.

Unlike the Americans, however, the French were less concerned with race and fully integrated the 369th into their forces, welcoming them with open arms. Reissuing them French equipment and weapons, the unit was quickly sent to the front line trenches. The regiment would see 191 days of active combat duty, more than any other U.S. unit during the war. They’d also never lose a foot of ground or have anyone captured by the enemy.

They soon developed a fearsome reputation among their enemies, with the Germans nicknaming them ‘Höllenkämpfer’ ­– Hellfighters. Perhaps two of the Hellfighters most famous recruits were Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, the former could well be the most remarkable black military hero in US history.

On 14 May 1918, the two men were on listening duty in the Argonne Forest in the Champagne region of France. They begin to hear the sound of clicking and establish that it was a German raiding party of up to 24 men cutting barbed wire near their position. The two men soon found themselves fighting for their lives.

After initially trading fire, 25-year-old Johnson’s gun jammed, he turned to grenades before using the butt of his rifle as a club. He saw Roberts being dragged off by the Germans and drew his bolo knife and charged to his comrade’s rescue, successfully preventing his capture.

By daybreak, Johnson had received 21 wounds, including a debilitating one to his foot, but he’d successfully fended off the Germans, killing four in the process and wounding many more. The French awarded Johnson the Croix de Guerre; he was the first American to receive it.

The Hellfighters would see action at battles including the Second Battle of the Marne, Belleau Wood, Chateau-Thierry and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. It was during that final offensive capturing the town of Séchault that the 369th suffered some of the worst casualties of any American unit. Afterwards, they were removed from the front lines and the entire regiment awarded the Croix de Guerre for courage and valour.

A short while later, the Hellfighters returned to active duty and became the first Allied unit to reach the banks of the river Rhine in November 1918, as the Allies pushed the retreating Germans back.

After the war ended, the 369th made its way back to American soil, returning in February 1919 to a hero's welcome. The American press had been reporting on the achievements of the Hellfighters along with its star recruit Henry Johnson. On 17 February 1919, the 369th finally got the parade it deserved, marching up Fifth Avenue with crowds of people cheering them on and James Reese Europe leading the band at the front.

Around 1,300 Hellfighters never returned from Europe and for those who did, the celebration witnessed on Fifth Avenue didn’t last long. In the long run, their valiant courage had failed to change perceptions back home and racial riots and tensions escalated in the coming years and decades.

As for Henry Johnson, for all his heroics he died penniless in 1929. His wartime injury made it hard for him to gain work and it was left off his military record, preventing him from gaining any support from the government or army for many years after he returned from France.

‘It shows the paradox…here’s this great story of valour and of courage on the part of the soldier. And ultimately he comes back to a nation that doesn’t honour that sacrifice,‘ said Yohuru Williams, professor of history at the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota).

It would take until 1996 for Johnson to be awarded the Purple Heart. In 2002, he received the Distinguished Service Cross and in 2015 President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Johnson the Medal of Honour.