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The Harlem Hellfighters: The War Heroes that America Didn’t Want

At the end of World War One, American troops returned home to festivities and good cheer. Soldiers marched through the streets, and the people packed the sidewalks to celebrate their safe, triumphant return. Of all the regiments to fight on the hellish western front of the Great War, none were more decorated than the 369th. Known at home as the Harlem Hellfighters, the unit spent more days on the front lines and suffered more casualties than any of its American counterparts. Despite this sacrifice, the Hellfighters were known less for their brave contributions than for the color of their skin. That’s because the regiment was made up entirely of African-Americans at a time when race relations in the United States were at an all-time low. 

The Hellfighters had moments of glory. Private Henry Johnson was hailed as a war hero for saving a comrade in brutal battle. Lieutenant James Reese Europe not only fought on the front lines, but he also imported jazz into the country whose name he bore. More than one hundred soldiers in the regiment received high commendations for their service. Yet, they didn’t receive it from the American Army.

Henry Lincoln Johnson in uniform
Henry Lincoln Johnson in uniform

That’s because the Harlem Hellfighters were given to the French Army. The American leadership knew that white soldiers would not fight alongside their black countrymen. A US Army General went so far as to discourage the French from treating the Hellfighters well or even shaking their hands. When the 369th Regiment shipped off to war, they hoped to return, having earned the respect of their country. Instead, they got something much worse.

Let’s explore.

For most of American history, the US military has had strange policies on African-Americans. In both the Civil and Spanish-American Wars, African Americans fought in small units, always segregated from white troops. With the start of World War One, the situation was much the same. 

Initially, many African-Americans were turned away by the military. Most generals held the racist belief that black Americans weren’t disciplined or intelligent enough to serve. President Woodrow Wilson expected to receive an influx of white volunteers for the upcoming war. But that didn’t happen. So, the President passed the Selective Service Act of 1917— a draft. All American men between 21 and 30 were required to sign up regardless of race. Divisions were still segregated. 

In New York, the governor Charles Whitman ordered the creation of the National Guard’s 15th Regiment— a new, all African-American division. At first, the regiment drew entirely from Harlem, a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Upper Manhattan. The brigade’s commander was a white man named Colonel William Hayward. 

Hayward opened up the regiment to African-Americans across the country. But, he needed another way to find fresh recruits. So, the colonel turned to one of the most prominent black musicians in America— William Reese Europe. Europe was a musical genius and a big name on the jazz scene. Under Hayward’s direction, Europe established a regiment band. They placed ads in the papers, and African-American musicians flocked to New York to serve and play. 

portrait of James Reese Europe, 1919

The unit grew to more than 2,000 men— each one joined for their own reasons. Some were drawn to the romanticism of war. Others felt a duty to serve. To many, it was much more personal and idealistic. 

America boasted of its democracy, liberty, and justice. For the men of the 15th Regiment, those were foreign concepts. Many of the soldiers felt that fighting was a way to earn the respect they deserved, that they were willing to give their lives for a country that had done so little for them.

In July of 1917, now known as the 369th Regiment, the men began basic training at Camp Whitman, New York. By all accounts, training went well. Commander Hayward spoke highly of the young recruits. But the Harlem Regiment’s first trials were quickly approaching.

In October, the brigade traveled to Camp Wadsworth, South Carolina, for combat training. They did not receive a warm welcome. Many of the white southern units treated the men of the 369th with disdain. This confirmed General John Pershing’s belief that all-white divisions would not fight alongside African-American troops.

Colonel Hayward knew that Army leadership would castigate the 369th at the first hint of retaliation. So, the regiment dedicated much of its training to de-escalation. Sadly, this training was put to good use. 

At one point, Lieutenant Europe attempted to buy a newspaper from a whites-only hotel. The hotel owner ordered Europe to get out of his establishment. In a positive example of inter-racial camaraderie, a group of white soldiers from the 27th Division, a National Guard group from New York, defended the lieutenant’s rights. Europe peacefully stood down. To show their solidarity, the 27th Division threatened to boycott shops that turned down the men of the 369th.

In December of 1917, the 369th sailed to Europe, joining the 93rd Division. To cut down on any tensions within the division, the 369th was assigned to labor duty. They hauled cargo, hammered rail lines, and scrubbed latrines. Lieutenant Europe noted that it was the same physical labor that their ancestors had once been forced to do.

Thankfully, the regiment’s band was the only group that got occasional respite from the backbreaking work. From the moment they arrived in France, Lieutenant Europe’s band wowed their hosts. That’s because they had something that nobody outside America had ever heard: jazz. When the army ship arrived in Brest, the band played a New Orleans-inspired rendition of Les Marseillaise. The French crowd, gathered to greet them, was blown away by the swinging rhythm and syncopated beats.

Still, there was no hope of the 369th integrating into the American combat effort. But there was an opportunity elsewhere.

Before America entered the war, the French and British armies had expended tens of thousands of soldiers, sending them into the meat-grinder that was trench warfare on the western front. Holes permeated the Anglo-French line. Both countries’ leadership begged the Americans to place their troops under French or English generals. The American’s rejected this idea. Woodrow Wilson and General Pershing insisted that all American troops would fight under the American Expeditionary Force. With one exception.

Pershing offered the 369th Regiment to the French General Lebouc, who happily accepted. The French were desperate for manpower and less concerned with race. They had conscripted units from Senegal and Morocco integrated into their divisions. So, on April 8th, 1918, the Harlem regiment fell into Lebouc’s command.

In the words of William Hayward, the “American general simply put the black orphan in a basket, set it on the doorstep of the French, pulled the bell, and went away.”

Thankfully, the French soldiers welcomed the men of the 369th with open arms. In future memoirs, the African-American troops spoke fondly of their relations with their new comrades. The young men from Harlem particularly enjoyed their distinctly French provisions, like dark tobacco and red wine. By all accounts, this respect came from the top-down— General Lebouc ensured that the men were treated well. 

In the eyes of the Americans, the Harlem regiment was being treated a bit too well. General Pershing wrote a memo discouraging white Frenchmen from being too accepting. He told them not to shake an African-American soldier’s hand, not to let them speak to women, and to maintain a degree of superiority. Pershing’s reasoning was simple. If the members of the 369th were treated too well in France, they might not put up with life back in the states.

Still, it wasn’t all fun and games for Hayward’s men. After three weeks of training, they were sent to the front lines on April 15th of 1918. The 369th immediately earned repute amongst their comrades and their enemies. It’s believed that the German Army were the first ones to call the regiment the Höllenkämpfer or Hellfighters. The name stuck. The Germans even tried recruiting the Hellfighters. The Nazis published propaganda arguing that African-American troops should join the Germans in the fight against the USA, the nation that had oppressed them for so long. 

Instead, the Hellfighters became one of the most famous American regiments in Europe, thanks to Private Henry Johnson. Less than a month into his first stint on the front lines, Johnson found himself stranded at an observation post with a fellow Hellfighter named Needham Roberts. The men had pushed into no man’s land, finding themselves isolated from their regiment as night fell over the battlefield. Before they could retreat, a German patrol approached.

Johnson and Roberts heaved grenades at the Wehrmacht troops. The Germans returned fire. An explosive detonated at Roberts’ feet, incapacitating him. Johnson, now fighting alone, unloaded his rifle on the approaching patrol, injuring several men. But his position was overtaken. Two German soldiers lifted Private Roberts from the ground, claiming their prisoner. Johnson leapt from the trench, cracking an enemy’s skull with the butt of his rifle. The patrol fired at Johnson from point-blank range, hitting him multiple times but not taking him down. Johnson pulled out a bolo knife and charged the men carrying Roberts. He stabbed the blade through a man’s skull, turned to another, and skewered him in the stomach. The Germans dropped Roberts and fled. 

When Johnson awoke in a hospital days later with more than a dozen bullet wounds, he was told that he had fought off 24 Germans. More importantly, he saved Needham Roberts’ life.

Word of Johnson’s heroism spread like wildfire. American journalists wrote action-packed, front-page articles chronicling the soldier’s fight. Former President Theodore Roosevelt called Private Johnson one of the bravest Americans in the world.

The injuries marked the end of Johnson’s time in combat, but celebrations of his bravery continued. Months later, General Lebouc pinned the Croix de Guerre with a Golden Palm on Johnson’s chest. One of the highest honors in the French army, Johnson was the first American to earn such distinction.

In the coming months, the Harlem Hellfighters would spend a tremendous amount of time at the front lines. They fought in the Battles of Marne, Belleau Wood, and Chateau-Thierry. They took part in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, a coordinated counterattack of more than 1-million French and American troops. At times, the 369th advanced too fast for the French forces on their flanks. In one circumstance, they pushed 14 kilometers through severe German resistance before stopping to reorganize. Throughout the war, the Hellfighters never lost a prisoner or gave up ground to German troops. 

Lieutenant Europe fought valiantly in his own right. Yet his fight did not last long. He was knocked out by a German gas attack and spent weeks recovering in the hospital. Bedridden and unable to play a note on his violin, Europe penned his most famous composition, “On Patrol in No Man’s Land.” He was ruled unready for combat but fit to serve. Instead of returning to the front lines, Europe took his band to Paris, where they played for eight weeks straight. Everywhere they played, they were met with packed crowds, at one point performing for 50,000 fans at the Tuileries. Europe’s music didn’t just entertain the Parisians, though. It inspired them. In the coming decades, Paris would become the jazz capital of the European continent, thanks to the contributions of Lieutenant Europe.

As the war began to slow down, the Hellfighters’ contributions couldn’t be denied, but neither could the exorbitant costs. The 369th suffered more casualties than any other American regiment, totaling 1,500. About ten percent of those casualties were deaths. They also spent more time on the front lines— 191 days— than any other American unit. 

In October, in the war’s final weeks, the Hellfighters were stationed in a quiet section of the country. Following the Armistice, they pushed forward to the Rhine, becoming the first American unit to do so.

Following the Armistice, troops from France, Britain, and the US paraded through the streets of Paris, receiving the hero’s welcome they deserved. Yet not all who deserved it received it. General Pershing, resuming control of the 369th troops, assigned the Hellfighters to clean up duty. While the white soldiers popped champagne in the city of lights, the Hellfighters dug graves for American corpses.

The French Army was much more grateful. A month after the war’s end, General Lebouc awarded 170 Croix de Guerre to individual Hellfighters. He also awarded a unit citation to the entire regiment. The 369th was the most decorated American regiment of the Great War.

The Hellfighters arrived on the banks of New York before most of their white counterparts. In a rare moment of celebration and kind feeling, they paraded down 5th Avenue as the American people cheered their victory. Henry Johnson sat in a convertible, waving to the crowd who celebrated his heroism, while Lieutenant Europe’s band played their hearts out. It was a unique moment of pride for Harlem, as New York’s citizens honored the heroes who were so often forgotten.

But the story doesn’t end there. The Hellfighters hoped to return to a country that would finally accept them— after giving so much to preserve democracy, freedom, liberty, and justice. But, the America they returned to was no different than the one they left. Even as war veterans, the Hellfighters were treated as second-class citizens. For the few men who lived in the south, their trials were as bad as ever. In 1919, 70 African-Americans were lynched in the United States. 10 of them were veterans of the Great War.

Soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment 1919 by The National Guard is licensed under CC-BY

Lieutenant Europe traveled with his band, playing the swinging jazz that had won him much praise in Paris. In 1919, after a show in Boston, he was stabbed to death by one of his bandmates, a man who suffered from severe mental illness.

Henry Johnson became a spokesman for the Army. Military leaders urged Johnson to speak of the kind feeling he had for his white comrades and how they had treated him so kindly. He was told to tell a lie. In the words of a biographer, “Henry Johnson was expected… to grin, laugh, show good cheer, and talk about what he’d done that night in May as if it had afforded him the thrill of a lifetime…He was expected to be a voice for racial harmony.”

Before long, Johnson grew tired of the act. At a speech in St. Louis in early 1919, he went off-script, accusing the white American soldiers of racism and cowardice. After that, Johnson fell out of the public sphere. He dealt with all sorts of health issues over the next decade, many of which resulted from his injuries. His poor health made him unable to work. Yet, military records contained no mention of Johnson’s injuries from the. War. As a result, he received no help from the government. Henry Johnson died of an enlarged heart in 1929. He was buried in the Arlington National Cemetary in Washington DC. Almost a century after his service, Barack Obama awarded Johnson a posthumous medal of honor.

In the end, the Harlem Hellfighters’ sacrifice far outstripped their rewards. Yet, their struggle was not entirely in vain. To many, the Hellfighters represented the first step in the American Civil Rights movement. They showed pride in their identity and served with dignity for the country that so fiercely mistreated them. 

So, what do you think? What does it say about early 20th-century America that its’ generals wouldn’t even let African-Americans die for their own country? Is there any justification for the decision to not integrate the 369th into the Army? Or would it simply have forced the Hellfighters to suffer even more under the racism of their countrymen? Can you think of a more thankless yet immeasurably costly sacrifice? Is there any way to justly reward those who serve in such brutal conflicts?


Hellfighters from Harlem by The City College of New York is licensed under CC-BY

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