May 1918 and World War I was raging across Western Europe. U.S. Army privates Henry Johnson, 21, and Needham Roberts, 17, were on night-time sentry duty in the Forest of Argonne, Northern France, when they came under heavy enemy attack. At least a dozen German soldiers, and possibly as many as twice that number, opened fire. However, the pair were members of the Harlem Hellfighters and mounted a heroic counteroffensive. Eventually, Roberts lay seriously injured and a grievously wounded Johnson found himself out of ammunition. Nonetheless, the private drew his bolo knife and continued to fight. He could have been forgiven for asking how he – an African-American from New York City – had found himself in rural France fighting Germans.
Johnson and Roberts were part of the newly designated 369th Infantry Regiment, which in April 1918 had become the first African-American regiment to serve in World War I. At home in the States, the unit was nicknamed the “Black Rattlers.” Over in France, they were dubbed “Men of Bronze” by their hosts. However, among the enemy German troops, the men of the Harlem-based regiment became known as “Hellfighters” due to their ferocity in the field of combat.
In fact, World War I had presented a rare and historic opportunity for African-Americans to serve their nation and – it was hoped – earn the respect of their white counterparts and the folks back home. Unfortunately, however, in some quarters, this would not be the case. Indeed, despite their service to their country– and their considerable bravery on the battlefield – the Harlem Hellfighters suffered racial discrimination throughout the war.
World War I – also known as the Great War – ran from July, 1914 until November, 1918, and was a global conflict between two groups of nations. The Allies initially consisted of France, Russia and the U.K. while the opposing Central Powers were composed of Germany and the countries of the Austria-Hungary Empire. As the war progressed, more nations were drawn in. The Central Powers were bolstered by Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, the Allied might was reinforced by Italy, Japan and – eventually – the U.S. in 1917.
And, despite the late American arrival to the conflict, the nation was not fully prepared for the fight. Indeed, the unprecedented decision to enlist African-American men into the war effort was based on strategic necessity – the U.S. simply did not have enough troops to send to Europe at that point. So, in 1917, the Selective Service Act was passed, demanding that all men between 21 and 30 sign up for the military draft – whatever their color.
And no doubt the 369th Infantry Regiment had its numbers bolstered by the act. Based in Manhattan since 1915, the cadre had been assigned to civil defense duties until 1917 when it was dispatched to Camp Wadsworth in South Carolina for combat training. Shamefully, however, while at the camp, the troops from the North faced discrimination from the local community. In fact, some storekeepers in the area refused to serve the African-Americans. And while some of their fellow white soldiers stood up for them, sadly this would by no means be the last time the 369th would experience racism.
Indeed, the embarrassing truth is that many white American troops refused point-blank to fight alongside their black countrymen. As such, the U.S. military chiefs decided to allocate the 369th to fight alongside the French Army. This move caused one Colonel Jean L.A. Linard – a French liaison officer for the American Expeditionary Force at the Western Front – to publish a notoriously racist hand-out. The pamphlet, Secret Information Concerning Black American Troops, “informed” its readers about the inferiority of African-Americans and their supposed tendency to commit serious sexual assault.
Nevertheless, once the 369th reached France in April 2018, the men were welcomed without any displays of prejudice or hatred. They were not segregated, but they were compelled to give up their incompatible American equipment, including their standard-issue Springfield rifles. The French replacement, the Lebel rifle, was reportedly less effective and met with a few grumbles. However, the racial tolerance shown by the French military far exceeded anything the 369th could have expected from U.S. forces at the time.
In fact, in the interests of camaraderie and integration, each member of the regiment was partnered with a French equivalent. The soldiers of both nationalities then trained together for three weeks in the field, dodging occasional assaults from German aircraft and artillery. By the end, the French soldiers had thoroughly primed the men of the 369th for trench warfare. They had learned how to take cover, advance, defend their positions and even cope with chemical attack. The Harlem troops could count themselves fortunate that they were able to learn from men with experience, but other black soldiers got lucky in another way.
Indeed, only a very small fraction of African-American enlistees ever saw combat in the Great War. Of the 2.3 million members of that racial group to register for the draft during the conflict, only 375,000 were accepted for service. And almost all of these men were taken in by the army, since the Navy only took a few for lowly ranks and the Marines refused them completely. In total, some 200,000 African-Americans were posted abroad in 1917-18, and of that number, just 42,000 engaged with the enemy.
Nonetheless, this final figure included the brave men of Manhattan’s 369th Infantry Regiment. Indeed, the Harlem Hellfighters saw action in several important enemy engagements, including the Second Battle of Marne on the Western Front in July and August 2018. This prolonged encounter came in response to a major German offensive, which the Allied forces managed to overcome. The Great War then pivoted greatly in favor of the Allies, leading to outright victory about three months afterwards.
However, this would not be before the Harlem Hellfighters played their part in the notorious Meuse-Argonne Offensive which commenced in late September. This 47-day-long battle constitutes the single largest military campaign in U.S. history. Some 1.2 million American soldiers were involved in this exhaustive engagement on the Western Front, culminating in the deaths of 28,000 German soldiers and 26, 277 U.S. troops.
This death count makes the battle the second-most bloody in U.S. history – only the Battle of Normandy in World War II surpasses it with 34,137 fatalities. But, while both white and African-American troops fought with valor in the Meuse-Argonne trenches, nevertheless, this was where the Harlem Hellfighters encountered more racism from their own side. In the aftermath of battle, one Major J.N. Merrill of the 368th First Battalion attempted to blame some of the carnage on the 369th. “Without my presence or that of any other white officer right on the firing line, I am absolutely positive that not a single colored officer would have advanced with his men. The cowardice showed by the men was abject” he wrote in a missive to a superior. Subsequently, five black officers were court-martialed, but their sentences were later quashed.
In fact, if the conduct of Private Henry Johnson in May of that year is anything to go by, then – contrary to Major Merrill’s assessment – the men of the 369th were astonishingly courageous combatants. After he and Private Robbins had been vastly outnumbered and overwhelmed by a German attack, they had fought the raiders to a standstill. With both men seriously wounded and out of ammo, Johnson then single-handedly took the enemy on with just a bolo knife. Despite carrying no fewer than 21 injuries himself, the Harlem Hellfighter stabbed one German soldier in the head and forced the rest into retreat. For this heroic feat, Johnson was given the moniker “Black Death.”
Some six months later, on November 11, 1918, it was all over. Germany and the Allies signed an armistice bringing an end to the Great War. The men of the 369th Infantry Regiment subsequently advanced victoriously to the German River Rhine ahead of other Allied units. And finally, on December 12, the Harlem Hellfighters were relieved of their duties and duly sent home to New York.
And despite the racism they had experienced elsewhere, the people of their hometown recognized the 369th’s sacrifice on their eventual return. “Up the wide avenue they swung,” wrote the New York Tribune in February, 1918, describing the Harlem Hellfighters’ victory parade through Manhattan. “Their smiles outshone the golden sunlight…” the newspaper report continued. “The impassioned cheering of the crowds massed along the way drowned the blaring cadence of their former jazz band… Never have white Americans accorded so heartfelt and hearty a reception to… their black country-men…”
Meanwhile, some 170 Harlem Hellfighters – including Johnson and Roberts – had been awarded the Croix de Guerre in December 1918. This French military cross was awarded for great heroism, but for the men of the 369th, honor in their own country would have to wait. In fact, Johnson’s courage and contribution would only be recognized some 80 years later. In 1996, having died in poverty way back in 1929, the one-time private was posthumously given a Purple Heart. In 2002, the hero was conferred a Distinguished Service Cross. And in 2015, Johnson became only the second African-American to ever receive the Medal of Honor.
Nevertheless, the Harlem Hellfighters helped to make history in more than just the military books. In fact, the 369th has been acknowledged by historians as being largely responsible for introducing the then new jazz style to Europe. It turned out that the regimental band was steeped in that music and included the accomplished ragtime player James Reese Europe in its ranks. Apparently, the band played jazz to many French wartime audiences and today – a century later – jazz remains highly popular in that country.
In 2014, the exploits of the Harlem Hellfighters both on and off the battlefield were fictionalized in a graphic novel by author Max Brooks and artist Caanan White. Entitled simply The Harlem Hellfighters, the work has been warmly received. In fact, Sony Pictures has acquired the film rights to the project and there is an indication that Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment may be in line to produce it.
But regardless of Hollywood’s version of history, some 70 million souls served in World War I, a conflict which tragically resulted in nine million military casualties and seven million civilian deaths. Every year, the fallen of the Great War are among those remembered on Veterans Day on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. None of these combatants should be forgotten, but the Harlem Hellfighters deserve special consideration for their heroism both overseas against the German foe, and at home against the common enemy of all humanity – racism.