After Action Review (AAR)
Men of Bronze – The Harlem Hellfighters
Origin of the Harlem Hellfighters: Men of color have served in every American conflict since the Battle of Lexington in 1775. During the 1860s, freemen and former slaves flocked by the thousands to wear the blue uniform of the United States in segregated units during a conflict “to make all men free”.
After the Civil War, Congress authorized the creation of six segregated black regiments to serve in the peace-time army. There was one very important restriction, the officers had to be white. The Ninth and Tenth Cavalries and the 38th through 41st Infantries, all composed of African-American soldiers, were thus formed. The new Cavalry regiments were mainly stationed in the Southwest and the Great Plains, where they were used to build forts and to maintain order in a frontier overrun by outlaws and occupied by hostile native American tribes battling land-grabbing white intruders. The Cheyenne Indians of the Great Plains, called the black troops “Buffalo Soldiers” as much for their ability in battle, as for their dark skin.
The men of the Ninth and Tenth Cavalries further proved their abilities in the Spanish-American War. Members of both regiments fought in Cuba. Called the most integrated battle force of the 19th century, the troops of the 24th Infantry and the 9th and 10th Cavalry fought up the slope of San Juan Hill along with White regular army regiments and the 1st Volunteer Cavalry (the Rough Riders) led by Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt.
Twenty six Buffalo Soldiers died that day, and several men were officially recognized for their bravery. Quarter Master Sergeant Edward L. Baker, Jr., 10th Cavalry, emerged from the battle wounded by shrapnel but was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism. After the Battle of San Juan Hill, Rough Rider Frank Knox said, “I never saw braver men anywhere.” Lieutenant John J. Pershing wrote, “They fought their way into the hearts of the American people.” Theodore Roosevelt commented “… no one can tell whether it was the Rough Riders or the men of the 9th who came forward with the greater courage to offer their lives in the service of their country.” The Tenth also served under General John “Black Jack” Pershing during the expedition against Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.
With a revolution in Mexico boiling over the southern border into the United States, and nations choosing sides in Europe, the State of New York was looking to expand its National Guard. The black population of Harlem wanted its own regiment as part of that expansion. Harlem, originally a Dutch village in the northern section of Manhattan since the turn of the twentieth century, had been the center of a mass migration by southern blacks. That regiment was the 15th Infantry Regiment, New York National Guard. Later in France the 369th.
Participation in the war effort was problematic for African Americans.
While America was on a crusade to make the world safe for democracy abroad, it was neglecting the fight for equality at home. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), a landmark constitutional decision by of the US Supreme Court, established that the 14th Amendment upheld state racial segregation laws for public facilities under the doctrine of “separate but equal”. In 1913 President Wilson, in a bow to Southern pressure, even ordered the segregation of federal office workers. The U.S. Army at this time drafted both black and white men, but they served in segregated units. After the black community organized protests, the Army finally agreed to train African American officers, but it never put them in command of white troops or in white units.
In 1917, there were four all-black regiments in the regular army, the old 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry. They were joined by the all-black national guard units. The men who served in these units were considered heroes in their communities. They viewed the conflict as an opportunity to prove their loyalty, patriotism, and worthiness for equal treatment in the United States. With little to no armory, and conducting physical examinations in basements, dance halls, and sometimes the street corners of Harlem, the recruiting began in earnest. Within one week of Wilson’s declaration of war, the War Department had to stop accepting black volunteers because the quotas for African Americans were filled.
The men of the black regiments soon got their first taste of what the war was to hold for them. Stationed around the country, they started training. The lack of hygienic supplies, clothing, shoes, military tuberculosis and hunger would be the first of their problems. Even in the army, these men were treated as second-class citizens.
After many months of arduous training, the orders finally came for the black regiments to prepare for overseas duty. They were going to France to fight in the war, or so they thought. After two weeks of waiting in a makeshift camp near the port of New York, they boarded a troop ship named Pocahontas. The old tub was not in the best condition to transport American soldiers from New York to France. The Pocahontas attempted to set sail for France on three different occasions before it successfully made the trip across the Atlantic.
The landing site of the black soldiers had been kept secret because of the menace of German submarines, but by the time the Americans had lined up to take their first salute on French soil, an enthusiastic crowd had gathered to welcome them. With flags flying and the band playing the Marseillaise, the first black Americans disembarked to march through the streets of the French port of La Havre. The black band soon became the talk of the town. This marked one of the first times American jazz music was heard in France.
The eager soldiers would soon find that the welcoming enthusiasm of the French citizens was one thing, but the armed forces of their homeland wanted nothing to do with them. They would be stationed in St. Nazaire, far from the front lines of war. Putting the African American men to work as laborers solved more than a couple of problems for General Pershing. They were cheap workers, and they weren’t wanted on their own soil, or by other regiments that contained white soldiers. They felt more like stevedores than soldiers.
Even though he had commanded black troops during the charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish American war, General Pershing had little faith in this African American regiment, with only two months of the six months of minimum training. The regiment was angry about being sent so far away from home to do labor, but what choice did they have? After a little over a year, the soldiers turned St. Nazaire completely around, making railroads and buildings more sustainable and getting much-needed supplies to troops fighting at the front. The regiment felt dumped on the French. The Americans saw the black soldiers as an unwanted burden. The French saw them as a windfall.
French Marshal and Supreme Allied Commander needed troops and if the white Americans did not want to spill their blood with the “colored soldiers” the French would. Pershing gave the French the 93rd division.
It was later discovered that General Pershing had sent a letter to the French, which was meant to be kept confidential:
August 7, 1918
Secret information concerning Black American Troops: It is important for French officers who have been called upon to exercise command over black American troops, or to live in close contact with them, to have an exact idea of the position occupied by Negroes in the United States.… 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. The black is constantly being censured for his want of intelligence and discretion, his lack of civic and professional conscience, and for his tendency toward undue familiarity.
The vices of the Negro are a constant menace to the American who must repress them sternly… We must prevent the rise of any pronounced degree of intimacy between French officers and black officers. We may be courteous and amiable with these last, but we cannot deal with them on the same plane as with white American officers without deeply offending the latter. We must not eat with them, must not shake hands or seek to talk or meet with them outside the requirements of military service. We must not commend too highly the black American troops, particularly in the presence of Americans.
Make a point of keeping the native cantonment population from “spoiling” the Negroes. Americans become greatly incensed at any public expression of intimacy between white women with black men.… Familiarity on the part of white women with black men is furthermore a source of profound regret to our experienced colonials, who see in it an overwhelming menace to the prestige of the white race.
John J, Pershing
The 369th aka Harlem Hellfighters
It was lucky for the now 369th infantry that the French disregarded Pershing’s orders. Ultimately, the soldiers would be grateful for being dumped. They turned in all their American equipment and were issued the French rifles, French ammunition belts, pack, helmets, etc., gas mask, but they kept their American uniforms. They were finally ready for war.
Following some initial successes in Lorraine in mid-August, on September 20, 1918, they were ordered to proceed to the Argonne Forest in preparation for the Meuse-Argonne offensive. The division reached the front lines just before the first assault. For nearly a month they held their position against German assaults, and after only a brief break from the front, the 369th was placed once again in the middle of the German offensive, this time at Minacourt, France. The 369th, now proudly nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters” by the Germans, proved their tenacity once again by helping the French 161st Division drive the Germans from their trenches during the Aisne-Marne counter-offensive.
In this three-week period, the Germans were making many small night raids into Allied territory. During one of these raids, a member of the 369th Infantry, CPL Henry Johnson, who the French called the “Black Death,” fought off an entire German raiding party using only a pistol and a knife. Killing four of the Germans and wounding many more, his actions allowed a wounded comrade to escape capture and led to the seizure of a stockpile of German arms. Johnson and his comrade were wounded, and both received the French Croix de Guerre for their gallantry. Johnson was also promoted to sergeant.
By late 1918, the German Army was in full retreat. Marshal Foch wanted to apply heavy pressure for a decisive breakthrough and final German defeat. The 92d of 369th was ordered to take the heights east of Champney, France, on November 10, 1918. Although only lasting one day, the attack was fierce and bloody, posting the division over 500 casualties. The next day the guns fell silent.
From September 26 to October 5, the 369th participated in the Meuse-Argonne offensive and continued to fight well throughout the remainder of the war. The regiment fought in the front lines for a total of 191 days, five days longer than any other regiment in the AEF. France awarded the entire unit the Croix de Guerre, along with presenting 171 individual awards for exceptional gallantry in action.
Although the 369th won much of the glory for the 93d Division, the 370th, 371st, and 372d Regiments, each assigned to different French divisions, also proved themselves worthy of acclaim at the front. The 370th fought hard in both the Meuse-Argonne and Oise-Aisne campaigns. Seventy-one members of the regiment received the French Croix de Guerre, and another twenty-one soldiers received the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). Company C, 371st Infantry, earned the Croix de Guerre with Palm. The 371st Regiment spent more than three months on the front lines in the Verdun area, and for its extraordinary service in the Champagne offensive, the entire regiment was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm. In addition, three of the 371st’s officers were awarded the French Legion of Honor, 123 men won the Croix de Guerre, and twenty-six earned the DSC.
The 372d Infantry also performed admirably during the American assault in Champagne and afterward assisted in the capture of Monthois. It was there the regiment faced strong resistance and numerous counterattacks, resulting in many instances of hand-to-hand combat. In less than two weeks of front-line service, the 372d suffered 600 casualties. The regiment earned a unit Croix de Guerre with Palm, and in addition, forty-three officers, fourteen noncommissioned officers, and 116 privates received either the Croix de Guerre or the DSC
On November 11, 1918, at 1100, the armistice between the Allies and Central Powers went into effect.
Like all other American soldiers, the African American troops reveled in celebration and took justifiable pride in the great victory they helped achieve. It was not without great cost: the 92d Division suffered 1,647 battle casualties and the 93d Division suffered 3,534.
Expecting to come home heroes, black soldiers received a rude awakening upon their return. Back home, many white`s feared that African Americans would return demanding equality and would try to attain it by employing their military training. As the troops returned, there was an increase of racial tension. During the summer and fall of 1919, anti-black race riots erupted in twenty-six cities across America. The lynching of blacks also increased from fifty-eight in 1918 to seventy-seven in 1919. At least ten of those victims were war veterans, and some were lynched while in uniform.
Despite this treatment, African American men continued to enlist in the military, including veterans of World War I that came home to such violence and ingratitude. They served their county in the brief period of peace after the World War I, and many went on to fight in World War II.
It was not until 1948 that President Harry S Truman issued an executive order to desegregate the military, although it took the Korean War to fully integrate the Army. African Americans finally began to receive the equal treatment their predecessors had earned in combat in France during World War I and throughout this country’s history.