Harlem Hellfighters: African-Americans in WW1

America enters the Great War

The Harlem Hellfighters became the most decorated U.S. Regiment in World War 1… fighting as a French unit.

When the U.S. declared war on Germany in April 1917, the standard volunteer system would be inadequate to raise an army, so an act was passed to install the draft. Even before the act passed, African Americans had registered in large numbers to prove their loyalty.

Four all-black regiments were in existence at the start of WW1. Within a week the War Department had to stop accepting volunteers because the quotas for those regiments were filled.

The draft however brought a reversal of this move: instructed to tear a corner off their registration cards, blacks were easy to identify. Suddenly, they were “favoured” over whites in disproportionate numbers.

Harlem Hellfighters become combat unit in WW1

The Army was less discriminatory – relatively speaking! – than other branches, yet African-Americans were banned from combat units. Most ended up in labour battalions and even the four established all-black regiments had no prospect of seeing overseas combat. The black service units provided invaluable work and received the promise of special privileges in return for their services. Instead, they were treated the worst of all troops.

The Harlem Hellfighters go to the front

The backlash eventually led to the creation of the 92nd and 93rd Divisions. Unfortunately, due to the fear for racial uprisings, the soldiers of the 92nd were forced to train separately, so no cohesion developed. This lack of a strong bond between the men led to the unit’s poor performance in the Meuse-Argonne offensives. Their reputation was further tarnished through an orchestrated campaign of slander by prejudiced officers.

The 93rd fared slightly better, even though they too lacked cohesion. Limited to 4 regiments, they were made up of both draftees and National Guardsmen, but never reached full divisional strength.

When the French begged the U.S. for extra men to shore up their exhausted and dwindling troops, Gen. Pershing decided to give them the 4 regiments of the 93rd. While the U.S. was reluctant to put African-Americans into battle, France was not. Many of the French commanders had fought alongside African troops in the French colonies and treated the African-American soldiers as equals. With the exception of their American uniforms, the men of the 93rd were kitted out with French equipment: helmets, belts, arms… To all extent and purpose, they became part of the French Army.

A fearsome reputation

One of the four regiments, the 369th – formed out of the 15th Infantry Regiment New York National Guards – was the first to reach France. They became known as the Harlem Hellfighters and would spend 191 days in combat, longer than any other American unit in the First World War.

During that time, they never gave up a foot of captured ground. Two members of the 369th – Needham Roberts and Henry Johnson – would become part of one of the greatest battle stories of the conflict. On 13-14 May 1918, a German patrol of at least 2 dozen men attacked their small observation post. With their team eliminated, Roberts and Johnson continued fighting off the enemy. Even when both were severely wounded and their ammunition ran out, they continued. Using their rifles as a club, Johnson killed a German with his bolo knife to save Roberts. The Germans eventually withdrew, taking tales of the Blutlustige Schwartzmanner (bloodthirsty black men) with them. Roberts and Johnson were the first American soldiers to receive the French Croix de Guerre for their exploits.

Harlem Hellfighters fight in Battle of Belleau Wood

At the Battle of Belleau Wood – where the U.S. Marines came of age – the Harlem Hellfighters’ reputation took even further hold. Shrugging off the French advise to retreat, Colonel Hayward led his troops through a German artillery barrage, firmly stating “My men never retreat! They go forward or they die!”.

All that jazz

While the 369th was fighting on the front lines, its regimental band was introducing jazz to Europe. Led by James Reese Europe, their performance in Paris was so well received that the one-time event turned into a 2-month tour. Allied soldiers and French citizens alike cheered more for the Hellfighters’ band than any other. It wasn’t so much what they played, but how they played that set them apart.

Happy ending for the Harlem Hellfighters?

At the end of the war, the highly decorated 369th was given the honour of being the first unit to march through the German lines and reach the Rhine, serving as the Allied Forces’ advance guard. At the welcome home parade in New York almost one million people showed up to welcome the unit back.

Unfortunately, their hopes of ending discrimination and segregation would soon fade, along with the memory of their achievements on the battlefields.

Members of our tour group assist with the lowering of the American flag at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery

For more information on World War 1 itineraries, please use the enquiry form or email us.

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