Harlem Hellfighters: The Forgotten Heroes of World War I
Crowds lined the sidewalks of Manhattan’s 5th Avenue the morning of Feb. 17,1919. Thousands cheered, waving miniature American flags in the direction of 2,900 of the nation’s finest as they marched up the seven-mile route proudly sporting the Croix de Guerre — France’s highest honor — on the left breast pocket of their uniforms. Everyone of importance attended the welcome home parade dressed in their best attire, including New York State governor Al Smith and his wife, hoping to get a glimpse of the 369th Infantry Regiment.
The 369th, more commonly known as the Harlem Hellfighters — a name bestowed upon them by the Germans for their intensity on the battlefield, was an African-American unit that spent 191 days in combat during World War I, more than any other American outfit.
Within the ranks were unknown names with battle records that read like those of legends. One woman broke through a hoard of spectators and yelled praise, “Oh, you Black Death!” as Henry Johnson drove by in a Cadillac convertible, waving with one hand and grasping a bouquet of flowers in the other. The New York Tribune wrote that he was unable to walk due to a “silver plate in his foot, a relic of the memorable occasion.”
Other members carried instruments in exchange for their rifles. Their bandleader, James Reese Europe, was a tall, stern composer with circular eyeglasses who effortlessly instructed nearly 100 musicians playing popular jazz songs. “There were roars of welcome that made all the music of the day shrink into itself,” wrote one New York Times reporter.
The same reporter added that by the end of the gathering, “thousands and thousands of rattlesnakes, the emblem of the 369th, each snake coiled, ready to strike, appeared everywhere, in buttonholes, in shop windows, and on banners carried in the crowd.”
However, the celebration of the Harlem Hellfighters’ bravery faded with the parade car’s tail lights. Severe racism and segregation still existed in post-war America, creating insurmountable problems for veterans of the all-black unit.
Entering the Fight
As World War I raged across Europe, the Americans needed to decide how to best implement African-American troops if thrust into combat. The newly formed all-black regiment first redesignated from the “Old Fifteenth” 15th Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard to the 369th Infantry Regiment prepared to be amongst the first units sent to France. The regiment selected a mix of black and white officers to lead an all-black enlisted force. They faced discrimination at every turn, with many of their white brothers in arms outright refusing to serve alongside them in the same battlespace.
The heroes’ welcome that they would receive when returning from the war was not foreshadowed when they left. Leadership from the 42nd Infantry Division, nicknamed the Rainbow Division (when Douglas MacArthur said their unit “stretched over the whole country like a rainbow”), denied their inclusion in the farewell tour because “black is not a color of the rainbow.” Military commanders had no purpose planned for the 369th when they arrived in France by ferry, which ended up being a saving grace for the French army.
Theodore Roosevelt Jr. called William Henry Johnson “one of the five bravest American soldiers in the war”; the Germans knew him as “Black Death.”
Once in-country, Gen. John J. Pershing understood they were doing nothing more than stacking sandbags, unloading shipping cargo, and other laborious duties like laying railroad — tasks normally assigned to support battalions, not infantry regiments. Several written letters from Col. William Hayward, one of the few white officers of the command, described his predicament, “Our great American general simply put the black orphan in a basket, set it on the doorstep of the French, pulled the bell, and it went away.”
Ultimately, their pleas were heard, and their orders assigned them to 16th Division of the French Army. The French immediately taught “The Men of Bronze” how to win in trench warfare and other trade secrets to help them survive along the frontlines.
Theodore Roosevelt Jr. called William Henry Johnson “one of the five bravest American soldiers in the war”; the Germans knew him as “Black Death.” The former railroad porter was petite in stature and weighed a mere 130 pounds. Johnson, his teammates, and the French faced combat patrols, raids, and artillery barrages for weeks, their mettle tested daily. But one particular night in May, in the face of intense hand-to-hand combat, their reputation as a fighting unit was sealed.
While standing watch overlooking a bridge on the Aisne River during the graveyard shift (midnight to 4 AM) at a small forward outpost in the Argonne Forest, Johnson and 17-year-old Needham Roberts heard rustling in the darkness 50 yards out. Unbeknownst to them, two-dozen Germans in a raiding party planned to overwhelm, capture, and interrogate the soldiers.
The pair’s senses spiked; someone — something? — was not where it should be. Just as they realized that their barbed wire defenses were being cut, Johnson shot an illumination flare into the sky and Roberts rose to alert their forces. As he turned, a German grenade exploded and peppered his body with shrapnel, collapsing him to the ground. The night’s sky flashed with rifle fire, and they were pinned down. Johnson grabbed a nearby box full of hand grenades and pushed it next to the seated Roberts. As Johnson lobbed one after the other, Roberts reloaded magazines and prepared for their last stand.
Military commanders had no purpose planned for the 369th when they arrived in France by ferry, which ended up being a saving grace for the French army.
In the confusion, Johnson loaded the wrong ammunition into his French-assigned rifle and fired off three shots center mass into a soldier’s chest before it jammed. With the Germans now on top of them, Johnson flipped his rifle around and raked a home-run swing, connecting with another raider’s head. Johnson watched two Germans pick up the badly injured Roberts and haul him away with the auspices of taking him alive. Without hesitation, Johnson unsheathed his 9-inch bolo knife, leapt onto the two enemy combatants, and plunged the knife into both of them.
“Every slash meant something, believe me,” Johnson said after the incident. “I wasn’t doing exercises, let me tell you.” During the melee, he was shot in the arm and stomach by an officer with a machine pistol before he neutralized that threat, too. When French and American forces heard the chaos, they came running. The Germans retreated, and Johnson passed out from blood loss and exhaustion. When the fighting was over and Johnson had time to reflect while healing, he said, “There wasn’t anything so fine about it, just fought for my life. A rabbit would’ve done that.”
Johnson and Roberts would be the first two Americans — and first two privates — to receive France’s highest honor, the Croix de Guerre. Johnson’s award included the Gold Palm for extraordinary valor.
Jazz Rumbled Through Europe
When the Harlem Hellfighters weren’t on the frontlines following the November 1918 armistice, they were touring parts of Europe as the most popular musical band spectators had ever seen. While Americans often ridiculed and scoffed at it, the citizens of France had differing views toward the then-unknown ragtime and jazz genres of music at the turn of the 20th century. One report penned by Walter Winston Kenilworth in the Music Courier in 1913 read:
“Can it be stated that America is falling prey to the collective soul of the negro [sic] through the influence of what is popularly known as ‘rag time’ music? If there is any tendency to such a national disaster, it should be definitely pointed out and extreme measures taken to inhibit the influence and avert the increasing danger — if it has not already gone too far.”
While the American media rejected any notions of innovative counterculture, jazz swept across France largely due to the influence brought by Harlem Hellfighter James Reese Europe. Europe was previously known for writing rhythm music for the famed Vernon and Irene Castle, the most popular tandem dance team in the world. The irony in a last name led the 369th Regimental Band to introduce a new flair beside talented drum major Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and his former right-hand man, Noble Sissle (before the war they were escorted through the side door to perform for exclusive, often white, clientele as a romping piano-vocal duo). At one of their first overseas concerts, Sissle recalled:
“The bandmaster’s baton came down with a swoop that brought a soul-crushing crash. Then it seemed the whole audience began to sway … The audience could stand it no longer; the ‘jazz germ’ hit them, and it seemed to find the vital spot, loosening all muscles.”
The jazz-germ struck anyone who lended an ear, including American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) Gen. Tasker Bliss, who rose to his feet at the Théātre des Champs-Élysées in Paris at an August 1918 show.
“Who would have thought that little USA would ever give to the world a rhythm and melodies that, in the midst of such universal sorrow, would cause all students of music to yearn how to play it,” Sissle later said.
Their music brought culture-changing traditions to France, while Europe used his fame back in the States to make juke joints mainstream. On May 9, 1919, not long after he returned home, Europe was murdered by a jealous band member in Boston.
Although the Harlem Hellfighters received a warm welcome upon their return to the United States, their musical influence lingered in Europe as evidenced by jazz queen Josephine Baker, who rose to notoriety during the mid-1920s. Ernest Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anybody ever saw. Or ever will.”
Americans soon fell into old habits, and the stories of the Hellfighters became yesterday’s news. Life moved on for members who belonged to the now-historic unit. Spottswood “Spot” Poles, who was awarded five battle stars and a Purple Heart, went on to become one of the best baseball players in the Negro League. Myles A. Paige was a corporal who rose to company commander and later became the first African-American judge appointed to New York City Criminal Court. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Paige re-entered the military and retained the rank as a colonel.
Artist and painter Horace Pippin is remembered for his firsthand account in the trenches written in composite books, often in pencil, sometimes in crayon. He described the horror as gas lingered beyond the trenches and the dogfights that circled above. He shared intimate details of watching friends die, close calls, and the time he was wounded by a German sniper. Pippin wrote as he lay in a pool of his own blood with shells exploding nearby; a French soldier found him but was shot through the face before he could speak, falling on top of him.
“He sank on me. I seen him comeing [sic] on but I could not move. I were just that weeke [sic]. So I hat [sic] to take him.” Night came with a rainstorm, and after passing out from blood loss, two French soldiers carried him off to receive life-saving medical treatment. Pippin returned home with his right arm paralyzed. He continued to paint, his work reflecting his life experiences.
The unit’s heroism finally received proper recognition in 2015 when President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Henry Johnson the Medal of Honor. The memory of the Harlem Hellfighters stands as a testament to the African-American soldiers who paved the way for positive change in the US Armed Forces.