Gary Palmer: The Harlem Hell Fighters (WW I)

Roundup: Talking About History

[Gary Palmer is president of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society. ]

History, particularly military history, is a great interest of mine and occupies a great deal of my "discretionary" reading. Not too long ago I came across a story that tells a little history of World War I that you may not have learned in school. During World War I the first Allied soldiers to advance to Germany's border at the Rhine River were Americans … and they were black.

Looking at the racial make-up of America's military today, it is hard to imagine that there was a time when blacks were denied the opportunity to fight alongside whites. Despite the fact that blacks fought and died in every American war since the Revolution, it wasn't until after World War II that black soldiers were integrated with white units.

Even though they were not treated equally when America entered the war in 1917, blacks all over the nation were eager to fight in the war that would, as President Woodrow Wilson said, "make the world safe for democracy."

About 380,000 blacks served in the American armed forces during World War I and about 200,000 were sent to Europe; most of them were assigned to labor duties rather than combat. These assignments included building roads and bridges and unloading and transporting equipment and supplies, which were all very important to the war effort. Unfortunately, assigning black troops to these roles was indicative of the fact that American commanders held black troops in very low regard as a fighting force.

Black members of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) served in two units, the 92nd and 93rd divisions. The 93rd division, which was primarily made up of black National Guard units and draftees, was the first to be organized and deployed in France. Among the 93rd's regiments was the 369th regiment, a black National Guard unit from New York whose members called themselves the "Black Rattlers."

One member of the regiment was Lt. James Reese Europe. Europe, born in Mobile, was one of the most respected ragtime and jazz band leaders in the nation. But as commander of a machine gun company, he became the first black American to lead troops into battle in the war.

Even though their training had been rudimentary, using broom handles for guns, the men of the 369th regiment were eager to fight and prove their worth in combat. But when the 369th arrived in Brest, France two days after Christmas in 1917, they were immediately assigned non-combat duties off-loading cargo from ships.

After Col. William Hayward protested to Gen. John J. Pershing that his men were "fighting troops, not stevedores," the 369th was selected to serve under French command and were loaned to France's 161st division. After almost four years of war, the manpower of France had been drained. France was desperate for reinforcements and the black troops in the AEF were assigned to replenish the French forces. Thus, the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment became the first American military force to serve with a foreign army.

After a brief period of additional training the 369th took position on the front lines in April 1918. By May the regiment was fully engaged in defending against a huge German offensive in eastern France. The 369th fought with great distinction in helping stop the German offensive and launch a counteroffensive. Two members of the regiment, Corporal Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts, were particularly notable in their efforts.

In May 1918, Johnson and Roberts were defending an isolated outpost that was under attack by a much larger German force. Despite being wounded and outnumbered, Johnson and Roberts refused to surrender and fought on, killing four and wounding 32 enemy soldiers. Johnson and Roberts were the first Americans to be awarded the Croix de Guerre.

And the 369th would soon earn more honors.

On September 29, the 369th captured the French town of Sèchault in deadly fighting with its German occupiers. For 48 hours the 369th maintained control of Sèchault despite vicious shelling from German artillery and repeated counterattacks until the regiment was relieved.

As a result of the regiment's skill and bravery in the capture of Sèchault, the regiment was awarded the Croix de Guerre in October 1918. By the end of the war the 369th had spent 191 days in combat, more than any other American unit in the war, 171 of the men and officers of the 369th had received individual medals, and the regiment had been cited 11 times for bravery.

Called "Hell Fighters" by the Germans and the "Harlem Hell Fighters" or the "Men of Bronze" by American newspapers, the 369th carried the pride and hopes of black Americans across France to the Rhine. The exploits of the "Harlem Hell Fighters" added to the proof of the combat capabilities of black American soldiers, capabilities that today help make America's armed forces the finest in the world.

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