369th United States Infantry

The Harlem Hellfighters

 

Harlem Hellfighters - the 369th United States Infantry

“The Regiment That Never Lost a Man Captured, a Trench, or a Foot of Ground”

 

On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This act is said to have precipitated World War I. America, however, remained neutral for three years. Finally, on April 2, 1917, President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. "The world," he said, "must be made safe for democracy." America quickly moved to raise, equip, and ship the American Expeditionary Force to join the war in Europe. Under the powers granted to it by the U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 8) "to raise and support Armies," Congress passed the Selective Service Act of 1917.

 

Among the first regiments to arrive in France, and among the most highly decorated when it returned, was the 369th Infantry (formerly the 15th Regiment New York Guard), which later became famous as the "Harlem Hellfighters." The 369th was an all-black regiment under the command of mostly white officers including their commander, Colonel William Hayward.

 

The idea of a black New York National Guard regiment was first put forward by Charles W. Fillmore, a black New Yorker. Governor Charles S. Whitmore, inspired by the brave showing of the black 10th Cavalry in Mexico, eventually authorized the project. He appointed Col. William Hayward to carry out the task of organizing the unit, and Hayward gave Fillmore a commission as a captain in the 15th Infantry Regiment, New York National Guard. The 15th New York Infantry Regiment became the 369th United States Infantry Regiment prior to engaging in combat in France.

 

The 369th got off to a rocky departure from the United States, making three attempts over a period of months to sail for France before finally getting out of sight of land. Even then, their transport, which had stopped and anchored because of a sudden snow storm which arose before they could get out of the harbor, was struck by another ship due to the poor visibility. The captain of the transport, the Pocahontas, wanted to turn back, much to the dismay of his passengers.

 

The by now angry and impatient members of the 369th, led by Col. Hayward, took a very dim view of any further delay. Since the damage to the ship was well above the water line, the ship's captain admitted that there was no danger of sinking. Col. Hayward then informed the captain that he saw no reason to turn back except cowardice. Col Hayward's men repaired the damage themselves and the ship sailed on, battered but undaunted. According to Col. Hayward’s notes, they “landed at Brest. Right side up” on December 27th 1917. They acquitted themselves well once they finally got to France. However, it was a while before they saw combat.

 

The 15th Infantry Regiment joined its Brigade upon arrival in France, but the unit was relegated to Labor Service duties instead of combat training. The 185th Infantry Brigade was assigned on January 5, 1918 to the 93rd Division [Provisional]. The 15th Infantry Regiment, NYARNG was reorganized and designated, March 1, 1918, as the 369th Infantry Regiment, but the unit continued Labor Service duties while it waited the decision as to what to do with it.

 

Although General John J. Pershing wished to keep the U.S. Army autonomous, he loaned the 369th to the 16th Division of the French Army. Supposedly, the unreported and unofficial reason why he was willing to detach the 369th from American command was that white American soldiers objected to fighting alongside the black troops. The French had no such problem and were happy to accept the reinforcements.  Since several accounts maintain that Gen. Pershing was a supporter of black combat troops, one wonders why, as the commanding general, he simply didn't tell the complaining American troops to shut up.

 

Gen Pershing had served with the 10th Cavalry, a unit of the black Buffalo Soldiers in Montana. His nickname, "Black Jack", reportedly dates from this service. It's said that he remained deeply concerned with the well-being of 'colored' troops and was instrumental in getting the black organizations into combat rather than being relegated to support operations in the rear. (I could not substantiate the origin of the nickname 'Black Jack', although the one presented here appears to be the most popular. He certainly did serve with the Buffalo Soldiers on three separate occasions. He served with them in Montana, in pursuit of Villa in Mexico, and, finally, at San Juan Hill.)

 

The 369th Infantry Regiment was relieved May 8, 1918 from assignment to the American 185th Infantry Brigade, and went into the trenches as part of the 16th French Division and served continuously to July 3rd. The men were issued French helmets and brown leather belts and pouches, although they continued to wear their U.S. uniforms. The exception was when they went on raids; then, they wore French uniforms. They also used French weapons. The regiment returned to combat in the Second Battle of the Marne. Later the 369th was reassigned to Gen. Lebouc’s 161st Division in order to participate in the Allied counterattack.

 

One of the few disagreements the men of the 369th had with the French came after a violent battle when the 369th captured enough German Mauser rifles to equip a brigade. Since the Mausers resembled the Springfield rifles the American troops were accustomed to using, they preferred them over the French weapons they had been issued. It was with some difficulty that they were persuaded to give up the Mausers for the French rifles.

At one point during heavy fighting in Belleau Wood on June 6, 1918, the unit met a furious German counter-attack. Here, there was another disagreement between the Americans and the French. When his troops were ordered to retreat, Col. Hayward told the French general that he did not understand him. When the exasperated general threw up his hands and cried, "Retire! Retire!" Col. Hayward then told the general, whose command he was under, that his men did not 'retire'. "They move forward or they die," he said.

On August 19, the regiment went off the line for rest and the training of replacements. On September 25, 1918 the 4th French Army went on the offensive in conjunction with the American drive in the Meuse-Argonne. The 369th turned in a good account of itself in heavy fighting, sustaining severe losses. They captured the important village of Sechault. At one point the 369th advanced faster than French troops on their right and left flanks. There was danger of being cut off. By the time the regiment pulled back for reorganization, it had advanced fourteen Kilometers through severe German resistance.

In Mid-October the regiment was moved to a quiet sector in the Vosges Mountains, It was there on November 11, the day of the Armistice. Six days later the 369th made its last advance and on November 26, reached the banks of the Rhine river, the first Allied unit to get there.

The regiment was relieved on December 12, 1918 from assignment to the French 161st Division, and returned to the New York Port of Embarkation. It was Demobilized on February 28, 1919 at Camp Upton at Yaphank, New York, and returned to the New York Army National Guard. All told they spent 191 days in combat, longer than any other American unit in the war.

 

A captured Prussian officer remarked that his troops could not hold up against the 369th. He, like many of his comrades, were referring to them as the 'Black Watch' by the time they had reached the Rhine. "They are devils," he said. "They smile while they kill and they won't be taken alive." Small wonder that they were referred to as 'Hellfighters' by the German soldiers who encountered them in battle. As Col. Hayward had said, "My men never retire, they go forward or they die."

 

The extraordinary valor of the 369th earned them fame for a time in Europe and America. Newspapers headlined the feats of Corporal Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts. In May 1918 they were defending an isolated lookout post on the Western Front when they were attacked by a German unit. Though wounded, they refused to surrender, fighting on with whatever weapons were at hand. They were the first Americans awarded the Croix de Guerre. They were not the only Harlem Hellfighters to win awards; 171 of its officers and men received individual medals and the unit received a Croix de Guerre for taking Sechault.

 

The 369th Infantry Regiment was the first New York unit to return to the United States, and was the first unit to march up Fifth Avenue from the Washington Square Park Arch to their armory in Harlem, and their unit was placed on the permanent list with other veteran units.

 

Arthur W. Little, who had been a battalion commander, wrote in the regimental history “From Harlem to the Rhine” that it was official that the outfit was 191 days under fire, never lost a foot of ground or had a man taken prisoner, though on two occasions men were captured but they were recovered. Only once did the 369th fail to take its objective and that was due largely to bungling by French artillery support. There were 1500 casualties.

 

In December 1917, when Colonel Hayward's men had departed from New York City, they had not been permitted to participate in the farewell parade of New York's National Guard, the so-called Rainbow division. The reason Hayward was given was that "black is not a color in the Rainbow." Now Colonel Hayward pulled every political string he could to assure his men would be rewarded with a victory parade when they came home in February 1919.

 

Crowds thronged New York City's Fifth Avenue as the 369th marched to the music of their now-famous regimental jazz band leader, James Reese Europe. After the parade, city officials honored the troops at a special dinner. What kind of America had they come home to?

World War I initiated changes on the home front that permanently affected the lives of Americans, black and white. While defense production was up, the war had cut off the flow of immigrant labor. Workers were needed in the North, and African Americans seized the opportunity. Eagerly they left behind a rural South of Jim Crow laws, lynching, and oppressive economic conditions.

The Great Migration - the most massive internal migration in American history - brought several million African Americans North before the Depression stemmed its flow. With the migrants, black culture entered the American mainstream, changing it forever. Musical styles never heard before outside the South became "hot." The Jazz Age had begun. The Harlem Renaissance blossomed in one of the nation's greatest artistic outpourings, bringing to the fore a great poet, Langston Hughes.

 On the political front, participation in World War I did little to directly advance the equal rights of African Americans. But for many Americans both black and white, it did heighten awareness of the gulf that existed between American rhetoric and reality. After the war A. Philip Randolph was fond of saying to his audiences "I want to congratulate you for doing your bit to make the world safe for democracy...and unsafe for hypocrisy."

During the war the 369th's regimental band (under the direction of James Reese Europe) became famous throughout Europe, being the first to introduce the until-then unknown music called jazz to British, French and other audiences, and starting a worldwide demand for it.

 

Today the lineage and tradition is carried on by the 369th Transportation Battalion, which has since become the 369th Corps Support Battalion. The armory is at 2366 Fifth Ave., N.Y.C. The Harlem Hellfighters continue to serve at home and overseas. They returned home in January 2005 from a year long deployment to Iraq where they provided logistical support for U.S. and allied forces in Southern and Central Iraq.

 

Wartime poster of the 369th fighting German soldiers, with the figure of Abraham Lincoln above. One Medal of Honor and many Distinguished Service Crosses were awarded to members of the regiment. The most celebrated man in the 369th was Pvt. Henry Johnson. In May 1918 Johnson and Pvt. Needham Roberts fought off a 24-man German patrol, though both were severely wounded. After they expended their ammunition, Roberts used his rifle as a club and Johnson battled with a bolo knife. Johnson and Needham were among the first Americans to receive the Croix de Guerre.

 

Sources:

The National Archives

Wikipedia

Library of Congress

 

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