On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
Prussian officer remarked that his troops could not hold up against
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
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.
The National Archives