A history of the United States of America is a particularly violent one. From European colonisation and the systematic slaughter of Native American tribes to the revolutionary and civil wars – the USA was born out of war. All throughout these conflicts slavery had been a constant. It gave America the best economy the world had ever seen, but it came at an enormous cost to the rights and freedoms of African Americans, a stark contrast to the principles envisaged in the constitution. The Civil war saw the end of slavery, but even following the war, generations of white Americans grew up with a fanatical racism that defied logic. Even the government actively publicised the naïve and uneducated view that the ‘Negro’ was meant to be feared by white men for their ‘barbaric ways’.
Life in the United States of America, the supposed land of freedom, equality and opportunity for all, was hard for many generations of African Americans. Laws of segregation were a constant reminder that coloured people were second rate citizens and punishment for challenging the system was brutal. Even though throughout all of America’s conflicts African American’s had fought side by side with whites it was not enough to expel this hatred, nor were they recognised for their contribution.
In 1914 as German armies flooded across the Belgian frontier America watched from across the Atlantic in isolation and neutrality. It was not until 1917 that America declared war. Following an intercepted telegram that showed Germany urged Mexico to declare war on the USA and a series of submarine attacks on American merchant shipping, America decided they could no longer stay out of this conflict.
2.8 Million Men were drafted in the army in 1917 but it was still not enough. A nation wide draft was implemented and for the first time African Americans were allowed to join the armed forces, but just like in every aspect of life in the USA segregation applied to the Armed Forces. Young black men volunteered in the hope that their service to the nation would be rewarded with respect and believed it would destroy stereotypes allowing them to come home as heroes and treated as equals.
The 369th Infantry Regiment was formed in New York. Even though these soldiers were willing to risk their lives for their country they still suffered appalling discrimination in local shops and stores. In one occurrence they were refused service in a local store, but luckily some white soldiers from other units intervened on behalf of their comrades, but sadly intervention by white comrades was a rare occurrence for the 369th Regiment. After completion of training the unit arrived in France in early 1918 but was deemed unfit for combat and used instead for labour service.
As if segregation and discrimination was not enough the 369th Infantry Regiment was delivered another blow by the American army. Many white Americans refused to fight alongside coloured soldiers and so the American Army decided to give the Regiment to the French army for combat duty. They continued to wear American uniforms yet their equipment, weapons and helmets were all of French issue. Harassment and discrimination from white American soldiers continued and seemed to intensify in France. But the worst betrayal of all came from the American Expeditionary Force headquarters that had the audacity to issue pamphlets warning French civilians of the ‘rapist tendencies’ of African American soldiers. Yet the 369th Regiment did not lose faith in their efforts to turn opinion among American troops, and back home, in their favour.
As part of the French army they were finally treated equally and respected as much as any fighting man, racism and discrimination was non existent. In May 1918 they went into the trenches. Individual troops displayed great courage in their actions, one soldier named Henry Johnson earned the nickname ‘Black death’ for his defence against a 24 man German patrol. Using grenades, the butt of his rifle a bolo knife and his bare fists he fought off the German patrol and saved another comrade from capture, suffering 21 wounds in the process – he was later awarded the Croix de Guerre, France’s Highest military honour. In the spring the Germans launched their last major offensive in a last ditch effort to defeat the allies in the West. To the East, the Russians had signed an armistice and the transfer of troops from East to West allowed the Germans one last chance to seize victory. With the American entry into the war, it was obvious that eventually the tide would turn in favour of the allies.
The German assault did little to achieve victory. With no clear objectives marked, all that resulted was the Germans claiming large territorial gains, but they paid for every inch of land with blood, losing thousands of their best trained troops. Even whilst in defeat the German Army was a dangerous enemy. The 369th Infantry Regiment saw combat here where the Germans launched their last offensive. But it was all in vain. The French armies, including the 369th Infantry Regiment, held on against the onslaught and the initiative passed to the Allies. Now it was time to counter attack.
In September 1918 the 369th participated in the Meuse – Argonne offensive where French and American armies pushed back the Germans. It was here that the regiment forged its legacy. It suffered heavy losses but captured important objectives and proved itself to be a ferocious fighting unit. They stood out amongst French troops, on one engagement they advanced ahead of French units on their left and right flank dangerously exposing themselves. After pulling back and reorganising they realised they had advised 8.7 miles through stubborn German resistance – a distance beyond belief when considering the lack of movement over the years of trench warfare. The Germans nicknamed them the Harlem Hellfighters for their ferocity in battle. They never lost one foot of land to the Germans and no individuals were taken captive, the Germans respected them for the deadly fighters they were.
The war ended in November 1918 with the signing of the Armistice. The Harlem Hellfighters returned to America and were given a victory parade through New York for their efforts where, for probably the first time, they were hailed as heroes who had fought for the principles which America stood for. The French awarded the regiment with the coveted Croix de Guerre – France’s highest military honour, and many other distinguished awards for individual acts of bravery.
But the respect they earned was to be short lived, not only for the Harlem Hellfighters but for all African American’s. Following the Russian revolution a fear that bolshevism would soon spread to the USA brought about a new wave of white supremacy. Race riots at the time were brutally supressed and in October 1919 hundreds of coloured sharecroppers (Farmers) were massacred by white men in Arkansas for attempting to organise themselves. Attempts by coloured men and women to gain equality were branded as communism and retaliation by whites was horrendous. In the Southern states in 1918 there were reported to have been 64 lynching’s of coloured men, in 1919 they reported 83 lynching’s – at least 11 of these were soldiers that had returned from the battlefields of France.
The veterans of the Harlem Hellfighters hoped to be welcomed back home as heroes but instead returned in a new wave of racism. It’s impossible to tell the story of every soldier in the regiment, but we get an idea of the larger picture by looking at the post war life of the regiments most decorated soldier – Henry Johnson, or as the Germans called him ‘Black Death’. Upon recovering from his wounds Johnson was offered a paid lecture tour of the US to tell tales to the public of the racial harmony in the trenches, but rather then giving the pre arranged fallacy that the organisers wanted the public to hear, Johnson instead told the true stories of abuse and discrimination at the hands of white American soldiers. Soon the offers for lecture tours ended and an arrest warrant was issued for Johnson with a charge of wearing his uniform past the commissioned date. He died in 1929, in poverty, obscurity and with no living relatives. In 2015, the US President Barrack Obama finally awarded Johnson a posthumous Medal of Honour for his great bravery in the face of the enemy.
The fact that it had taken almost 100 years for Johnson’s actions to be appropriately recognised should reveal how lacking in appreciation America was, and to some extent still is to the Harlem Hellfighters. They, along with all coloured men and women who served in the armed forces, were neglected and treated with appalling disdain by the same country they fought for. Many gave their lives for the United States of America, a country that did not want them, and frankly a country that did not deserve them.
Written by Jonny Morris