SHAKO: Righting Old Wrongs — Honoring the Harlem Hellfighters

August 26, 2021 at 1:27 am Leave a comment

All-Black WW I Regiment Honored.

President Joe Biden signed legislation August 25, to award a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal to the 369th Infantry Regiment, commonly known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” in recognition of their bravery and outstanding service during World War I.

‘Hell Fighters’ from Harlem By H. Charles McBarron (Click photo to enlarge image)

During World War I, the 369th spent 191 days in frontline trenches, more than any other American unit. They also suffered the most losses of any American regiment, with 1,500 casualties.

On August 10, the U.S. Senate passed legislation to award the medal to the Hellfighters. It was the third Gold Medal to go to an African American unit, after the Tuskegee Airmen in 2007 and the Montford Point, North Carolina, Marines in 2011.

“The Harlem Hellfighters are an example of courage under fire,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York), the Senate Majority Leader. “It has taken too long for this country to recognize their bravery.” Other supporters of the legislation were New York’s other senator, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as Representatives Tom Suozzi and Adriano Espaillat, both of New York and Representative Joyce Beatty of Ohio.

Originally formed before the war as the 15th Regiment of the New York National Guard, it was an almost entirely African-American unit. They were the first black U.S. troops sent to France, arriving in late 1917, as part of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).

A U.S. Model 1917 Bolo knife.

The unit was relegated to labor service duties instead of combat training. As part of the 185th Infantry Brigade the 369th was assigned on January 5, 1918 to the all black 93rd Infantry Division.

Although he had commanded black troops (the famed 10th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers) in the Spanish-American War, AEF commander General John J. Pershing and others refused to integrate the armed services. Many white American soldiers refused to serve in combat with blacks. The Army decided on April 8, 1918 to assign the 369th to the French Army, which had been requesting American units as replacements. The men were issued French weapons, helmets, belts and pouches, although they continued to wear their U.S. uniforms.

“The American Negro soldier in France was treated with the same contempt and undemocratic spirit as the American Negro citizen is treated in the U.S.,” said civil rights activist, historian and author W.E.B DuBois.

The regiment, wearing French helmets while serving with the French army in 1918. (National Archives via wikipedia)

The original caption of the photo above read: “Negro troops in France,” Noting the unit had been under fire, it added: “Two of the men, Privates Johnson and Roberts, displayed exceptional courage while under fire and routed a German raiding party, for which the Negroes were decorated with the French Croix de Guerre.”

Henry Johnson wearing his French Croix de Guerre, the only decoration he received during his lifetime, for his heroism in France during World War I.

Private Henry Johnson was  cited for his heroism on the night of  May 15, 1918 on the Western Front in France. While on sentry duty with another soldier of the 369th, Johnson fended off a night raid by as many as a dozen German soldiers. Johnson and the other soldier fired on the Germans until they ran out of ammunition. They then used hand grenades and rifle butts to fight the Germans. When the other soldier was knocked unconscious, the Germans tried to carry him off as a prisoner, but Johnson battled back using his rifle as a club and then slashing at the Germans with his bolo knife. He may have killed four Germans single-handed in the dark while rescuing his comrade. 

Despite 21 wounds, Johnson did not receive the Purple Heart medal or any other citation from his country, even though former President Theodore Roosevelt described him as “one of the five bravest American soldiers in the war.” He received the Purple Heart posthumously in 1996 and the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002. The DSC was upgraded to the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award for bravery in combat, and posthumously presented by President Barrack Obama in 2015.

“America can’t change what happened to Henry Johnson,” Obama said at the award ceremony. “We can’t change what happened to too many soldiers like him, who went uncelebrated because our nation judged them by the color of their skin and not the content of their character. But we can do our best to make it right,” he added.

As part of the French Army’s 161st Division, the 369th took part in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. On September 29, after a brutal struggle, during which heavy casualties were sustained, Sechault was taken and the 369th soldiers dug in to consolidate their advanced position. That action is depicted in the painting at the top earned the Croix de Guerre for the entire regiment. But the Meuse-Argonne claimed nearly one-third of the 369th as battle casualties.

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SHAKO is an occasional 4GWAR posting on military history, traditions and culture. For the uninitiated, a shako is the tall, billed headgear worn by many armies from the Napoleonic era to about the time of the American Civil War. It remains a part of the dress, or parade, uniform of several military organizations like the corps of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York in the photo.

Entry filed under: Army, Army National Guard, National Security and Defense, SHAKO, Technology, Traditions, Weaponry and Equipment, World War I Centennial. Tags: , , , , , , , .

FRIDAY FOTO (August 20, 2021) FRIDAY FOTO (August 27, 2021)

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August 2021


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