Friday, February 4, 2011

Black History Month - The Harlem Hellfighters

In honor of Black History Month, Misplaced In The Midwest will share some pieces of American History that none of us ever heard about during our mandatory years of education.
Today's installment is about the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters during WWI.

The "Harlem Hellfighters" is the popular name for the 369th Infantry Regiment, formerly the 15th New York National Guard Regiment. The unit was also known as The Black Rattlers, in addition to several other nicknames. The 369th Infantry Regiment was known for being the first African American Regiment during WWI.

The 369th Infantry Regiment was constituted June 2, 1913 in the New York Army National Guard as the 15th New York Infantry Regiment. It was organized on June 29, 1916 at New York City. It was mustered into Federal service on July 25, 1917 at Camp Whitman, New York. It was drafted into Federal service August 5, 1917. The regiment trained in the New York area, performed guard duty at various locations in New York, and trained more intensely at Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where they experienced significant racism from the local communities, and other units. The 15th Infantry Regiment NYARNG was assigned on December 1, 1917 to the 185th Infantry Brigade.

It was commanded by Col. William Hayward, a member of the Union League Club of New York, which sponsored the 369th in the tradition of the 20th U.S. Colored Infantry, which the club had also sponsored in the Civil War.

The 15th Infantry Regiment shipped out from the New York Port of Embarkation on December 27, 1917, and 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 redesignated 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 the unit.

It was finally decided on April 8, 1918 to assign the unit to the French Army for duration of the United States participation in the war. The men were issued French helmets and brown leather belts and pouches, although they continued to wear their U.S. uniforms. The 369th Infantry Regiment was relieved May 8, 1918 from assignment to the 185th Infantry Brigade, and went into the trenches as part of the French 16th Division and served continuously to July 3.

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.

On August 19, the regiment went off the line for rest and training of replacements.

On September 25, 1918 the French 4th 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 Séchault. 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.

During its service the regiment suffered 1500 casualties and took part in the following campaigns:

Champagne 1918
Alsace 1918

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 Lincoln Johnson, a former Albany, New York, rail station porter, who earned the nickname "Black Death" for his actions in combat in France. 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 was the first American to receive the Croix de Guerre. By the end of the war, 171 members of the 369th were awarded the Legion of Honor.

Photographs show that the 369th carried the New York Regimental flag overseas. The French government awarded the regiment the Croix de Guerre with silver star for the taking of Séchault. It was pinned to the colors by General Lebouc at a ceremony in Germany, December 13, 1918.

One of the first units in the United States armed forces to have Black officers in addition to its all-black enlisted corps, the 369th compiled an astounding war record, earning several unit citations along with many individual decorations for valor from the French government.

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.
In re-capping the story of the 369th 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 it fail to take its objective and that was due largely to bungling by French artillery support. There were 1500 casualties.

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.
The filker Michael Longcor is the composer and recorder of the song "The Ballad of Esau's Sons" (lyrics by poet Martha Keller), which describes the 369th's exploits during World War I without explicitly naming the unit.

Notable Soldiers
Sgt. Henry Johnson, winner of the Croix de Guerre.
Spotswood Poles, referred to as "the black Ty Cobb" for his prowess in the professional Negro baseball leagues in the early 1900s.
Colonel Hamilton Fish III, Regimental Commander of the 369th Regiment, New York Congressman, author, and Founder of the Order of Lafayette.
Rafael Hernández Marín, considered to the greatest composer of Puerto Rican music.
Lieutenant James Reese Europe, an early ragtime and jazz bandleader and composer, who served as regimental bandmaster.
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, tap dancer and actor.

Dubbing themselves “Men of Bronze,” the soldiers of the 369th were lucky in many ways compared to other African Americans in 1918 France. They enjoyed a continuity of leadership, commanded throughout the war by one of their original organizers and proponents, Colonel William Hayward. Unlike many white officers serving in the black regiments, Colonel Hayward respected his troops, dedicated himself to their well-being, and leveraged his political connections to secure support from New Yorkers. Whereas African American valor usually went unrecognized, well over one hundred members of the regiment received American and/or French medals, including the first two Americans – Corporal Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts – to be awarded the coveted French Croix de Guerre.

Spending over six months in combat, perhaps the longest of any American unit in the war, the 369th suffered approximately fifteen hundred casualties but received only nine hundred replacements. Unit histories claimed they were the first unit to cross the Rhine; they performed well at Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood, earning the epithet “Hell Fighters” from their enemies. Nevertheless, the poor replacement system coupled with no respite from the line took its toll, leaving the unit exhausted by the armistice in November. Although the 369th could boast of a fine combat record and a regimental Croix de Guerre, the unit was plagued by acute discipline problems resulting from disproportionate casualties among the unit’s longest-serving members and related failures to assimilate new soldiers. After considerable effort by Colonel Hayward, the 369th was welcomed home with a parade in February 1919 and reabsorbed into the National Guard.

In World War II, the formation was organized as the 369th Antiaircraft Artillery Regiment (no relation to the also all-black 369th Infantry in the 93rd Infantry Division), and served in Hawaii and at various locations along the West Coast. The unit survives today as the 369th Support Battalion of the New York Army National Guard.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting that the French showed them more respect than their own countrymen.