For black history month, I'd like to take you on a journey through time – back to WW1. By the time the United States entered that global conflict, the allies (particularly the French Army) were so depleted of manpower that they viewed the newcomer Americans less as an independent expeditionary force and more as a new consignment of cannon fodder.
Unfortunately for tahe French high command, the American leadership wanted nothing to do with integration into the allied armies. They were all too aware of the enormous losses that plagued the French and British campaigns, which had ground down to a horrific war of attrition.
General Pershing, under pressure to make some sort of concession to the allies in terms of combat-ready units, "loaned" the french army the 369th Infantry Regiment – better known to history as the Harlem Hellfighters. An all-black New York National Guard unit formed on June 29, 1917. Supposedly, the unreported and unofficial reason he was willing to detach the African-American regiments from U.S. command was that vocal white U.S. soldiers refused to fight alongside black troops.
(Imagine dealing with this kind of crap daily while in uniform)
Back to Europe, the loaning of the Harlem Hellfighters and, more importantly, introducing the character of our story: Mr. Henry Johnson.
Johnson said that he was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on July 15, 1892, when he registered for the World War I draft, but he used other dates on other documents and may not have known the exact date of his birth.
And he would definitely leave his mark on U.S. military history.
While on observation post duty on the night of May 14, 1918, Johnson came under attack by a large German raiding party, which may have numbered up to 36 soldiers. Using grenades, the butt of his rifle, a bolo knife, and his bare fists, Johnson repelled the Germans, killing four while wounding others, rescuing Needham Roberts (the white commander of the hellfighters) from capture, and saving the lives of his fellow soldiers. Johnson suffered 21 wounds during the ordeal. This act of valor earned him the nickname "Black Death" as a sign of respect for his combat prowess.
The French would recognize Johnson with the Croix de Guerre with a special citation and golden palm (becoming the first American to receive such an honor).
Johnson would not be recognized for his valor and battlefield prowess by the nation he defended until damn near 100 years after the fact. Despite being wounded multiple times, it wasn't until 1996 that he received (posthumously) his purple heart and then the Medal of Honor on May 14, 2015.
So, why tell this story? Aside from being a badass tale of badassitude, I find the cultural context to be fascinating. The men of the Harlem Hellfighters had every incentive to just skate through the war. If anyone had a "right" to be a collective gaggle of shitbags, it was these guys. And yet they went out and fought their hearts out – and in doing so proved to the world that black Americans could not only share the battlefield with their white counterparts, but in many instances even outfight them.
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. The regiment was also the first of the Allied forces to cross the Rhine into Germany – imagine that. On 25 September 1918, the French 4th Army went on the offensive along with the American drive in the Meuse–Argonne. The 369th turned in a good account in heavy fighting, though they sustained severe losses. The unit captured the important village of Séchault. At one point the 369th advanced faster than French troops on their right and left flanks, and risked being cut off. By the time the regiment pulled back for reorganization, it had advanced 8.7 miles through severe German resistance.
Understand something. In WW1 advancing 100 yards was an accomplishment and these men were literally out-running the allied forces around them…in the direction of the enemy.
Do yourself a favor and read through this Smithsonian article on the hellfighters.
On behalf of Grunt Style and American Grit we salute the Harlem Hellfighters, Henry Johnson and our black brothers in arms from generations past. They truly were a different breed and worthy of our respect.