The Story of the Harlem Hellfighters, Part Two

In our first part, we talked about the background of World War One and the Jim Crow Laws that kept Black Americans from having opportunities in the military (among other things). In this post we talk about the training and the exploits of the Harlem Hellfighters during the War.

Going to War

To prepare for War, the 15th was sent to different bases within the United States, but they were given minimal training and equipment. At first they marched with broomsticks, not rifles. Worse, many White soldiers from the South and people in towns wanted them to go away, or would harass them if they went into town. Some White soldiers would also not salute or show respect to a Black soldier, even if he was higher-rank. The conditions were very difficult for the 15th, and previous units had often rioted and been punished severely. However, Colonel Hayward convinced his men to stay disciplined even under harassment, while he worked hard to get them enough training and supplies.

Meanwhile, France convinced the United States to send troops sooner, because the Germans were preparing another offensive that would probably overwhelm the Allies. The United States didn’t want to send troops unprepared, but the French explained that the troops would get more training on the field anyway among veteran soldiers, so the United States started sending troops.

The 15th became the 369th Regiment and was sent to France. At first, they were given simple jobs like digging and carrying supplies, but France needed more soldiers on the front-line. The United States military was hesitant to lend France its soldiers, but to compromise, they lent troops like the 369th. Thus, the 369th fought as part of the French army, used French weapons and tools, and learned to communicate in French for most of the war.

Unlike the United States, France already had many African troops fighting in its military from French colonies like Sudan, Algiers and Senegal.1 So, the French military had no problem mixing Whites and Blacks together, and the 369th received much better treatment under the French who treated them like equals. They were quickly trained and brought to the front-line.

The soldiers of the 369th quickly adapted and began to take part of the constant raids between the German sides and the French sides. A “raid” meant that at night, one side would send a group of soldiers (usually 10-20) through “no man’s land” and were supposed to sneak into the other side, kill or capture enemy soldiers, grab anything useful, and run back to their own side. Both sides would launch raids against each other regularly, so both sides had to be very watchful at night, especially before sunrise.

Corporal Horace J Pippin described one raid they did:

We all laid low for a short time until the Looey told us to get that man [German machine-gunner] so we made for him one by one until he were in the middle of us and then we closed in on him. He did not know we were up until a gun were at his head and hever said a word but threw up his hands and he were taken to our line. (pg 145)

The soldiers of the 369th took part in some daring raids, but also repelled some.

Henry Johnson

Henry Jackson (pictured above) and Needham Roberts were on watch duty one night, when they heard a group of German soldiers quietly sneaking toward them (they heard the razor-wire fence cut), and sounded the alarm. It turns out the two of them fought more than 24 German soldiers. The two of them fought off the Germans until they ran out of ammo. Henry Johnson first used his rifle as a club, but then used his Bolo Knife and fought more soldiers as they tried to carry Needham away. Both men survived, though both were crippled for life after this battle. Henry Johnson received the Croix de Guerre medal, the first for any American soldier in World War One.

Jim-europe-1918-band-members

Meanwhile Jim Europe (left in the photo above) had suffered a gas attack, but thankfully recovered. The doctors said though that his lungs were weaker now, and he would be unable to fight in the war, so instead he took the 369th Regiment’s band on a tour around France. Jim was an expert music conductor, and wrote a number of new songs while recovering in the hospital. He helped expose the French public to Jazz music which was new to them, and his band was greatly received by French Generals and other important people. In one example, Jim Europe’s band held a great concert at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysée (which still exists today), and although they played many American songs, they also did a jazz-version of the French classic “La Marseillaise” for the Prime Minister of France, the British Ambassador, etc.

However, for most soldiers of the 369th, the next 8 months of their lives were spent in almost constant fighting against the German snipers, German artillery, German gas attacks, fighting rats, lice, bad foot and cold, muddy, rainy weather. Battle after battle, the 369th earned a great reputation among both the French and German troops.

The US Army on the Western Front, 1918 Q69943

The Germans learned to fear any “colored” soldiers. At one point, the Germans dropped a letter from a plane addressed to the 369th, urging them to join the German side, because they treated Black people better. Meanwhile, the French soldiers started to call the 369th the “Harlem Hellfighters”.

The Final Battles

Harlem-hellfighters-argonne

(painting of the 369th during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive)

The worst battles of the War happened toward the end as both the Allies and the Germans tried one last push to end the war. The 369th were faced against a barage of German artillery in the Spring Offensive of 1918.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-S36048, Frankreich, Arras, Artillerie

German artillery was powerful, and during the Offensive, they fired thousands and thousands of shells almost constantly for hours, days:

Sometimes the explosions were so constant that the soldier couldn’t tell them apart or identify them anymore—”drumfire,” some called it. Percussionists like Steven and Herbert Wright could hear patterns in the bombardment: a paradiddle, a rat-a-pa-tan, a press roll getting faster and faster until there were no moments of non-shelling between shells. By one estimate, in the peak of battle, German guns fired about nine-thousand shells in forty-five minutes, or a little more than three shells per second. (pg 123)

Eventually the Germans fell into a trap by General Henri Gourard (who greatly respected the 369th) and the Allies began to push back the Germans for good. This was the Second Battle of the Marne followed by the massive Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which defeated the Germans once and for all.

Starting on September 26th, 1918, the 369th, along with many French, Moroccan and American troops began a steady attack on German defenses that lasted until the 30th. During this time, the 369th fought countless German machines and artillery, and had almost no food or sleep during this time. Eventually they pushed their way into the town of Séchault, but the 369th had arrived ahead of other troops, so they had to fight alone. They fought street by street, building by building against German machine guns and German snipers without any rest or food for 30 hours. Many men of the 369th died in these few days.

In one example, Sergreant John A. Jamieson was talking with another soldier, Private Turpin. Turpin turned and walked away, when suddenly a mortar shell exploded close to Turpin. Jamieson described how he felt something warm splash all over him, and pieces of Turpin’s body lay at his feet. Jamieson then realized that the warm fluid on him was Turpin’s own blood. Because the German shelling kept going for 12 hours, Jamieson could do nothing for his friend’s body the entire time. Worse, Jamieson saw similar deaths happen two more times after this.

Another soldier, 1st Lt. George S. Robb, was wounded 4 times in 24 hours. He dug out the first bullet himself, bandaged it and kept fighting, but he was wounded two more times. Further, his helmet had been shot, but the bullet missed his head, and the grip on his pistol had also been shot off. Finally, as the battle was winding down, Robb was hit by a gas shell, wounding him a 4th time. Amazingly he survived.

Horace J Pippin, who had already been wounded in the battle, described his last act as a soldier:

Now the shells were coming close to me. Pieces of shell would come near me some times. Then the German sniper kept after me all day. His bullets would clip the shell hole that held me….Some time that afternoon some French snipers came by. They looked for the Germans that is left back so he sees me lying there when he did so he stopped to say something to me but never got it out for just then a bullet passed through his head and he sank on me. I seen him coming but I could not move. I were just that weak, so I had to take him. I were glad to get his water and also bread. I took my left hand and I got some coffee after some hard time getting it from him. (pg 194)

In all, the 369th started with 2,000 men at the beginning of the Offensive, but by the time the War ended, they had less than 700 men left. Over 1,300 had died or had been wounded during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Imagine losing 13 of your 20 friends.

But at last the War was over, and the 369th could return home. However, what they found at home was both good and bad. We’ll talk about that in the next post.

1 African colonial troops were fierce soldiers, but Horace J. Pippin of the 369th wrote “they didn’t care for the French much”. A colony is a colony after all.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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