The Story of the Harlem Hellfighters, Part Three

In our last post, we talked about the Harlem Hellfighters and the terrible combat they faced in France during World War One. On November 11th, 1918 at 11:00 pm, the Armistice between the Allies (UK, US, France and Belgium) and Germany took effect. The War was finally over. France of course celebrated the war’s end with a great parade:

Le défilé de la Victoire, le 14 juillet 1919, François Flameng

Shortly after, the Harlem Hellfighters, the 369th Infantry, were among the first troops to reach the Rhine River that traditionally divided France and Germany. Having reached the Rhine, it was time to go home at last! As Jim Europe wrote to his sister:

I think I have told you that we are now guarding the Rhine. I have so much to give thanks for this time for I have been through the valley and shadow of death so often and still I am unscathed. (pg 204)

However, some White-Americans worried that Black-American soldiers would come back more confident and demand more equal treatment. President Woodrow-Wilson even commented that “the American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying bolshevism [Communism] to America.” Thus, as the 369th came back to the US, they faced discrimination again. French generals had hosted parades for them, French girls had kissed them to say thank you, and so on. But when they rejoined the American military, some white soldiers treated them cruelly again, as if they had fought for nothing.

For example, MPs (military police) were ordered to not give them a salute. One MP hit a Black soldier from the 369th on the head for asking where the bathroom was on the way home. When someone asked the MP why he hit the soldier, the MP answered that Blacks were “feeling their oats” (getting overconfident).

Famous New York soldiers return home. (The) 369th Infantry (old 15th National Guard of New York Cit . . . - NARA - 533553

Also, the 369th was not allowed to join the Victory Parade of 1919, though they had been one of the most decorated units in the American military. Instead, Colonel Hayward, the commanding officer who had created the 369th, organized a private parade through Harlem (pictured above). Although it was not an “official parade” the surviving members of the 369th Regiment received a hero’s welcome from their fellow Americans. Thousands and thousands of people, both Black and White, cheered and welcomed the 369th back home. According to one newspaper, the New York World:

In official records, and in the histories that youngsters will study in generations to come, this regiment will probably always be known as the 369th Infantry, U.S.A.

But in the hearts of a quarter million or more who lined the streets yesterday to greet it, it was no such thing. It was the old Fifteenth New York. And so it will be in this city’s memory, archives and in the folk lore of the descendants of the men who made up its straight, smartly stepping ranks….New York gave its Old Fifteenth the fullest welcome of its heart. (pg 215-216).

The music for the parade? It was played of course by Jim Europe and his band:

Lieutenant Jimmie (James Reese) Europe and his famous jazz band of the 369th (African American) Infa . . . - NARA - 533521

Later, General Henri Gouraud the famous French general gave a speech in 1923 where he said the 369th was “one of the greatest regiments that ever fought under his command.”

After the War

World War One deeply affected the surviving men of the 369th in deep ways. One hundred years ago, people were not aware of post-traumatic stress disorder (panikku shōgai パニック障害 in Japanese), and so all veterans of World War One had to silently suffer the trauma alone. This affected different soldiers in different ways.

Jim Europe, the famous band leader and musician, wanted to restart his music career when he came back to the US, and worked very hard to organize concerts, tours and so on. With him was Noble Sissle and many other soldiers from the 369th. One soldier, Herbert Wright, was a member of Europe’s band, but over time he started to act more erratically. During an argument, Wright suddenly stabbed Europe in the neck with a knife, and although Europe went to the hospital, he died.

James Europe001

Herbert Wright went to jail, but it was believed that he was probably insane. The book doesn’t say that the war made him insane, but it definitely hints at the possibility. In any case, New York lost one of its most famous musicians. Fortunately though, his friend Noble Sissle went on to become a successful Black American musician on Broadway, and worked hard to train and promote younger musicians. By the 1950’s Noble Sissle was a disc-jockey among other things.

What about Henry Johnson the first American soldier to receive the Croix de Guerre medal after fighting 24 German soldiers almost single-handedly? At first, he was treated as a hero and toured with other soldiers from World War One to talk about war stories and how White and Black soldiers fought together. However, Johnson felt this was a lie, so during one speech, he told the truth. He talked about how White soldiers had refused fight along Black soldiers, and that Black soldiers hadn’t received enough credit. Although people cheered his honesty, the War Department did not allow him to do any more tours. Within 5 years, Henry Johnson was living alone without any money and without his wife (who divorced him in 1923). He died alone in 1929 in a hospital. Although he was buried at Arlington Cemetery, he received no medals from the United States military besides a purple heart in 1996 from President Bill Clinton.

Horace J Pippin was also deeply traumatized by World War One, and he could no longer use his right arm. However, he learned to use his left arm for painting and drawing, and he started to express his experiences from the War in art. By chance, his art was discovered by famous painter N.C. Wyeth and a well-connected art-critic. They met Pippin and helped to promote his artwork. Eventually Pippin’s artwork was displayed in art exhibits at the New York Museum in 1936 and he made a comfortable living through his art until he passed away in 1946. You can see a gallery of Horace J Pippin’s art at this website. His style is often compared to another painter named Henri Rousseau.

Epilogue

Probably the biggest change though from the 369th was their sense of confidence. When the soldiers from the 369th returned home to New York, they were a confident, disciplined and proud fighting unit. Many spoke French fluently, had multiple medals from the French army, and had been treated as equals by the French people. This inspired younger generations Black Americans in New York and beyond to have confidence in themselves, and fight for equality which they deserved.

The year after the War, 1919, was famous for many terrible race riots. It was called the “Red Summer” because so much blood was shed, and so many Black-Americans were lynched.

A generation later, Black-American soldiers like Clarence Adams faced the same terrible discrimination, but they would not quietly “accept it” anymore. Instead they rebelled and stood their ground.

For me, I really, really feel for the men of the 369th. American history has some very shameful episodes, but the Jim Crow Laws and such are among the worst. The men of the 369th Regiment were terrific soldiers, and they deserved so much more credit than they received at the time, so I wanted to write these posts. The book, A More Unbending Battle, was a fantastic read and I definitely encourage other people to read it.

In fact, the Harlem Hellfighters have received a kind of revival lately. I first hard about them after I learned about a new graphic novel of the same name. Since World War One started 100 years ago, it seems that people are taking an interest again.

But what about my own great-grandfather, who was a veteran of the same war? Did he meet the 369th? Did he treat them (or Black soldiers in general) with respect, or did he treat them with discrimination? I really don’t know. I would like to believe that he was not like other White soldiers, but that he was more like Colonel William Hayward, Arthur Little, Hamilton Fish and others who saw their potential and treated them as brothers. But honestly, I’ll never know.

Anyhow, thanks for reading everyone, hope you enjoyed. 🙂

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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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