The story of the Harlem Hellfighters.
Back in 2016, I, like many others, watched in awe the trailer of EA and Dice’s new game Battlefield 1; a first person shooter video game set during the horrors of the first world war. I waited impatiently, like many of my friends, for the game’s release and was left confused when I first played the game as it starts with you playing as an African-American soldier in French equipment, fighting at the second battle of the Marne. On playing the game, every time I fell in that first intro mission entitled ‘Storm of Steel’ I was presented with an American name and date of birth (each with the same date of death) and every time my character died a different English name came up. I quickly became intrigued by whose names these were (although after looking into it I found that the names and dates of birth are randomly generated) and why the characters were using French Hadrian helmets and equipment. I found out they were the American Expeditionary Force 369th regiment. They were known by many names such as the ‘Black Rattlers’ (due to the black snake on the unit insignia), or “les Hommes de Bronze” (the men of bronze – a nickname given to them by the French army) but they are most famously known for the name the Germans gave them after their encounters; ‘HollenKampfer’…or in English, ‘Hellfighters’.
New York Governor Charles S. Whitman created the 15th regiment of the New York National Guard 2nd of June 1913. It was originally conceived as an all-black unit but also had several Puerto-Ricans serving, while the majority of it’s officers were white. The 15th suffered racial discrimination from the US army and the Government from the word go, originally not even having a large enough area to train, and the soldiers were given the bare minimum of training at the best of times. They eventually received good and bad news; the good news being that large enough barracks and training grounds had been found and allocated to them, the bad news being that these were in Spartanburg, South Carolina. In South Carolina the 15th was greeted with fervent racial discrimination, with the Spartanburg chamber of commerce writing a letter stating “the most tragic consequences would be met with the introduction of the New York negro and his northern ideas to the community values of Spartanburg”.
Many businesses in Spartanburg refused to serve or allow entry to the soldiers of the 15th, but in an act of solidarity the white soldiers of other units stationed in camp Wandsworth boycotted the local businesses. From 1913 to 1917 the ranks of the 15th grew from 2000 to 4000 men, due in part to the passing of the Selective Service Act of 1917 which required all men from age 21 to 31 to enlist in the military as the US had now entered the First world War and had to build up an army in a matter of months.
Soon the 15th found itself in France with the AEF under the command of General John J “Black Jack” Pershing, after a difficult trip which took several attempts to even leave American waters due to technical difficulties. The 15th was assigned to menial labour duties and other support roles (such as trench digging and unloading supplies) as the AEF segregated it’s trenches and many white soldiers refused to serve with black soldiers. General Pershing had previously commanded black soldiers (hence his nickname) and was more than keen to let the 15th and other African American units serve in frontline roles but he was met with resistance from the US government back home, who forbade him doing so. However, while General Pershing refused to let any US other soldier serve outside of American command he eventually loaned the 15th to the French 16th army 161st division and they redesigned the 15th as the 369th infantry regiment (which was insulting as the majority of the regiments soldiers were volunteers and under US army designations those listed above the 200 mark were draftees). The newly designated unit also found themselves with little to no combat equipment, as a disagreement between French and American commands on who should equip these soldiers emerged. Eventually the French gave them basic combat equipment and the US army had already provided the uniforms. This led to mismatched equipment issues as some soldiers had arrived with Springfield m1903 rifles, some with purchased Ross Rifles (that both the British and Canadian Armies were keen to get rid of) and some with both French Berthier and Lebel rifles along with the French Chauchat- Ribeyrolles Light machine guns (which was famously unreliable) as all weapons (with the exception of the French rifles and machines guns) used different calibre munitions.
In French service the 369th found a new way of life in the trenches, being treated somewhat equally to other French soldiers. They found no segregation in duties on the front lines as they would have under American command.
On the 14th of May, 1918, two members of the 369th would help the regiment earn it’s nickname from the Germans. Needham Roberts and Henry Johnson were on watch at outpost 20 on the edge of the Argonne forest, when the outpost came under attack from a large German raiding party. All hell broke loose and Roberts was wounded. Johnson kept firing his rifle and throwing grenades until his rifle jammed and he ran out of grenades. The Germans then attempted to take Roberts prisoner but Johnson wouldn’t let them, at first using his rifle as a club and then eventually using his Bolo Knife to protect his comrade. It wasn’t until reinforcements arrived an hour later they found both the wounded Roberts and Johnson (who himself sustained 21 wounds) along with several dead Germans, and evidence that at least 10 other German soldiers had been wounded. Johnson and Roberts both received the Croix de guerre from the french for their valour.
Another noteworthy ‘hellfighter’ was James Rees Europe, a composer who was in charge of the regimental band. This group served primarily as a morale booster, playing for soldiers at the front, for wounded soldiers in hospitals and for civilian audiences. They are often credited with the introduction of early Jazz to European audiences (with unmatchable irony, a man named Europe changed European music). Europe and his band also had some success back in America after the war.
Thanks to Johnson (who had now earned the nickname “the Black Death”) and Roberts, the 369th was now known by their nom de guerre ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ and soon the brave men of the 369th found themselves fighting at the second battle of the Marne before being moved off the line for rest and replacements. They had also become the target of German propaganda aimed towards them, which stated “Germany has done nothing to you, why do you fight for racist America?” This had the opposite effect to what the Germans had intended and only made the Hellfighters work harder in order to prove their worth to a country that had oppressed them.
On the 25th of September the French 4th army was ready to go on the offensive in conjunction with the American advance in the Meuse-Argonne. The Hellfighters advanced with the French army, capturing the important village of Sechault. Despite taking heavy casualties under fire and repulsing several German counterattacks, the hellfighters discovered they had advanced 14km through severe German resistance and outpaced the French on their flanks and were ordered to redraw before being cut off behind enemy lines (this would happen to another American unit on the 2nd of October in the Argonne forest and the 77th division would not be relieved for 6 days under fire behind enemy lines). Despite their heroism, during the battle of Sechault the only medal awarded by the US army to a hellfighter was given to a white officer who took command after the officer leading the assault had been killed.
By mid-October the hellfighters had been moved to a quiet section of the front in the Vosge area and that’s where they stayed until the Armistice was signed on the 11th of November, 1918. General John J. Pershing had other ideas and the Hellfighters and other US regiments had no official orders to cease any planned offensive. The Hellfighters continued to advance through German positions right up to the eleventh hour of the eleventh month (many other American units also did this). By the 26th of November 1918 the Hellfighters were the first allied unit to reach Rhine after the Germans retreated back over the river.
Upon returning to the US 1919 the Hellfighters were not allowed to parade with the other returning soldiers of the AEF, as the parade had been segregated. Colonel Hayward, the commanding officer of the 369th, managed to wrangle a place for his hellfighters in the parade led by a still wounded Henry Johnson sat in an open top car followed by James Reese Europe’s Band. The Hellfighters were hailed as heroes coming home, marching up 5th avenue of Manhattan but soon all of what they did would be forgotten and America reverted to its racist ways.
Henry Johnson toured the States telling his story and was paid to talk positively about racial harmony in the military. He eventually spoke out and told the truth about AEF’s discrimination and then, when he found that due to his numerous injuries he could not hold down a job, he was never awarded any of the benefits he had been promised upon enlistment (such as a military pension or his purple heart which would have guaranteed him employment). He died penniless on the 1st of July 1929 at the age of 36.
James Reese Europe and the Regimental band enjoyed success and started adding blues notes to their music and recording a few albums, until Europe was stabbed in the neck by a fellow band mate. Although the wound seemed superficial and they played the concert he died a few hours later in hospital when the bleeding could not be stopped. He died on the 9th of May 1919, aged just 38.
Needham Roberts was eventually awarded the Purple Heart in 1933 but was frequently arrested for various crimes throughout his life; he committed suicide with his wife on the 18th of April 1949 aged 47.
Another Hellfighter, Leroy Johnston, who had survived the horrors of the war was lynched in the racially-driven Elaine County massacre in Arkansas in 1919.
It wasn’t until years later that many of the Hellfighters (most posthumously) received their medals from the US government, although many had received French medals including the Croix de guerre. Henry Johnson received the Purple Heart from President Bill Clinton in 1996, the Distinguished Service Cross in 2003 and eventually the medal of honour, awarded to him by Barack Obama in 2015.
The Hellfighters helped to pave the way for other black American servicemen such as Tuskegee airmen and Benjamin O. Davis, America’s first black brigadier general (rank achieved in 1940) who commanded the Hellfighters during WW2.