Black Americans in the US Military from the American Revolution
to the Korean War:
World War One
World War I & The “Harlem Hellfighters”
Originally known as the 15th New York National Guard, The New York National
Guard 369th Infantry regiment is one of the most under-appreciated contributors
to World War I within this country. Only in France did they receive proper recognition;
500 of its members received the French “Croix de Guerre,” or “War
Cross.” This regiment gained the nickname “The Harlem Hellfighters”
by the Germans, who were surprised to see an entirely Black regiment fight so
well. The Hellfighters spent more time in continuous combat during World War
I than any other American unit. This unit also fought the longest on the front
during the Champagne-Marne offensive, fighting for 191 days. The 369th suffered
a loss of 1500 men as well. This unit also was the first Allied unit to cross
the Rhine River during the Allied offensive. None of their actions took place
under the American Flag, but rather under the French Flag. The Hellfigters were
attached to the French Army’s 161st Division and wore French Army uniforms.
One must wonder why this regiment, as well as all other Black regiments, did
not represent their homeland. President Woodrow Wilson’s administration
had encouraged the military to turn its back on the Black soldiers, despite
their successes in battle. The pre-Civil War anti-Black propaganda somehow had
been revived. U.S. General John G. Pershing issued a directive to the French
Military Mission stationed with the American Army, warning them of the dangers
of relying on Black troops. Pershing wrote a document entitled “Secret
Information Concerning Black American Troops” (Buckley, p. 163) and lists
out reasons for the French to keep a close watch on the Black soldiers. He stated
that the Black man is an “inferior” being to the White man. The
Black man lacks “civic and professional conscience” and is a “constant
menace to the American.” It is startling that Pershing called the Black
man a menace to the American, as if the Black Americans were not really Americans.
And this is how the U.S. Military regarded Black units. Pershing continued “we
must not eat with them, must not shake hands or seek to talk or meet with them
outside the requirements of military service.” The use of “we”
in Pershing’s words essentially places French and Americans on the same
side for being White. Pershing also added that “we” must not commend
too highly the Black American troops, especially not in front of White American
troops. Pershing added that an effort must be made to prevent the local population
from “spoiling the Negroes.” Startling is his use of the word “Negroes.”
Later he adds “Familiarity on the part of white women with black men is
furthermore a source of profound regret to our experienced colonials, who see
in it an overwhelming menace to the prestige of the white race.” Pershing
seemed more concerned that his White troops not be offended, than by the outcome
of the war. He viewed this as an opportunity for White soldiers to represent
the United States.
The French reaction to Pershing’s directive was one of indifference.
Logically, the French had no interest in upsetting the Black American troops
since the French Army suffered from many cases of desertion. Pershing did not
realize that the French had Black troops who served decisively at Verdun, Aisne,
Compiègne and Somme. Regardless of Pershing’s desire for White
American troops to outdo their Black brothers in arms, the enemy clearly feared
the Black troops. They also feared the French Black troops, who were mostly
Senegalese and Algerian, as they took no prisoners. Two captured White aviators
confirmed the German fear of Black troops, when they were questioned of their
numbers while at two different prisons. Lieutenants A.L. Clark and V.H. Burgin
were both asked how many Black Americans served on the other side of the front.
The June 1917 Selective Service Act allowed for all able-bodied men from age
twenty-one to thirty-one to be enlisted into the U.S. Military. Foreign-born
Americans and Blacks were over drafted. Blacks made up 10% of the American population,
but reached a higher proportion of 13% in the U.S. draftees. However, most of
these soldiers served as labor, supply and service units, while of the rest,
only 11% served in the fighting, all as National Guard units.
The Harlem Hell Fighters, despite fighting the longest of any American Regiment,
was not allowed to march in the Paris parades. U.S. pressure also disallowed
it a place in the French national war memorial. Prior to World War I there should
have been no hesitation for the government to use and trust in Black soldiers.
In March of 1917, the District of Columbia National Guard 1st Separate Battalion,
all Black, guarded reservoirs, power plants and public buildings against sabotage.
The U.S. Government trusted more in the Black soldiers than in the newly enlisted
foreign-born soldiers, especially the Germans. This is the same situation as
mentioned earlier with the Navy: Black men enlisted to serve the manual labor
positions in order to replace the Japanese Americans.
The Harlem Hellfighters met with uninviting MPs upon their return to New York,
who were instructed not to salute any 369th soldiers, White or Black. The 369th
had its own parade, since it was not invited to join the Victory Parade of 1919.
The march made headlines throughout the country, and despite the U.S. Government’s
efforts, the 369th made its mark on America.
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New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military History
March 30, 2006