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.

Written by David Omahen

See also:

The American Revolution to 1808
The War of 1812
The Civil War
The Indian Wars
The Spanish American War and the Philippine Insurgency
The Brownsville Incident and Teddy Roosevelt
World War One
The Spanish Civil War
World War Two
The Korean War
Conclusion and Bibliography