Black History Month
In honor of Black History Month,
we take a look at the “Harlem Hellfighters,”
New York’s all-Black 369th Regiment
that fought heroically in World War I.
by Joan DeMeo Lager
The Harlem Hellfighters returning to New York City - onboard ship.
171 African Americans in this highly esteemed regiment fought on the front line for 191 days, longer than any other American units, and they were awarded the French Croix de Guerre individually and as a unit. They fought alongside the French since many white Americans would not, and were greatly respected by the French. The 369th Regiment posthumously received the Congressional Gold Medal Award from President Biden.
Sgt. Henry Johnson of the 369th was one of the first Americans to receive the French Croix de Guerre avec Palme, France’s highest award for valor. His 21 combat injuries were too great to allow him to return to his work as redcap porter. He died at age 37 and was buried at Arlington.
Sgt. Johnson received several awards posthumously:
1996 – Purple Heart
2002 – Distinguished Service Cross
2015 – President Obama awarded him the Medal of Honor.
Sgt. Henry Johnson was “one of the five bravest American soldiers in the war.”
– Rank and File
by Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt III,
President Theodore Roosevelt’s eldest son
French Croix de Guerre avec Palme
New York City’s Welcome Home Parade
March 25, 1919
Let’s take another look at Sgt. Henry Johnson and the 369th Regiment’s Harlem Hellfighters.
Sgt. Henry Johnson, aka “The Black Death,” riding in a car in New York City’s Welcome Home Parade due to the steel plate in his foot from his injuries. He was injured numerous times during his singlehanded “Battle of Henry Johnson,” as dubbed by a reporter.
369th Infantry Regiment “Harlem Hellfighters” marching in New York City’s Welcome Home Parade on March 25, 1919. They arrived in New York Harbor in February, and were stationed at Camp Upton, Long Island, arriving parade morning via two ferries and four trains.
The 369th Regiment had a wonderful “Welcome Home Parade,” but they had not gotten off to a good start. In 1917 they had been drilling in Harlem, but there wasn’t enough space, so they were dispatched to Spartanburg, South Carolina for real combat training. They were told not to make waves, as an all-Black unit had recently been sent to a Texas camp where altercations ended tragically.
The men suffered many indignities in South Carolina by the Southerners and were not issued uniforms or weapons. Using their ingenuity, the 369th impersonated a white rifle club and easily received shipment of as many guns as they wished. Although many of the white Northern soldiers stationed there stood up for them, tensions continued to escalate. A decision was made to cut their training short. They were put into active duty in New York, their home base, on guard duty around the city at bridges and railroads and training camps.
When the National Guard was planning their going away parade on Fifth Avenue, Colonel William Hayward who led the 369th asked if his division could join the Rainbow Division, as it was their home town. He was disparagingly told, “Black is not a color in the rainbow.”
The 369th then received orders to go overseas; the first draftee unit to do so. They boarded a ship, it broke down a few days out, they returned. This happened yet again. Their third ship was rammed in the fog in New York waters and got a hole in the hull. It was above the waterline, but obviously was an unacceptable safety risk. They fixed it themselves so that they could finally depart, concerned about what ship was to be dealt to them next.
When they arrived in France they were stationed as support units by the Americans in charge. The 369th performed many necessary projects, building roads and bridges and railroad tracks, managing the massive quantities of incoming and outgoing supplies, and handling the food stores. Colonel Hayward wanted the men in combat, saying that he had not brought his men all the way to France to perform manual labor.
Colonel Hayward and General John J. Pershing, Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, both white men who highly respected the African American soldiers, recognized that many of the white American soldiers would never work with the 369th. Accordingly, General Pershing did something that was never done. He assigned the 369th Regiment to the French.
The Harlem Hellfighters playing jazz in France.
The French and the African Americans got on famously, fully intermingling, and respected each other greatly. Many of the 369th said they had never been received so well anywhere in their lives. They trained for a time with the French, all the while sharing their jazz music, and then they were the first draftee unit to be sent to the front line. The 369th Regiment went on to distinguish themselves more than almost any American unit.
The Harlem Hellfighters in France.
Many Americans did not know that there were Black soldiers actually fighting, as most African Americans were not assigned to combat units. When the news of the 77th Division’s heroic efforts broke in American newspapers, the reaction was mixed, but many were so very proud of them and were glad to have heroes they could speak of. This unit had been the only unit standing between the Germans and Paris, and Sgt. Henry Johnson ended up leading the fight in his area single-handedly.
"The regiment never lost a man captured, a trench, or a foot of ground ... and ... it had less training than any American unit before going into action."
– Emmett J. Scott , A.M., Ll.D., in “The American Negro in the World War,” 1919; Special Assistant to Secretary of War on Negro Affairs;
Private Secretary to the Late Booker T. Washington
Members of the Harlem Hellfighters with their French Croix de Guerre medals.
When the 369th Division came home, they were the first New York regiment veterans to proudly march in New York City in the Welcome Home Parade. Hundreds of thousands of onlookers lined the street for seven miles from 23rd Street to 145th Street, tossing candy, cigarettes, and flowers at the soldiers, joined by Black children who were given the day off from school. The onlooker’s welcoming cheers were so loud the 100-musician strong military band could not be heard. The governor and mayor were in the reviewing stand, and millionaires like Henry Frick waved flags in front of their Fifth Avenue mansions. When the 369th arrived in Harlem, the roars of 10,000 family and friends there to greet them grew even louder.
The 369th Infantry Regiment Harlem Hellfighters marching in the Welcome Home Parade on Fifth Avenue, New York City, March 25, 1919. Throngs of people watched from the street, windows, fire escapes, and the roof, cheering for the men.
For a detailed recounting of the “Battle of Henry Johnson,” go to U.S. Department of Defense site: https://www.defense.gov/News/Feature-Stories/Story/Article/2201270/medal-of-honor-monday-army-sgt-henry-johnson/
by Joan DeMeo Lager