“Go Forward or Die”: The Harlem Hellfighters in World War I

ome of the colored men of the 369th who won the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action"Some of the colored men of the 369th who won the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action." (Photo: NARA)

The United States of American entered World War I with a lofty goal: to make the world “safe for democracy.” Millions of Americans answered their nation’s call to arms, including African Americans who did not enjoy the acceptance of their own countrymen; the Tuskegee Institute estimated that at least 1,533 Blacks had been lynched between 1897 and 1917. Despite such atrocities, however, many Black leaders urged African Americans to join the war effort. Prominent intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois said, “while the war lasts [we should] forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow citizens and allied nations that are fighting for democracy.” By the war’s end 380,000 African-Americans would join the military. One of the most famous and hard-fighting units to have served in the fields of France was the 369th Infantry, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters.

Comprised mostly of African Americans, with seventy percent from Harlem, the 369th made a name for themselves. “My men never retire, they go forward or they die,” said their commander, Colonel William Hayward. Holding the record for having spent the longest time in combat at 191 days, they were the first Allied unit to reach the Rhine River. Their actions in combat gained notoriety among foreign military. The 369th frightened the Germans to such a great extent that German soldiers nicknamed them the “Bloodthirsty Black Men,” while the French called them “hell-fighters.” Before the war’s end, 171 men of the 369th earned medals, while the French government awarded the entire 369th the highest award possible: the Croix de Guerre. Two men in particular, Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, earned the Croix de Guerre with a special citation for extraordinary valor.

In May of 1918, Johnson and Roberts were guarding an outpost when they were attacked. Despite their multiple wounds, the men killed or wounded thirty-six Germans. Johnson would later recall:

After several of my comrades had fallen and I had run out of ammunition I began to bat a group of Germans over the head with the butt of my rifle, and then I ripped into them with [my] French bolo knife. Finally one German got me around the shoulders and threw me. We fought for a half hour. I was shot in two or three places, cut on the hip and bayonetted in the leg.

His actions not only earned him a medal citation but also a place of honor in the unit’s victory parade upon return to the United States.

The people of New York greeted the Harlem Hellfighters as heroes. Under “Welcome Home” banners and American flags were thousands of spectators who lined the streets to view the famed unit. When the 369th entered Harlem, the boisterous applause and noise reached its crescendo. Throngs of onlookers tried to burst through the police barricades to find their loved ones. The New York Times, reporting on the parade, assured readers that events remained orderly as “the good-natured New York policemen, trained to handle all races without frictions, were generally models of kindness in dealing with mothers anxious to break through to see their sons and girls eager to embrace their idols.”

Despite the welcome that the Harlem Hellfighters received in New York, the men of the 369th, along with African-Americans throughout the American military, suffered abuses and insults during their length of service, and for years later. For instance, the author of the New York Times article describing the victory parade reduced the decorated soldiers to racist caricatures when he claimed to be able to tell the unit was excited to see their loved ones because they “did not linger to pick the chicken bones clean” from the chicken dinner held in their honor. Even the heroism of the Hellfighters could not combat entrenched racism, as White Americans clung to the belief that Blacks could only be effective soldiers if led by White men. Hamilton Fish Jr, a captain in the 369th, wrote that he was “a great believer in the fighting quality of the educated American negro, provided that he is well led.” The 369th themselves were unique in that they were allowed to see combat. Of the nearly 400,000 African-Americans in the military, only 42,000 saw the front. The remaining were relegated solely to menial labor. Worst of all, the blood shed willingly for the United States did little to protect Blacks from violence at home: White Americans lynched an additional 356 African-Americans within ten years after Black soldiers helped make the world safe for democracy.

About the Author

Ryan Green

Ryan Green was born and raised in Bakersfield, California. After a brief stint in the Air Force he received his B.A. from the University of California Davis. Currently a Ph.D. student at Boston College, he studies the history of American foreign policy with a focus on death and dying in the American military.

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2 Comments

  1. Great article, Ryan. I’m teaching WWII to high school juniors right now, and discussing the actions of the Japanese American 442nd during that conflict; interesting to note the parallels here. Stories of incredible bravery (see Daniel Inouye’s story from WWII in comparison with that of Harold Johnson) from segregated units facing oppression at home seems a pre-integration staple of American military history at this point.

    Thanks!

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it! An interesting fact about the 369th experience on the front was that the U.S. government pretty much “gave” the unit to the French. The Hellfighters had French weapons and equipment. The French government used them like they did any other unit, without regard to race, mainly because French manpower had been so depleted after years of fighting that they needed every body they could find.

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