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The Forgotten Battles of the Harlem Hellfighters

If the story of World War I is to be properly told, it should start and finish with this all-Black regiment that saved Paris from German occupation and helped kick off the Harlem Renaissance

On Veterans Day, our nation sets aside a calendar day to mark the end of “the war to end all wars,” and to celebrate the sacrifices of all the American soldiers who have been called to serve. The thing is, the stories we like to tell of America’s brave fighting men have huge holes in them. Because for every Saving Private Ryan, countless more battlefield heroes have gone ignored. Heroes like the Harlem Hellfighters, a collection of Black men who signed up to fight and die for a country that still didn’t treat them as equals (believing in the promise of America more than America believed in them). In a way then, they could be thought of as ancestors of the Civil Rights movement, its first wave. They fought for freedom and democracy on foreign shores, and for equality back home.

Sadly, though, they’re now mostly forgotten in the cultural memory of America. And it’s only been a hundred years.

Their story begins in April 1917 when the U.S. officially declared war on Germany. By that point in World War I, both the French and English armies were desperate for reinforcements. Yet General John J. Pershing, head of the American Expeditionary Forces, made clear that no U.S. soldiers would be serving under a foreign officer. American soldiers would only serve under an American general and an American flag.

But then “Black Jack” Pershing changed his mind. He decided it would be okay for the U.S. to loan out one unit to the French — the all-Black 15th New York National Guard Regiment.

This could be seen as dismissive and racist. It makes far more sense, though, when you consider Pershing’s past. You see, “Black Jack” was the more polite version of his original nickname. When Pershing taught at West Point, the cadets there grew so tired of him constantly telling them that they didn’t measure up to the Black “buffalo soldiers” he’d commanded during his time as a cavalry commander that they gave him the mocking nickname, “Nigger Jack.” Over time, it softened to “Black Jack.”

Still, Pershing wasn’t going to allow Black soldiers to fight under the American flag — mainly because President Woodrow Wilson and U.S. Army brass were against integration of the army, but also because the loan of Black soldiers could prove to be handy leverage for diplomacy in the post-war negotiations. A favor to be repaid.

He was right about them as warriors, though. The Harlem Hellfighters — the nickname the Germans would give the 15th New York National Guard — changed the complexion of the whole war. They never lost a single battle, and when the Kaiser’s army made its final advance in the summer of 1918, coming within a mere 18 miles of Paris, the Harlem Hellfighters didn’t surrender a foot of the four-mile-long front. Instead, they started an offensive of their own, becoming the first Allied combat unit to fight their way into Germany and cross the Rhine River. “We can’t hold up against these men,” a captured Prussian officer remarked. “They are devils! They smile while they kill, and they won’t be taken alive.”

The most famous of the Harlem Hellfighters was Private Henry Johnson. One night, in the Champagne region of France, he was on patrol, stationed among the barbed wire and foxholes of No Man’s Land. It was just him and one other soldier, left alone at the edge of the Forest of Argonne. At some point during the night, they heard the snikt-snikt of wire cutters. A squad of German soldiers was close, setting up for a raid. In the dark of night and confusion of barbed wire and mud, Johnson grasped the apparent: There was no possibility for easy escape. They’d have to fight it out.

His patrol partner, Needham Roberts, was injured early in the firefight. To make matters worse, Johnson accidentally shoved an American cartridge into his loaned French rifle, which rendered his firearm inoperable. And so, Johnson started swinging his rifle like a Louisville slugger. In close quarters, he beat back the German soldiers — until, that is, he lost the rifle. At that point, he pulled out his field knife.

All in all, Johnson killed four German soldiers. He was wounded 21 times, but nonetheless, he shot, stabbed or beat as many as 24 enemy combatants. By the end of the one-man fight, the Germans reportedly ran off screaming into the night. For his heroics, the Germans gave Johnson a nickname, Black Death, and the French awarded him with the Croix de Guerre, the first American to ever earn the medal.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army primarily ignored the incident. If it weren’t for the media catching wind of the story, it would have gone unheralded completely stateside.

During the war, the Germans seized on this bleak irony, bombarding Black soldiers in the trenches with pamphlets like this: “Hello, boys, what are you doing over here? Fighting the Germans? Why? Have they ever done you any harm? […] Do you enjoy the same rights as the white people do in America, the land of freedom and democracy, or are you not rather treated over there as second-class citizens? Can you get into a restaurant where white people dine? Can you get a seat in a theater where white people sit? Can you get a seat or berth in a railroad car, or can you even ride in the South in the same street car with the white people? And how about the law? Is lynching and the most horrible crimes connected therewith, a lawful proceeding in a democratic country? […] You have been made the tool of the egoistic and rapacious rich in America, and there is nothing in the whole game for you but broken bones, horrible wounds, spoiled health or death. No satisfaction whatever will you get out of this unjust war.”

But as Herbert Young, an 110-year-old Harlem Hellfighter, recalled in a WNET documentary on the regiment, the German propaganda had little effect on the Black soldiers. He did concede, though, that the Germans were ultimately correct. “They dropped the pamphlets over the outfits where they thought the Negroes was — they told us not to fight because we weren’t gonna get nothing for it. [Laughs] And they were right. That day, they were right. But we didn’t know nothing about that. We didn’t no know nothing about what was gonna happen when we got back home.”

They also couldn’t know that the U.S. Army had sent a memo to the Harlem Hellfighters’ French commanding officers to ensure that the Black soldiers didn’t get any wrong ideas about returning to America and expecting any new form of social equality. In the memo, the American Expeditionary Force detailed for their French allies how to treat the loaned-out Black soldiers to maintain American racism. “The French public has become accustomed to treating the Negro with familiarity and indulgence,” a key passage reads. “This indulgence and this familiarity are matters of grievous concern to the Americans. They consider them an affront to their national policy. They are afraid that contact with the French will inspire in Black Americans aspirations which to [the whites] appear intolerable. It is of the utmost importance that every effort be made to avoid profoundly estranging American opinion. Although a citizen of the United States, the Black man is regarded by the white American as an inferior being with whom relations of business or service only are possible.”

The Harlem Hellfighters did, however, return to New York as the heroes they were, marching in formation in a parade down Fifth Avenue and unifying New Yorkers regardless of color or creed. That said, when the parade reached Harlem, the locals took the celebration to a whole ‘nother level. “Harlem exploded because this was the unit that had done all that it had promised,” Lonnie Bunch of the Smithsonian Institute explained in the WNET doc. “It had fought and fought successfully. It had done it with pride. It had battled against discrimination. And what it had done was: Prove to all Americans that Blacks deserve equality, by the fact they fought and died on the battlefields of France.” (It’s been said that the joy of that victory parade is the spiritual start of the Harlem Renaissance, the era-defining cultural awakening that would turn Harlem into the capitol of Black America.)

Unfortunately, the love for the Harlem Hellfighters was short-lived — and for Private Henry Johnson most of all. While on a paid speaking tour, he dared mention the racism that he faced in the trenches. In response, he was arrested in St. Louis. His crime: Wearing his Army uniform past his time of service. After that scandal, his speaking tour abruptly ended. He died penniless at 36 and was buried in an unmarked grave. (It wasn’t until 2015 that his body was moved to Arlington National Cemetery and President Obama awarded him with the Medal of Honor.)

Johnson’s story and many others remain buried in the lost and dusty past of American history. But they need to be brought into full living and breathing relief — for their sake and for the sake of America. Each and every Harlem Hellfighter deserves to be an American hero because this is their country, too. In fact, they’re just a few of the many Black veterans whose sacrifices have allowed us to enjoy the freedoms we do.

Such is the nature of America, made possible by Black veterans like the Harlem Hellfighters.