February marks Black History Month. Follow the AJC this month for a series of short stories and videos and people, places and events that played a significant role in the development of black people in America.
Their French allies called them “The Men of Bronze.” “Hellfighters,” was the name their enemies, the Germans, gave them out of respect and fear: “The Harlem Hellfighters.”
They were officially the 369th Infantry Regiment, the first black regiment to see action during World War I. Formed in New York City at a crucial period in American history they would become the longest-serving and one of the most decorated units of the Great War.
While the United States was eager to make the world safe for democracy by entering the war in Europe, blacks had no power in the United States.
Yet many believed that if allowed to fight in Europe, racial discrimination throughout the United States would be eliminated. Another unit of black soldiers was stationed at Atlanta University.
But when the unit arrived in Europe, they saw the same discrimination and segregation they felt at home (even in uniform).
They were initially assigned to labor duties and banned from fighting. Eventually, they were turned over to the French Army, who saw and treated them as equals.
They spent 191 days in front line trenches -- which was more than any other American unit -- and was the first unit to cross the Rhine into Germany.
By the end of the war the unit suffered about 1,500 casualties and received the French Croix de Guerre, a medal awarded to soldiers from Allied countries for bravery in combat.
But back in America, racism was still prevalent and it can be argued that the period between World War I and World War II saw the country at its worse in terms of racial violence and race relations toward blacks – including the Hellfighters. Several black soldiers were killed on American soil, for such offenses as wearing their uniform. Others, aside from in Harlem, where they returned as conquering heroes, would be marginalized.
Take the story of William Henry Johnson, who died broke, poor and forgotten in 1929. A former rail porter, Johnson joined the army on June 5, 1917, and was assigned to the Hellfighters. On May 14, 1918, while on guard duty on the edge of the Argonne Forest, Johnson came under attack by a large party of German soldiers.
Using grenades, then the butt of his rifle, then a knife and finally his hands, he killed at least four Germans and injured 30 others while rescuing another soldier.
Johnson was wounded 21 times during the attack, but earned the name, “Black Death.”
He was the first black soldier to get the Croix de Guerre. But the U.S. military didn’t give him a Purple Heart until 1996 or the Distinguished Service Cross until 2003. In 2015, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Johnson the Medal of Honor. “The least we can do is to say, ‘We know who you are, we know what you did for us. We are forever grateful,’” Obama said of the Hellfighter.