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A Couple of My Washington Post Articles

Hell Fighters

Despite Segregation, Blacks Served Valiantly in World War I


The Washington Post - Washington, D.C. Author: Michael L. Cooper
Word Count: 2864 Full Text (2864 words)
Copyright The Washington Post Company


"Black is not a color of the rainbow," Col. William Hayward was told dismissively when he asked whether his 15th Voluntary Regiment could join the Army's 42nd ("Rainbow") Division in a farewell parade on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue as World War I service loomed.


The division's soldiers came from 26 states and the District, a veritable rainbow -- but one that excluded color.


"Damn their going-away parade!" Hayward told his African American regiment. "We'll have a parade of our own when we come back -- those of us who do come home -- and it will be a parade that will make history."


Soldiers in the 15th, like those in the Rainbow Division, were National Guards troops quickly mobilized after the United States entered the war in April 1917.
After the American Civil War half a century earlier, relatively few blacks had been allowed to join the military, though some served in the frontier Southwest in segregated cavalry units. The Navy used blacks only for menial jobs such as cooking and dishwashing.


Whites debated the proper role of African Americans in the Great War, as World War I was called. Were black men brave enough for combat? Should they serve only as laborers? Should there be black officers? If so, would white soldiers take orders from them?


"I know that a {black} knows nothing about patriotism, love of country or morality," said Robert Y. Thomas, a member of Congress from Kentucky. "And if {they are in} the Army at all, {they} should be commanded by white officers. If they are not, they're going to make trouble wherever they go."


Sen. James K. Vardaman of Mississippi expressed concern about training black men to fight. "Universal military service means that millions of Negroes who come under the measure will be armed," he said. "I know of no greater menace to the South than this."


Some black leaders, such as A. Philip Randolph, the young socialist, opposed the war. But most prominent African Americans, including W.E.B. Du Bois, an intellectual historian and educator, urged black citizens to support their nation.


The war was a "God-sent blessing," one black newspaper insisted, because the conflict would give blacks the opportunity to earn white regard and advance the standing of their race by valiant wartime service. Students from black universities, including Howard, toured the South urging African Americans to support the war.


President Woodrow Wilson declared that America was going to war to make the world "safe for democracy." African Americans felt that they would be fighting for greater democracy for people in other parts of the world as well as for themselves in their own segregated nation.


Black men rushed to join the nation's few African American regiments in the National Guard, the only military organization accepting recruits at the time.


The 1st Separate Battalion of Washington, D.C., about 1,000 strong, was among the initial Guard units activated. One month before the United States entered the war, the battalion was called to guard the White House, the Capitol and other government buildings. Later, it was sent to fight in France with the 93rd Infantry Division.
In New York, Hayward's regiment was activated to guard reservoirs, bridges and other sites against saboteurs.


A white lawyer and politician, Hayward had organized the regiment in 1915 as one of only six black Guard units in the nation. The 15th's headquarters was in Harlem, a northern Manhattan neighborhood fast attracting blacks from the South and Caribbean.


In that era, African Americans were second-class citizens who lived daily with segregation and discrimination. Black soldiers were no exception. New York's Guard headquarters neglected to send the Harlem regiment basic supplies, such as uniforms and guns. The guardsmen wore civilian clothing and drilled with broomsticks.


Although officially designated a "colored" regiment, its top officers were white, as were many of the captains and lieutenants. But the sergeants, corporals and privates were black. Most of the recruits were workingmen, such as bellhops, waiters and elevator operators. A few prominent members were lawyers, businessmen and politicians.


The 15th's best-known member was Lt. James Reese Europe, a jazz band leader known as "Big Jim." The District native recruited other talented musicians for the regimental band whose popular public concerts helped to attract more recruits.


"Hadn't been for that damn band," one soldier complained, "I wouldn't be in the Army." After the regiment was sent to France, "Big Jim's" band popularized jazz there.
In September 1917, the 15th and 30,000 white Guardsmen were ordered to training camp. The men in the Harlem regiment groaned when they learned that the camp was near Spartanburg, S.C., because the Deep South remained notorious for cruel treatment of blacks.


White southerners also were wary of African American soldiers. "If any of those colored soldiers go in any of our soda stores and the like and ask to be served," Spartanburg's mayor warned, "they'll be knocked down. We have our customs down here, and we aren't going to alter them."

Whites in Spartanburg constantly harassed the northern blacks, calling them degrading names, even cursing and kicking black officers. Hayward knew his men would not endure such abuse for long.


The colonel traveled to Army headquarters in Washington, where he explained that conditions in Spartanburg were dangerously similar to those that had led to rioting only two months earlier in Houston. There, 100 African American soldiers, angered by constant harassment from white police officers, had marched downtown. In the ensuing melee, 17 whites were killed. A few weeks later, the Harlem regiment was on a troop ship sailing across the Atlantic Ocean.


The 15th arrived in France in January 1918 with a new military name, the 369th Infantry Regiment. Few U.S. combat troops had been sent to France, but many African Americans in the service had been shipped there to labor in ports and rail yards. Most of the 400,000 blacks who served in the Army worked as laborers. Only one in 10 black soldiers in World War I was trained for combat.


For the first several weeks, the 369th worked alongside other African Americans unloading ships in the busy harbor at St-Nazaire in northwestern France. They also helped to build barracks and hospitals for the million "doughboys," the popular name for U.S. infantrymen during the war, who soon would be arriving in France.


The black troops' work was essential because no army can win a war without constant supply of food, ammunition and medical care. But black Americans wanted to share in all of the burdens of war, including combat. By spring, the 369th had new orders: six weeks of combat training before joining the French army at the front.


Soldiers at the front lived in miles of trenches and underground shelters called dugouts, separated from the enemy by a narrow strip of earth called no man's land. These areas of heavy fighting were desolate, filled with mud, shell craters, splintered trees, barbed wire and decaying corpses.


Across no man's land, often less than a football field away, entrenched German soldiers stared back. The Harlem regiment had been at the front only a few weeks when its men repulsed a dramatic raid.


Late on the night of May 13, Pvts. Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts were on guard duty with three men sleeping in a nearby dugout. Roberts heard wire cutters clipping through perimeter wire. As he yelled to his sleeping comrades, a flare exploded overhead.


Like a giant flashbulb, the light illuminated no man's land, revealing a dozen Germans, armed with pistols and knives, rushing through a gap in the barbed wire. They tossed grenades into the trenches, wounding Johnson and Roberts. One grenade collapsed the front of the dugout, trapping the other three men inside.
Though badly wounded, Roberts propped himself up and lobbed grenades at the attackers. Johnson quickly emptied his rifle. Before he could reload, a German lunged at him. The American used his rifle as a club and splintered its wooden stock across the attacker's head.


When another enemy soldier shot Johnson in the side, he sank to his knees, clutching his wound. As the grim-faced German stood over Johnson and raised his pistol, Johnson summoned all of his strength and lunged upward, thrusting his knife into the attacker's stomach. The other Germans, hearing more Americans approaching, retreated across no man's land.


Stories about the raid, with long interviews of Johnson and Roberts, were published in newspapers back home. The men of the 369th became celebrities.


"Our colored volunteers from Harlem had become, in a day, one of the famous fighting regiments of the world war," said Maj. Arthur W. Little, a white officer in the regiment. Reporters dubbed them "Hell Fighters" because of the terrible conditions and dangers endured on the front lines. But worse fighting was to come.


Before daybreak on Sept. 26, the allied American, British and French armies launched one of the war's biggest attacks in the battle of the Meuse-Argonne. At midnight, 4,000 Allied cannons began shelling German positions. During the ensuing seven-week battle, they would fire more artillery shells than the entire Union Army had used during the Civil War.


"My company will be in the first position to resist the tremendous concentration against us," one soldier wrote his father, "and I don't believe there is any chance of us surviving the first push."


Rolling kitchens served the 369th a quick breakfast of coffee and "slumgullion," army slang for a stew of beef, beans and potatoes. Then the Harlem regiment waited nervously for the infantry attack.


At 5:30 a.m., 1 million Allied soldiers began advancing along the front. Wave after wave of doughboys swept across no man's land and disappeared into thick fog. Trucks, horse-drawn wagons and columns of men clogged narrow roads. Curses filled the air as wagon drivers yelled at horses struggling to pull heavy loads through thick mud and deep shell craters.


The air was filled with the cracking sound of rifles and staccato bursts of machine gun fire. Enemy artillery shells shook the ground with tremendous explosions. One type of shell had been dubbed the "Jack Johnson," after the famous African American heavyweight boxer. A Jack Johnson made a loud rushing noise, like an approaching locomotive, just before slamming to earth.


"The fighting," a black doughboy said, "raged incessantly for the next 48 hours in a horrifying exchange of machine gun and artillery fire." Dead soldiers and horses began to litter the ground.


The Harlem regiment was in the Argonne forest, where one of the war's worst battles raged. "Every German there who didn't have a machine gun had a cannon," one soldier complained.


The 369th's First Battalion, commanded by Maj. Little, was sent to capture the village of Sechault. As the battalion advanced cautiously, the enemy withdrew into the nearby forest. Occupying the village, it turned out, had been too easy.


A runner brought Little a message that soldiers protecting his battalion's flanks had fallen behind. Many had been killed or wounded. The men were completely out of rations and had not eaten since morning. Now, they were so far ahead of the rest of the army that they might be surrounded and slaughtered.


The night was long and tense. Enemy flares rose over the village, and enemy soldiers took pot shots at the Americans. The Germans wanted to keep the doughboys awake and scared. Near daybreak, the Americans heard German officers in the forest yelling orders at their troops. Word spread that an attack was imminent. "All out for Custer's last stand," one doughboy called to his comrades.


The men fixed bayonets on their rifles, expecting at any moment to see a mass of Germans swarm toward them. Long-range cannons began shelling the town. As Little prepared to attack, a messenger arrived with orders for the 1st Battalion to hold its position until replaced by fresh troops.


That night, muddy, cold and exhausted, the Harlem doughboys left the front. They were glad to see a rolling kitchen, even if it was serving only coffee and slumgullion. After devouring a meal, the soldiers grimly began gathering dead comrades. In three days of battle, 172 men had been killed and 679 wounded.


The battle of Meuse-Argonne was the regiment's last major engagement. A few weeks later, on Nov. 11, 1918, the warring nations signed an armistice.
The 369th arrived home in New York the following February on President Abraham Lincoln's birthday. Five days later, the soldiers paraded up Fifth Avenue as Col. Hayward had promised they would. Nearly 1 million people lined the seven-mile route from midtown Manhattan to Harlem.


Big Jim Europe's band played lively marching music as it led 1,300 black veterans along the avenue. At the rear, riding in cars, were men who had lost legs, been blinded or suffered other severe wounds. Henry Johnson, wearing a shiny French medal for heroism, the Croix de Guerre, waved from a convertible.


"Looking at their faultless ranks stretching in perfect alignment from curb to curb, their dignified soldierly bearing," one newspaper reporter wrote, "it was hard to believe that less than two years ago many of these bemedaled veterans were parlor car porters, apartment house helpers, restaurant waiters, shipping clerks, bellboys, truck drivers and what not."


Members of the self-made regiment that, as Hayward had observed, began "without traditions, without education and without friends," were returning as heroes.
The 369th had been at the front for 191 days, longer than any American unit. It never lost a foot of ground to the enemy or had a man taken prisoner. But the distinguished record had come at a high price. More than half of the original regiment, the old 15th, had been killed or wounded.


Above 110th Street, where Harlem begins, about 250,000 men, women and children welcomed the marchers with long, loud cheers from crowded sidewalks, roofs and fire escapes. They expressed immense pride for troops who had helped to win the Great War and proven wrong those who said blacks were not brave enough for combat.
Big Jim's band stopped playing military music at 130th Street and struck up a popular jazz song, "Here Comes My Daddy." The crowd went wild. "Mothers and wives and sisters and sweethearts recognized their boys and their men, and they rushed right out through the ranks to join them," one soldier recalled. "And we marched through Harlem singing and laughing."


Such good feelings did not last long. In New Orleans, a white speaker told a black crowd, "You {blacks} are wondering how you are going to be treated after the war. Well, I'll tell you, you are going to be treated exactly like you were before the war. This is a white man's country, and we expect to rule it."


While many whites expressed determination to perpetuate prewar segregation and prejudice, many blacks felt that they had earned better treatment.


The war and the sudden migration of about 500,000 southern blacks to northern cities, had heightened racial tension nationwide. In 1919, authorities reported 77 lynchings of blacks, and at least 20 of the victims were veterans. That summer was dubbed "Red Summer" because of bloody race riots in Chicago, Omaha and elsewhere, including the District.


In the nation's capital, white sailors and soldiers, spurred by exaggerated reports of black men assaulting white women, invaded a black neighborhood in Southwest and beat residents. The violence continued the next day when servicemen and white civilians randomly attacked black men and women on downtown streets.


When the predominantly white police force did little to protect blacks, the victims fought back. "Bands of Negroes, carrying revolvers, razors and blackjacks, are gathering in various parts of the city and are making vicious attacks upon soldiers, sailors and civilians," the New York Times reported.


The next day, 1,100 federal troops were sent to quell violence. After four days of rioting, a half dozen people had been killed and hundreds injured.
Many blacks expressed pride about the retaliation against white attackers. African Americans felt their wartime service had earned them equal treatment at home.


"Make way for democracy!" Du Bois declared. "We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America or know the reason why."


Michael L. Cooper is the author of, among other titles, The Double V Campaign: African Americans in World War II (1998).