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Harlem Hellfighters and Black Devils and the Continued Fight Against Racism and White Nationalism

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am continuing to post articles for Black History Month this one about the 369th Infantry Regiment, New York Army National Guard which fought as part of the all Black 93rd Infantry Division in the First World War. This is a modified version on one I posted here in 2018, but it has particular significance because the 369th Sustainment Brigade of the New York Army National Guard was officially allowed to take the nickname of the 369th Infantry Regiment, the “Harlem Hellfighters.” It was something that needed to be done for many years.

In 1918 Black Americans still loved their country in spite of the prejudice, intolerance and persecution they endured at home as a result of Jim Crow. They labored under the most difficult circumstance to show all Americans and the world that they were worthy of being soldiers and citizens of the United States of America. Their stories cannot be allowed to be forgotten, nor can we allow Jim Crow and the intolerance of other movements which demean and persecute those who love this country because of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality to roll back the rights that these men and so many other fighters for civil rights.

The Black men who volunteered included raw recruits as well as veteran soldiers who had already served full careers on the Great Plains. Their new recruits mentors and examples were the Buffalo Soldiers, but when the United States entered the First World War, the Buffalo Soldiers were not wanted. Instead of using these veterans in Europe, these veterans  were left on the American frontier and places like the Philippines. Thus a new generation of American Black draftees and volunteers became the nucleus of two new infantry divisions, the 92nd and 93rd.

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When the soldiers of the New York National Guard’s 42nd Infantry “Rainbow” Division were cheered as they were paraded to the troopships, the 369th was not allowed to March with them because “Black was not a color of the Rainbow.” 

However once the men of the 92nd and 93rd Infantry Divisions arrived in Europe, General Pershing and the leaders of the American Expeditionary Force kept out of action. Instead they were regulated to doing labor service behind the lines and in the United States. But finally, the protests of organizations such as the NAACP and men like W.E.B.DuBois and Phillip Randolph forced the War Department to reconsider the second class status of these men and form them into combat units.

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Despite this Pershing refused to allow these divisions to serve under American command. Somehow the concept of such men serving alongside White Americans in the “War to end All War” was offensive to the high command. Actually it was out of the policies of Jim Crow and appeasing the still incredibly racist states of the former Confederacy that still hated the fact that the Black men of the U.S. Colored Troops, and State units like the 54th and 55th Massachusetts, and the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Louisiana Volunteer Infantry Regiments, (the Native State Guards) helped defeat the Confederacy and their members after the war were leaders in civil rights, voting rights and Reconstruction.

Instead these divisions were broken up and the regiments sent to serve out of American areas on the Western Front. The regiments of the 93rd Division were attached to French divisions. The 369th “Harlem Hellfighters” were first assigned to the French 16th Division and then to the 161st Division. The Hellfighters stayed in line and under fire for 191 days, longer than any other American regiment, they also suffered the highest casualties of any American regiment, nearly 1,500 during a time when only 900 replacements were received. 170 soldiers of the regiment were awarded the French Croix de Guerre for the valor they displayed in combat.

The men of these Black Regiments wore their American Uniforms and insignia but were completely outfitted with French weapons, rifles, machine guns, trench mortars and combat gear including web gear, helmets, and gas masks. They were too low on the American supply chain to be equipped for combat, and their assignment to French divisions meant that their weapons and ammunition had to be compatible with the French divisions to whom they were assigned.

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Sergeant Henry Johnson 

The first of the Hellfighters so honored was then Private, later Sergeant Henry Johnson who was nicknamed Black Death for his prowess as a fighter. With Private Needham Roberts, Johnson fought off a platoon sized German patrol. They both were wounded and when they ran out of ammunition. Roberts fought with the butt of his rifle and Johnson a Bolo knife. When Roberts was knocked unconscious Johnson fought alone and saved his comrade from capture. Some estimate that Johnson killed 4 and wounded up to 30 Germans in the fight. Johnson was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barak Obama on June 2nd 2015, because he had no living relatives it was accepted by Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson.

The 370th “Black Devils” from Chicago were detailed to the French 26th Division and the 371st and 372nd Infantry Regiments were assigned to the French 157th (Colonial) Division, which was also known as the Red Hand Division.

The 157th Division was a “Colonial” division comprised of soldiers from French African Colonies. It fought with distinction and was decimated in the terrible and futile battles for the Chemin des Dames. In 1918 the division was reconstituted with the addition of the 371st and 372nd Regiments. 

These units performed with distinction. The 371st was awarded the French Croix de Guerre and Légion d’honneur. Corporal Freddie Stowers of the 1st Battalion 371st was the only Black American awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in the First World War. The 372nd was also awarded the Croix de Guerre and Légion d’honneur for its service with the 157th Division.

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The 157th (Colonial) Division had suffered badly during the war and been decimated in the unrelenting assaults in the trench warfare of the Western Front. It was reconstituted in 1918 with one French Regiment and two American regiments, the Negro 371st and 372nd Infantry. On July 4th 1918 the commanding General of the French 157th Division, General Mariano Goybet issued the following statement:

“It is striking demonstration of the long standing and blood-cemented friendship which binds together our two great nations. The sons of the soldiers of Lafayette greet the sons of the soldiers of George Washington who have come over to fight as in 1776, in a new and greater way of independence. The same success which followed the glorious fights for the cause of liberty is sure to crown our common effort now and bring about the final victory of right and justice over barbarity and oppression.”

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Flag of the 157th “Red Hand” Division 

Many white American soldiers depreciated their French hosts and attempted to sow the seeds of their own racial prejudice against the Black soldiers among the French. Southerners were among the worst. They warned the French of  the “black rapist beasts.” However the French experience of American blacks was far different than the often scornful treatment that they received from white American soldiers.

“Soldiers from the four regiments that served directly with the French Army attested to the willingness of the French to let men fight and to honor them for their achievements. Social interactions with French civilians- and white southern soldiers’ reactions to them- also highlighted crucial differences between the two societies. Unlike white soldiers, African Americans did not complain about high prices in French stores. Instead they focused on the fact that “they were welcomed” by every shopkeeper that they encountered.”

Official and unofficial efforts by those in the Army command and individual soldiers to stigmatize them and to try to force the French into applying Jim Crow to laws and attitudes backfired. Villages now expressed a preference for black over white American troops. “Take back these soldiers and send us some real Americans, black Americans,” wrote one village mayor after a group of rowdy white Americans disrupted the town.”

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Corporal Freddy Stowers 

The citation for Corporal Stowers award of the Medal of Honor reads as follows:

Corporal Stowers, distinguished himself by exceptional heroism on September 28, 1918 while serving as a squad leader in Company C, 371st Infantry Regiment, 93d Division. His company was the lead company during the attack on Hill 188, Champagne Marne Sector, France, during World War I. A few minutes after the attack began, the enemy ceased firing and began climbing up onto the parapets of the trenches, holding up their arms as if wishing to surrender. The enemy’s actions caused the American forces to cease fire and to come out into the open. As the company started forward and when within about 100 meters of the trench line, the enemy jumped back into their trenches and greeted Corporal Stowers’ company with interlocking bands of machine gun fire and mortar fire causing well over fifty percent casualties. Faced with incredible enemy resistance, Corporal Stowers took charge, setting such a courageous example of personal bravery and leadership that he inspired his men to follow him in the attack. With extraordinary heroism and complete disregard of personal danger under devastating fire, he crawled forward leading his squad toward an enemy machine gun nest, which was causing heavy casualties to his company. After fierce fighting, the machine gun position was destroyed and the enemy soldiers were killed. Displaying great courage and intrepidity Corporal Stowers continued to press the attack against a determined enemy. While crawling forward and urging his men to continue the attack on a second trench line, he was gravely wounded by machine gun fire. Although Corporal Stowers was mortally wounded, he pressed forward, urging on the members of his squad, until he died. Inspired by the heroism and display of bravery of Corporal Stowers, his company continued the attack against incredible odds, contributing to the capture of Hill 188 and causing heavy enemy casualties. Corporal Stowers’ conspicuous gallantry, extraordinary heroism, and supreme devotion to his men were well above and beyond the call of duty, follow the finest traditions of military service, and reflect the utmost credit on him and the United States Army.

Corporal Stowers is buried at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. The award of the Medal of Honor was not made until 1991 when President George H. W. Bush presented it to Stowers’ two surviving sisters.

The contrast between the American treatment of its own soldiers and that of the French in the First World War is striking. The fact that it took President Harry S. Truman to integrate the U.S. Military in 1948 is also striking. African Americans had served in the Civil War, on the Great Plains, in Cuba and in both the European and Pacific Theaters of Operation in the Second World War and were treated as less than fully human by many Americans.

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Men of the 371st and 372nd Infantry Regiments of the French 157th Division Awarded the Croix d’Guerre

Even after President Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948, African Americans, as well as other racial minorities, women and gays have faced very real discrimination. The military continues to make great strides, and while overt racist acts and other types of discrimination are outlawed, racism still remains a part of American life.

Today things have changed, and that in large part is due to the unselfish sacrifice in the face of hatred and discrimination of the men of the USCT and the State Black Regiments like the 54th Massachusetts and the Louisiana Home Guards who blazed a way to freedom for so many. Those who followed them as Buffalo Soldiers and volunteers during the World Wars continued to be trail blazers in the struggle for equal rights. A white soldier who served with the 49thMassachusetts wrote “all honor to our negro soldiers. They deserve citizenship. They will secure it! There would be much suffering in what he termed “the transition state” but a “nation is not born without pangs.”

Unfortunately racial prejudice is still exists in the United States. In spite of all the advances that we have made racism still casts an ugly cloud over our country. Despite the sacrifices of the Buffalo Soldiers, the leaders of the Civil Rights movement and others there are some people who like the leaders of the AEF in 1917 and 1918 cannot stomach having blacks as equals or God forbid in actual leadership roles in this country.

A good friend of mine who is a retired military officer, a white man, an evangelical Christian raised in Georgia who graduated from an elite military school in the South, who is a proponent of racial equality has told me that the problem that many white people in the South have with President Obama is that “he doesn’t know his place.” Yes racism is still real and rears its ugly head all too often.

But slowly but surely change in coming. Retired Army General Lloyd Austin, is now Secretary of Defense. Among his first actions was to declare a stand down to deal with the problem of White Nationalism and how in many forms it has infiltrated the ranks of the military. I hope that as Secretary Austin moves forward this will develop into criminal inquiries and prosecutions especially because so many former and current military personnel were involved in the violent insurrection and coup attempt on 6 January 2021. Somehow I think that he is up to the task.

So until tomorrow or Monday,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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