In 1917, desperate times called for desperate measures. President Wilson ordered the enlistment of all able-bodied men, black or white.
"Everywhere the offensive spirit is alive, pulsating, waiting for the hour to strike, that the spirit of real and true democracy will not perish. I should be happy to have millions of colored soldiers over here fighting to preserve the highest valued thing on earth – liberty." (Lt. Osceola McKaine, 367th Infantry)
The first all-black fighting unit to arrive in France was New York's 369th Infantry. The Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, General John, 'Black Jack' Pershing, bowed to political pressure back home and refused to use the men in combat. He assigned the 369th to the French High Command who dubbed them 'Les Enfants Perdus.... The Lost Children.' The unit's white commander, Colonel William Hayward would later write...
The 369th Infantry would come to be known as the Harlem Hellfighters. Their motto was "God damn, let's go." Years later, a soldier, whose name has been lost to history, recounted his march to the front...
"There were a whole lot of blind men, and one-legged men, and one-armed men, and sick men, all coming this way. I asked a white man where all these wounded men come from? And he says, 'Nigger, they're coming from right where you're going the day after tomorrow.'"
In Minacourt, France the officers and men of the 369th came face to face with the horrors of war. Major Warner Ross would later describe such an encounter.
"Stones, dirt, shrapnel, limbs and whole trees filled the air. The noise and concussion alone were enough to kill you. Flashes of fire, the metallic crack of high explosives, the awful explosions that dug holes fifteen and twenty feet in diameter. The utter and complete pandemonium and the stench of hell, your friends blown to bits, the pieces dropping near you." (Major Warner Ross)
On the night of May 14th, 1918, Privates Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts were standing watch when a grenade landed in their trench. Pvt. Needham was badly wounded and Henry Johnson was left to face a German patrol on his own. One of the unit's white officers, Major Arthur Little would later tell his story...
"The little soldier from Albany came down like a wild cat upon the shoulders of the German. As Johnson sprang, he unsheathed his bolo knife, and as his knife landed upon the shoulders of that ill-fated Boche, the blade of the knife was buried to the hilt through the crown of the German's head." (Major Arthur Little, 369th Infantry Division)
In fierce, hand-to-hand combat, the former Red Cap Porter of the New York Central Railroad singlehandedly wounded or killed 24 enemy soldiers. Back in America, the story was front-page news. The press called the incident "The Battle of Henry Johnson".
"Having shot one of his foe down and clubbed another with the butt of his rifle, he sprang to the aid of Roberts with his bolo-knife. As the enemy fell into disorderly retreat, Johnson, three times wounded, sank to the ground, seized a grenade alongside his prostrate body, and literally blew one of the fleeing Germans to fragments." (Martin Green, in The New York Evening World)
Two days later, the men were presented with the French Medal of Honor, the Croix de Guerre. They were the first American soldiers, black or white, to be so honored in World War One. When asked about the event, Henry Johnson said,...
"There isn't so much to tell. Just fought for my life. A rabbit would've done that."(Private Henry Johnson)
The Harlem Hellfighters spent 191 days in front line trenches, more than any other American unit. There was often nothing between the German Army and Paris but these black volunteers from New York. During that time, they never had any men captured nor any ground taken. At the Battle of Belleau Wood, a French General ordered the soldiers to retreat. Their commanding officer refused.
"Turn back? I should say not! My men never retire. They go forward or they die!" (Colonel William Hayward)
The Harlem Hellfighters are featured in the documentary of Black Military History, "For Love of Liberty."