Thursday, July 12, 2007
Fighting on Two Fronts
Picture: Sgt. Henry Johnson
FIGHTING ON TWO FRONTS
National Guard, Feb 2005 by Listman, John W Jr
THE GERMANS WEREN'T THE ONLY OBSTACLE FOR NEW YORK'S ALL-BLACK 369TH INFANTRY DURING WORLD WAR I
Pvt. Henry Johnson heard Germans cutting wires ahead and told Pvt. Needham Roberts to pass the word as he readied a hand grenade. As he threw it, all hell broke loose. It was May 13, 1918.
"Roberts [being wounded] kept handing me grenades and I kept throwing them and the Dutchmen kept squealing but kept comin' on," Private Johnson said in an interview published in History of the American Negro in the Great World War.
With no more grenades, Private Johnson grabbed his rifle, but it was jammed so he used it as a club until the butt shattered.
"I grabbed my French bolo knife and slashed in a million directions," he said. "There was one guy that bothered me. He climbed on my back and I had some job shaking him off and pitching him over my head. Then I stuck him in the ribs with the bolo. I was still fighting when my crowd came up and saved me."
Privates Johnson and Roberts received the French Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) for their actions. Both were members of the New York National Guard's 369th Infantry.
The commander of the American expeditionary force, Gen. John Pershing, publicly praised them. Their heroics made newspapers nationwide. But it also brought more. The 369th was a segregated, African-American regiment.
"Henry Johnson was this little bitty guy," says Stephen L. Harris, author of Harlem's Hell Fighters: The African-American 369th Infantry in World War I. "At that time there was a lot of lynching going on throughout the South and West, and the black community wanted President [Woodrow] Wilson to speak out against this evil."
But President Wilson wouldn't budge.
"What the black community needed was a war hero," Harris says. "They got Henry Johnson who repelled this platoon of Germans with a bolo knife."
The May 13, 1918, action was the first of many undertaken by the 369th during the war. Its costliest combat came in the Meuse Argonne Offensive, the last great battle of World War I.
The battle opened Sept. 26, 1918, with a massive artillery barrage followed by nearly one million Allied soldiers moving across "no man's land" toward German trenches. The Germans responded with what one veteran called "a horrifying exchange of machine gun and artillery fire."
The 369th's 1st Battalion captured the village of Sechault, while the other two battalions protected its flanks.
Units on both flanks fell back, however, leaving the battalion exposed. Rather than retreat, it dug in and held out against numerous German attempts to retake the village, and did so without food or reinforcement.
When the battalion was finally relieved Sept. 29, it had suffered 172 killed and 679 wounded.
By the time the 369th returned from France in 1919, it was one of the best known of more than 100 American infantry regiments to see action during the war. But the 369th's beginning wasn't nearly as auspicious.
It began in 1913 when the New York state legislature authorized a "colored" National Guard infantry regiment.
Its senior officers would be white (following Army policy), with a mixture of white and black company grade officers. All enlisted personnel would be black.
Establishment as New York's 15th Infantry Regiment didn't occur, however, until June 29, 1916.
Just about the time it finished its organization, the United States entered World War I in April 1917. The 15th had not yet been assigned a higher headquarters, and its commander, Col. William Hayward, tried but failed to have it included with other New York units being organized into the 27th Division.
He next attempted to have it included in the 42nd "Rainbow" Division. Composed of Guard units from 26 states and the District of Columbia, it included New York's 69th Infantry. Although the commander of the 42nd refused Colonel Hayward's request saying, "Black is not a color of the rainbow," the 15th was still rather diverse.
Colonel Hayward was an attorney. The other white officers as well as the black officers were mostly professional men.
Among the black officers was Capt. Napoleon Marshall, an attorney and Harvard graduate. Colonel Hayward himself recruited Lt. James Reese Europe, a Harlem jazz composer who was instructed to create a jazz component in the regimental band.
Among the white officers was a Kansas postmaster, 1st. Lt. George Robb.
Noble Sissle, a drum major who led his own ragtime orchestra, was brought into the regiment by Lieutenant Europe.
Trouble began for them, however, after arriving at Camp Wadsworth, S.C., for training. Captain Marshall was prevented from riding on a "white only" streetcar. Black soldiers were forbidden service in local stores. With tensions high, the Army feared open trouble between the parties, and their fears were well founded.
In Brownsville, Texas, in 1906 black soldiers from the Army's 25th Infantry were accused of shooting up the town, killing one man and crippling another. White locals accused black soldiers of attacking a white woman. While officials arrested no one, 167 members of the regiment were discharged.
Around the same time, Mr. Harris notes a race riot in East St. Louis where about 100 blacks were slaughtered, so "in the wisdom of the War Department" they decided to send a black New York City regiment to train in the Deep South, he says.
In South Carolina, "Jim Europe stopped a bunch of guys from going in and shooting up a hotel, and Hayward went right to Washington and sat down with Newton Baker, secretary of war, and said, 'You've got to get these guys out of here,'" Harris says.
The regiment was transferred to Camp Mills, N.Y., and then sent to France as quickly as possible.
Army leadership still had no plans to employ black soldiers in combat. However, once African-American soldiers saw the freedom blacks enjoyed in French society, many feared trouble when they returned home to oppressive "Jim Crow" laws. But President Wilson and General Pershing eventually overrode this opposition.
The 15th arrived in France on January 1, 1918, and quickly moved into non-combat roles, such as unloading ships and constructing barracks.
Furious over their role, Colonel Hayward pushed the Army to change its policy, while black civic leaders pressured the president, General Pershing and the press.
The regiment then was redesignated as the 369th Infantry.
Finally, with pressure building at home and the French Army desperate for manpower, the Army assigned the 369th, along with three other all-black infantry regiments, to the French.
The regiment now was part of the newly organized 93rd Division.
Alter moving to the French Training Center at Maffrecourt in May 1918, the French assigned the regiment to its 161st Division in the Argonne sector.
The soldiers received French helmets, rifles and accouterments to ease supply problems, but the move also further distanced the regiment from its own country.
During its 191 days of enemy contact-more than any other American unit-the 369th never lost ground nor had a man captured.
"The thing interesting about them is they had no training," Harris says. "Their only training was eight days in South Carolina, and then [they] went to be stevedores, and then they finally got into the line and the French tried to teach them how to fight."
In addition to Privates Johnson and Roberts, the French government awarded dozens the Croix de Guerre.
While Lieutenant Robb, the white postmaster from Kansas, received the Medal of Honor for his leadership in the defense of Sechault, the entire 369th Infantry received the Croix de Guerre as a unit decoration for the same action. But no black soldier in the regiment received a U.S. Army decoration for valor.
General Pershing designated them the first American unit to cross the Rhine River into Germany as part of the Allied occupation force. Led by the 369th band, the men marched into the Rhineland to find a warm welcome from the German civilians.
The regiment sailed home in February 1919 and staged its own victory parade up Fifth Avenue. Nearly a million people, white citizens as well as black, welcomed home the "Hell Fighters"-a name given them by the Germans.
By Retired Chief Warrant Officer 2 John W. Listman, Jr.
John W. Listman is a retired chief warrant officer 2, a Vietnam Veteran and former Virginia Army Guard command historian.
Copyright National Guard Association of the United States Feb 2005
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