WWI's most decorated unit


The 369th Infantry was the first all black unit in American military history. They were nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters” by German soldiers after fighting at Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Woodduring WW1.They spent 191 days in combat, longer than any other American unit in the war. "My men never retire, they go forward or they die," said Colonel Hayward. 


Indeed, the 369th was the first Allied unit to reach the Rhine and cross into Germany. Because of the number of African-Americans who signed up or were drafted, some of the National Guard units that accepted blacks were then conscripted to be on loan to the U.S. Army. This was how the 369th was formed. The unit began as the 15th New York National Guard before they were absorbed into the Army as the 369th Infantry. 

                                                      Harlem Hellfighter Unit Patch  


            Harlem Hellfighter Unit Patch 


All military units had to go through intensive training prior to going overseas, and the 369th was sent to Spartanburg, South Carolina. Black men wearing the American military uniform inflamed the Southerners.  The fear of assault by town residents was ever-present for the black troops, and if members of the 369th were on leave and in town, locals pushed them off the sidewalks.


Yet many of the African-Americans who enlisted felt that war service was an opportunity to prove themselves. If they showed themselves as good Americans, wouldn’t that help reduce discrimination at home?


The 369th Infantry regimentbecame the most decorated American unit in all of WW1. They were the first Americans awarded the French award for valor Croix de Guerre. 171 of its officers and men received individual medals and the unit received a Croix de Guerre for taking Sechault.  From the American side two Hellfighters were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. 


                                             SGT Henry Johnson Medal of Honor recipient


                                         SGT Henry Johnson Medal of Honor recipient


Halfway into their shift, SGT Henry Johnson heard “‘snippin’ and clippin’ of wirecutters” a sign that a raiding party was approaching. Soon he and Roberts were been attacked by between 12 and 36 Germans . Accounts vary as to the exact number. Roberts was hit by a grenade and badly injured, but Johnson continued to fight. 

He shot toward the Germans until he ran out of bullets, then began using his rifle as a club. When the weapon splintered, he turned to a bolo knife and his bare hands. Badly injured himself, he slashed at his attackers, fending them off as he waited for reinforcements to arrive.

“Each slash meant something, believe me,” Johnson later said, according to Smithsonian.


Johnson suffered 21 wounds during the fight, including a shattered left foot that never quite healed. But the Germans fared far worse: Johnson and Roberts killed four of their attackers and injured between 10 and 20 more.


Irvin Cobb, an American journalist covering the war, later wrote of the fight: “If ever proof were needed, which it is not, that the color of a man’s skin has nothing to do with the color of his soul, these twain then and there offered it in abundance.”


He was briefly rewarded for his valor. The French gave him the Cross de Guerre avec Palme, their highest award for valor. President Theodore Roosevelt called him one of “the five bravest Americans” to serve in World War I. The U.S. Army used his image  to sell victory stamps (“Henry Johnson licked a dozen Germans. How many stamps have you licked?” the advertisements asked). His admirers called him “black death” and filled the streets to cheer his regiment on their return.


When the war ended, so did the accolades. The modern Purple Heart was not created until 1932, so Johnson did not receive that recognition for his injuries (though he was granted its predecessor, the Wounded Chevron). He wasn’t even given a pension. He was finally awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on June 2nd, 2015. The men of the Harlem Hellfighters will forever be known for their conspicuous gallantry and efforts that contributed to winning the first great war. 


Although poorly trained, ill equipped, and being treated as less then second class citizens they showed the world the meanings of grit and tenacity. These men are true American hero’s. Tonight i raise my glass in tribute to the Harlem Hellfighters . Cheers. 



Source Credit: smithsonianmag.com