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Friday, April 26, 2013

Decorated Black World War I Combat Heroes

Prior to the United States entering World War I in 1917, there were four Black regiments in existence: The 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry. The men in these units were well regarded in their respective communities. Collectively they were known as the Buffalo Soldiers. The Militia Act of July 17, 1862, allowed Blacks to serve in the Army. On July 28, 1866, Congress also permitted Black soldiers to serve as peacetime Army soldiers after the Civil War. (1861-1865). I stated previously that the Buffalo Soldiers received a Medal of Honor as a group, and I will describe their comprehensive and exciting history in the future.

 The War Department needed additional soldiers for The Great War, also known as World War I,  in 1917. Black Volunteers quickly reached their quota.

The image of Civil War President Abraham Lincoln  looms over the
Black WWI Soldiers fighting abroad in this painting.

More than 350,00 African Americans served in segregated units during World War I., reports that 1, 400 served as officers. Emmett J. Scott worked for eighteen years as the private secretary to Negro leader Booker T. Washington. He then became Special Assistant to Secretary of War Newton Baker. It was Scott's job to "oversee the recruitment, training, and morale of the African American Soldier." Scott authored the Official History of the American Negro in the World War in 1919, with assistance from  author Alice Dunbar Nelson and Carter G. Woodson. Woodson is the creator of Negro History Week during the month of February; Negro History evolved into Black History Month. (

Yet in a secret memo by General John J. Pershing, concerning African American troops sent to the French military:

We must not eat with them, must not shake hands with them, seek to talk to them or to meet with outside the requirements of military service. We must not commend too highly these troops , especially in front of white Americans.

It was also reported that:

"Even when integrated into fairly progressive camps, black soldiers were often treated badly and sometimes went for long periods without proper clothing. There were also reports of blacks receiving old Civil War uniforms and being forced to sleep outside in pitched tents instead of warmer, sturdier barracks. Some were forced to eat outside in the winter months, while others went without a change of clothes for months at a time."(Derived from for respect.)

The newly created 93rd Division was composed of National Guard Units from several states and the 92 Division were comprised of draftees. General Pershing brokered a deal with the French to have the Black combat soldiers fight along side the French, since white soldiers did not want to fight along side with Blacks in battle. The French desperately needed fresh soldiers and eagerly accepted American Blacks on the front lines. 

"The Harlem Hellfighters"
 369th Infantry was the first to fight for America during this first global conflict. They fought wearing French Helmets and under the French flag. This unit was highly decorated. The 369th Infantry helped to stop the German offensive and launch a counter offensive. They spent 191 days in combat, longer than any other American unit in the war. One hundred and seventy one Blacks were awarded the military highest honors. The honors came from the country of France, not the United States.

Henry Johnson (1897-1929) was a Private in the 369th Army Infantry. Johnson fought off a group of German soldiers with only a bolo knife and a gun and even rescued an injured comrade. His son stated, "He got wounded twenty one times and what he did was stop the Germans from getting through the French line." He received military honors from the French Army. Henry Johnson received American accolades posthumously: the Purple Heart in 1996 and the Army's distinguished Service Cross in 2003. Henry Johnson is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Henry Johnson

Eugene Bullard (1895-1961) joined the French Army during the early years of WWI. Bullard was wounded several times during the war and became the first African American fighter pilot in military history. A biography, Black Swallow of Death, describes his heroic exploits. Bullard was forced to return to the States in the 1940s due to his French resistance activities and the Nazis.

First African American WWI fighter pilot,
Eugene Bullard, nicknamed the Black Swallow of Death
Croix de Guerre, highest military
awarded during WWI

*The Harlem Hellfighters, the nickname given to the 369th Infantry, were not permitted to participate in the farewell parade of New York's National Guard, the so called Rainbow Division. Why? because Colonel Haywood informed them that Black was not a color in the rainbow! Normally after victory is declared celebrations take place.( The 369th were given an alternative parade.Thousands welcomed these returning soldiers. Unfortunately, for my father, a Montford Point Marine, he received no parades or honor as a WWII combat soldier after his tour of duty. Many surviving Montford Point Marine Vets share the same bittersweet narrative.

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