African American Officers doughboys with mules African American Soldiers 1 The pilots Riveters gas masks pilots in dress uniforms Mule Rearing

African-American WWI 'Harlem Hell Fighters' proved their mettle, patriotism in combat 

By Col. Richard Goldenberg, New York National Guard
via the web site

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- When the African American National Guard Soldiers of New York's 15th Infantry Regiment arrived in France in December 1917, they expected to conduct combat training and enter the trenches of the Western Front right away.

They could not have been more wrong.

African American Soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment learn from French mentorsU.S. Army African American Soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment learn from French mentors in trench warfare in an undated photo during WWI. The 369th Infantry, an all-Black combat unit, served with distinction under French command in WWI and received the nickname 'Hell Fighters of Harlem' from their German enemies. (Photo Credit: Courtesy photo)The black troops were ordered to unload supply ships at the docks for their first months in France, joining the mass of supply troops known as stevedores, working long hours in the port at St. Nazaire.

More than 380,000 African Americans served in the Army during World War I, according to the National Archives. Approximately 200,000 of these were sent to Europe.

But more than half of those who deployed were assigned to labor and stevedore battalions, assigned to tasks that many Army leaders saw as most appropriate.

These troops performed essential duties for the American Expeditionary Force, building roads, bridges, and trenches in support of the front-line battles.

In St. Nazaire, the New York National Guard Soldiers learned they would work to prepare the docks and rail lines to be a major port of entry for the hundreds of thousands of forces yet to arrive in France.

The African American regiment was a quick and easy source of labor, according to author Stephen Harris in his 2003 book, "Harlem's Hell Fighters."

"First, Pershing would have a source of cheap labor," Harris wrote. "Second, he wouldn't have to worry about what to do with black Soldiers, particularly when he might have to mix them in with white troops."

But officers, leaders and the combat Soldiers had not signed up for labor. They were committed to fighting the Germans and winning the war.

"They had no place to put the regiment," said infantry Capt. Hamilton Fish, according to the Harris book. "They weren't going to put us in a white division, not in 1917, anyway; so our troops were sent in to the supply and services as laborers to lay railroad tracks. This naturally upset our men tremendously."

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