The Harlem “Hellfighters” of the 369th Regiment
Playing Jazz in “No-Man’s Land”
Many Americans were wary of formally organizing an African-American military regiment at the turn of the century let alone letting blacks serve with whites. A letter from Colonel Linard of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) to the French military headquarters sums up the racial tensions between blacks and whites at the time America entered the war.
Treating blacks as equals was considered to have the most sinister implications for the future, when the black soldiers went home to the states.... The approximately 15 million Negroes in the United States presented a threat of race mongrelization unless blacks and whites were kept strictly separated. [Therefore,] the French should not eat with them nor shake hands with them, nor visit or converse except as required by military matters.6
However, Linard’s warnings fell on deaf ears and the French would soon realize that a genuine friendship between black American troops and the French would develop. This level of cooperation between the two groups was instrumental in cementing positive relations between America and France. For black Americans, America’s entry into the war was God-sent. They believed that this was their opportunity to prove themselves worthy of being American citizens and would therefore help in eliminating racialdiscrimination.7 Thanks to the efforts of the Harlem black community, a bill authorizing an African American National Guard regiment passed the New York state legislature and signed into law by Governor William Sulzer on June 2, 1913. Thus, the 15th New York Regiment consisting of colored troops was born.8 In the summer of 1916, James Reese Europe enlisted in the 15th Regiment as a private. Soon after, his friend Noble Sissle enlisted too. John Philip Sousa may have been “The March King” but James Europe was the “Martin Luther King of music.”9 Considered as one of America’s greatest musicians, he was unfortunately constantly underrated during his lifetime due to his African-American heritage. It would take several years before Europe could earn the distinction as an innovator in music and leadership.
Born in Mobile, Alabama in 1880, James Europe and his family moved to Washington, D.C. when he was nine years old and coincidently lived near the Sousa residence. Surprising for this era, Sousa and his Marine Band had a positive working relationship with the black community. They often played for commencement exercises at Howard University, a traditionally-recognized African-American institution. Members of Sousa’s band also taught music to young aspiring black children and it was through this contact that Europe received his first music lessons in piano and violin.10 In 1910, Europe moved to New York’s black community in Harlem and established the Clef Club Orchestra. Europe was able to recruit about 125 musicians for the newly established orchestra and it was here where Europe and Sissle met for the first time.11 Europe andSissle became fast friends and the camaraderie they enjoyed would soon prove to be instrumental in spreading jazz. Both Europe and Sissle were interested in improving the prospects of the black community. They too realized that joining the military was an opportunity not to be missed if they ever wanted to help their fellow African Americans be recognized as equal compatriots to white Americans.
Recognizing their talents as assets to build up morale, their commanding officer asked Europe to organize the best band in the U.S. Army.12 Many soldiers answered the call and Europe was able to raise a forty-four piece band.13 With the idea of promoting patriotism at home, Europeimmediately organized patriotic concerts including a parade on New York’s Fifth Avenue. However, the idea of a parade was shrugged off by authorities saying, “black was not one of the colors of the rainbow.”14 Given the extreme racial tensions, the 15th Regiment was given a choice: either wait for an assignment in America or be transferred to the French military which was now desperately looking for reinforcements.15 The regiment chose to transfer to the French military and were accepted immediately for combative positions. Europe wrote to Fred Moore, editor of the New York Age:
Their broad minds [referring to the French] are far and free from prejudice, and you, as a great champion of our people, I am sure will be glad to know that despite their contact, despite the desperate efforts of some people, the French, simply cannot be taught to comprehend that despicable thing called prejudice…”Viva la France” should be the song of every black American over here and over there.16
Upon being received into the French Army, the 15th Regiment renamed themselves as the 369th Infantry Regiment. They would soon hold the honor of being the first African American combat group to set foot on French soil and on April 13, 1918, James Europe’s 3rd Battalion would carry the New York state flag becoming the first American unit to join a French combat force. Europe was the first African American officer to lead troops in the war.17 Their mission was to establish a regimental base at Maffrecourt.18 After Europe was commissioned as lieutenant, he was forced to leave the regimental band behind with Sissle taking his place. At the front, French military instructors were impressed with their abilities in hand-to-hand combat and close-in techniques such as bayonet charges. One of the soldiers reported, “Our men who played baseball could throw grenades farther than the French, which amused the French a lot.”19 In early May, while Europe was away, Colonel Hayward ordered Sissle and the band to play for visiting military dignitaries and visitors at the camp. Among the visitors was a newspaper reporter named Irvin S.Cobb of the Saturday Evening Post.20 Cobb, a Southerner writer, made a living by ridiculing blacks in his column.21 The 369th regiment showed mixed reactions when they first heard that Cobb was in the camp and some soldiers “commented upon the nerve of Mr. Cobb’s venture down into the front lines after having said and written so many damaging things about our people.”22 Little did Cobb know that he was up for a surprise. Sissle led the band beginning with the “Stars and Stripes Forever” followed by a medley of “plantation melodies” including Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” featuring Sissle as the vocal soloist.23 Cobb was enamored with the band’s playing and commented,
And when the band got to “Way Down Upon the Suwannee River” I wanted to cry, and when the drum major, who likewise had a splendid barytone [sic] voice, sang, as an interpolated number, “Joan of Arc,” first in English and then in excellent French, the villagers openly cried; and an elderly peasant, heavily whiskered, with the tears of a joyous and thankful enthusiasm running down his bearded cheeks, was with difficulty restrained from throwing his arms about he soloist and kissing him.24
Cobb was impressed with Sissle and the band that he wrote on a different day,
The music poured in at their ears and ran down their heels, and instead of marching they literally danced their way along…I think surely this must be the best regimental band in our army,…Certainly it is the best one I have heard in Europe during this war.
When Cobb arrived at the front, the 369th’s reputation solely rested on its musical excellence. The regiment had not experienced hardship in battle, but it would not take long before blacks would get the opportunity to prove their valiance. On the morning of May 14, 1918, only a few days after Cobb’s arrival, a German patrol of about a dozen attacked Need-ham Roberts and Henry Johnson, both stationed at the Combat Group No. 29 post. The Germans attacked Roberts first and struck him unconscious. Johnson fought back expending all of his ammunition knocking down several Germans. Without ammunition, he reached for his bolo knife to finish the job. Realizing that this was a losing situation, the German raiding party fled the trenches that was by now filling up with corpses’ oozing blood.25 Johnson’s story led the Germans to nickname the entire regiment, “the Hellfighters.”26 Journalists including Cobb were invited to view the site the following day and cabled back their stories to New York calling it “The Battle of Henry Johnson.” Cobb’s write up was lengthier than the rest. He acknowledged that the regiment “had passed out of the of the category of a merely unique organization of the American army, a regiment with its chief bid for fame based upon the music of Jim Europe’s Band.”27 The French military awarded Henry Johnson the Croix de Guerre, making him the first American to receive the honor.28 African-Americans at home celebrated this groundbreaking achievement of their community. However, due to racial tensions in America, it would take seventy-eight years before Johnson could receive an American military decoration. President Bill Clinton awarded Johnson posthumously the Purple Heart in June 1996 and President Barack Obama presented Johnson’s Medal of Honor on May 14, 2015.
Despite of their hard work, black soldiers remained strictly segregated. They still could not avail support from the CTCA or service organizations such as the YMCA like their white American compatriots. However, there were instances when some white song leaders would train black soldiers in singing as reported in the “Music in the Camps.” In Kenneth Clark’s report “Music in the Camps” newsletter dated December 19, 1917, he said that his “greatest joy is his work with the colored troops” and adding, “the colored troops are the best singers in the camp.”29 African-Americans were not the only colored troops in the regiment. Europe also recruited Puerto Ricans in his search for musicians. Puerto Rican recruits brought with them Afro-Cuban music styles which would later be incorporated into jazz repertoire. When it came to military service, Europe found the Puerto Ricans as assets. He says,
I’ve been thinking if they capture one of my Porto Ricans [sic] (of whom I have a few) in the uniform of a Normandy French regiment and this black man tells them in Spanish that he is an American soldier in a New York National Guard regiment, it’s going to give the German intelligence department a headache trying to figure it out.30
Among Europe’s songs, the most popular was “On Patrol in No Man’s Land,” a song inspired by a German bombardment that nearly cost Europe’s life. Europe wanted to give audiences a taste of combat on the Western Front.
Musical Realism in Song “On Patrol in No Man’s Land”
Lieutenant Europe and his machine gunners came under heavy German artillery fire in June 1918. Europe fell victim to a gas attack and was transferred to the field hospital.After hearing the news, Sissle and a friend rushed to visit Europe in the hospital and was surprised to find him propped up in bed with a notebook. Europe’s first words to Sissle were: “Gee I am glad to see you boys! Sissle, here’s a wonderful idea for a song that just came to me, in fact, it was [from the] experience I had last night during the bombardment that nearly knocked me out.”31 Filled with shouts and bangs to recreate the environment in the trenches, “On Patrol in No Man’s Land” gave audiences a taste of the Western Front. This song would become the band’s most favorite hit upon their return to America.32 Since the performance border-lines improvisation, it is impossible to recreate the nuances in Europe’s performance by solely relying on the published sheet music. Fortunately, Europe’s recording from 1919 survives.33
As the opening vamp begins, band members use extended techniques to simulate the sound of an incoming whistling mortar attack while the drummer strikes his instrument loud and clear mimicking the sound of explosions. The vamp’s lively rhythm continues while Sissle’s tenor voice rings out imitating a commander giving orders. He tells his troops to “take it slow” while going “over the top” of the trenches as they both follow him into the dangerous territory of No Man’s Land. The second part of the refrain comes with a surprise. Sissle, playing the part of the commander, tells his men to drop and “hug the ground.” An alarming cowbell and siren-like sounds imitated by wind instruments are heard. These sounds imitate a gas attack alarm that everyone in the trenches would have been too familiar with. The accompaniment suddenly stops and the musicians shout “Doughboys! Go to it!”- something that might occur during an actual battle. The soldiers are ordered to ram their opponents with their bayonets. The Germans, played by the musicians, are heard in the distance crying for mercy “Kamerad…kamerad…”
There is nothing in the Tin Pan Alley song collection that resembles this creative Expressionistic-like song, incorporating non-musical elements that give listeners a glimpse of an actual wartime experience.
After Europe recovered, he and his band were sent to Paris in August 1918 to give a concert at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The program not only featured patriotic tunes, but also included the new genre of jazz – something that took the Parisians by storm. Paris went wild over jazz. Europe estimated that “we played to 50,000 people, at least, and, had we wished it, we might be playing yet.”34
The “Hellfighters” Return to Harlem
Europe and the “Hellfighters” returned to America on February 12, 1919 and five days later were honored with a historic victory parade along Fifth Avenue that ended backhome to Harlem. The regiment must have reminisced as they paraded up Fifth Avenue how they were discriminated and refused a parade less than two years ago. The World reported on February 18, “the Negro troops practically owned the city.” The report continues,
New York turned itself loose yesterday in welcoming home a regiment of its own fighting sons that not only did something, but did a whole lot in winning democracy’s war…this regiment will probably always be known as the 369th Infantry, U.S.A….
Europe moved quickly and exploited the publicity. Immediately, talks about doing a national tour were in the works. Black Americans would support them because of racial pride and white Americans would also support them because they wanted to hear the music that the French went wild about.35 Due to their ever-growing popularity, Europe and his band were invited by The Pathe Recording Co. to record their songs between March 3 and 14, before the band went on tour.
The national concert tour was launched on March 16, 1919 during an evening concert at Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera House in New York. The program included the French military march, “Sambre et Meuse,” and a few jazz tunes: “Plantation Echoes” and “St. Louis Blues.”36 Europe and his band made their way touring Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Chicago.37 Many curious audiences crowded the concerts to hear jazz - the new phenomenon. One paper reported,
How those boys do play slouchy supersyncopations, strange tones from squealing saxophones, slide trombone ‘blues,’ the muted cornet, exotic rhythms and barbaric chords – these are the elements which the musicians have used in developing their musical novelty…one of the best bands along conventional lines.38
Besides “On Patrol in No Man’s Land,” Europe and his band also popularized several other wartime songs such as “All of No Man’s Land is Ours,” and “Hello, Central. Give Me No Man’s Land.” These two songs featured the new technology of the telephone. Other war time tunes included, “My Choc’late Soldier Sammy Boy” which references the victory parade that the “Hellfighters” enjoyed upon their return to America and “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm” (“After they’ve seen Paree?”), a song that they modified to reference the strong contrasts in racial prejudices in America and the racial equality they enjoyed in France.39
Europe and his band were received with standing ovation wherever they went. However, ovations were only a byproduct. To Europe and the “Hellfighters,” they successfully accomplished their goals of making a positive change in American society and proved that their race was capable of commanding respect. The Chicago Defender’s report, Chicago’s leading black newspaper, summed up Europe’s efforts:
The most prejudiced enemy of our Race could not sit through an evening with Europe without coming away with a changed viewpoint. For he is compelled in spite of himself to see us in a new light….Europe and his band are worth more to our Race than a thousand speeches from so-called Race orators and uplifters.40
Europe must have felt proud examining how much they have accomplished, but that was about to be cut short. On May 7, 1919, following a recording session, Europe wasfatally stabbed by his drummer, Herbert Wright, who proved to be mentally unstable. Wright felt unappreciated and although Europe tried to reason with him, Wright was not going to take Europe’s answer. Europe’s passing took a toll across the nation especially the black community in Harlem. In response, New York City officials agreed to give him a public funeral – “the first one ever so granted to a black American in the city’s history.”41 Jim Europe and his “Hellfighters” passed many milestones and revolutionized their identity as proud Americans capable of competing against white standards. Not only did they introduce jazz across the Atlantic but they also proved to be brave soldiers able to withstand the issues of war and racism. Jim Europe’s efforts were crucial in the development of the “Harlem Renaissance” which would blossom in the 1920s.
6. Barbeau and Henri, 115.
7. Gero 2009, p. 42.
8. Encyclopedia Britannica article on Harlem Hellfighters https://www.britannica.com/topic/Harlem-Hellfighters. It would take three more years for the regiment to be organized due to underfunding and reluctance of whites to let blacks formally organize and join the war.
9. Eubie Blake once said, “He was our benefactor and inspiration. Even more, he was the Martin Luther King of music.” https://loc.gov/item/ihas.200038842
10. Watkins, p. 313
11. Maurice, pp. 99–105.
12. Watkins, p. 314
13. Badger, p.144; Europe’s budget to provide instruments and sheet music was raised by the John D. Rockefeller Jr, a supporter and admirer of Europe. Watkins, p.314
14. Badger, 154.
15. Watkins, p. 315
16. “Europe Writes From Europe” New York Age, July 28, 1918.
17. Badger suggests that Europe may have been the first to cross no-man’s land and participate in a raid on the German lines. p. 180
18. Badger, p. 177
19. Guttman, “Regiment’s Pride,” p. 37; This runs contrary to Barbeau and Henri’s statement that a majority of black troops did not make it to the front lines and that their “purpose was to put black troops into labor units not combat units.” While some black soldiers may have been assigned to noncombative roles because of their race, many of them achieved respect by showing their bravery on the battlefield.
20. Badger, p. 184
21. Little, p. 199 and Sissle, pp. 146-147
23. Sissle, p. 150
24. Cobb “Young Black Joe,” pp.7-8, 77-88.
25. Little, pp. 193-200
26. Sweeney, p. 149
27. Ibid. p.201
28. Report on the Activities in the World War of 369th United States Infantry (15th New York)=July 1, 1920 (PDF). Headquarters Division, New York Guard located in the George S. Robb papers at the Kansas Historical Society, Topeka, Kansas.
29. The existence of African American song leaders cannot be ruled out but there are no records of having black song leaders. Gier suggests that if there were black song leaders, they may not be mentioned because they were not hired by the CTCA. Gier, p. 89
30. Quoted in Badger, p. 180
31. Badger, p. 187
32. Sissle, 168 –169; see also Badger, 304 n. 39 and Watkins, 316
33. Upon their return to America, Europe arranged several recordings and concerts to bolster post-war recovery efforts. Further, this was an opportunity for Europe and the 369th to feature their musical abilities at home. The Pathe Record Co. recorded Europe and the 369th in four recording sessions, three between March 3 and 14, before the band went on tour, and a fourth session on May 7 while the band was performing in Philadelphia. Badger, p. 209
34. Quoted in “A Negro Explains ‘Jazz,’” 29; reprinted in Southern, Readings in Black American Music (New York, 1972), 240; Watkins notes that the leader of the French Republican Guard approached Europe after the concert and asked for a score of Europe’s jazz pieces, but he returned to Europe the following day and said that his French band failed to recreate the jazz sensation that Europe and his band were able to perform the previous day. Watkins, p. 317
35. Badger, p. 204
36. Watkins, p. 319; Badger, p. 206
38. “Europe’s Negro Jazz Band Makes Big Hit” Buffalo News, April 11, 1919.
39. Watkins, p.321
40. “Jazzing Away Prejudice,” in the Chicago Defender, May 10, 1919, 20.
41. Badger, 218