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Minnesota National Guard
New York National Guard 369th Infantry: Black Citizen-Soldiers, American Heroes

Not only did the 369th Infantry embody the ideal of the Citizen-Soldier, by mobilizing to defend their nation and serving with great distinction, but it did it while experiencing harsh “Jim Crow” racism

The 369th Infantry, New York National Guard was made up completely of black Soldiers As part of US policy, black Soldiers had always been kept apart from their white counterparts, other than their white commanding officers They were almost always poorly equipped compared to the white regiments

New York Governor Charles Whitman was very specific in the man he chose to command the regiment Col William Hayward, a White public service commissioner who previously served in the Nebraska National Guard, was the unit’s commander He was already known and liked by New York’s black-American community, and he wanted the regiment to become a source of community pride

The 369th encountered racial prejudice from the moment of its inception The entire construction of the regiment, under the policies of the United States, pitted the odds against them

Some of the most intense racism the men experienced was during their mobilization train-up in Camp Wadsworth, SC White South Carolinians refused to treat the black Soldiers with the same dignity as whites, even though the Soldiers had volunteered to die for their country Violence broke out, especially when black-American Soldiers from the north balked at southern “Jim Crow” segregation laws

When the regiment arrived in France, race was not something the French troops paid much attention to, as they were badly in need of troops after years of brutal trench warfare The French persuaded Gen John Pershing to reassign the 369th and three other colored regiments to the French Fourth Army

In 191 days of under enemy fire, the 369th never lost a prisoner or gave up a foot of captured ground The regiment as a whole was awarded the French military honor, the Croix de Guerre, and 171 of the officers and troops received individual citations for bravery, more than any other American unit in the war

The mention of the unit’s French awards is significant because of the awards that were purposefully overlooked by US commanders Commanders in the US were more than reluctant to reward black Soldiers for excellent performance, which is an indication of the extent that racism penetrated American life

The respect given to the Soldiers by the French Army was surpassed by the amount of respect the enemy German Soldiers gave them The Germans began referring to the men of the 369th as Blutlustige Schwartzmanner – “Bloodthirsty Black Men” The French gave the regiment the nickname it would take into history – “The Hellfighters”

Pvt Needham Roberts, Pvt Henry Johnson, and Lt James Reese Europe were Soldiers who served with distinction made significant contributions to the war effort and to America

Pvt Roberts and Pvt Johnson fought off a German patrol after being wounded, attacking with knives and rifle butts when the ammunition ran out Three American journalists visiting the 369th to report on the band spread word of the battle back to the US Roberts and Johnson became national heroes, especially in the black-American communities

Europe was the first black-American officer to lead troops into battle during the war, but was also the 369th Band director who was responsible for introducing jazz music to the French
Despite having to simultaneously persevere against the Axis enemy abroad and the racism enemy at home, the 369th Infantry “Hellfighters” served proudly and contributed greatly to the Allied Forces victory in WWI The Hellfighters not only embodied the essence of the Citizen-Soldier, but they also did it, much like the 54th Massachusettes volunteers of the Civil War and the “Buffalo Soldiers” of the American frontier, in a time when their nation would not even recognize them as equal

By Sgt Joe Roos, Minnesota National Guard Public Affairs
Feb 11, 2008


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