How might French military forces, Jazz and a specially-created New York regiment connect with the Medal of Honor? Each is an element in one of the most fascinating stories of The Great War.
When President Woodrow Wilson addressed the U.S. Congress on April 2, 1917, war had been raging across Europe since 1914. He announced the end of the U.S. policy of neutrality and asked Congress for a Declaration of War against the German aggressors and their allies. While fighting on foreign soil would be costly, Wilson identified the nation's objective, "With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph — so help us God."
When the United States realized that it did not have enough soldiers, Congress inked the Selective Service Act of 1917, requiring all men, 21-30, to register for the draft, including African Americans. The New York 369th Infantry, comprised primarily of African American troops joined by some Puerto Rican recruits, was called into action, completed training and was deployed to France.
On April 8, 1918, the unit was assigned to the French Army, primarily because white American soldiers refused to serve with them, and they were accepted by the French troops with "open arms." After three years of devastating casualties, the French military welcomed assistance in their fight against their historic enemy, Germany. During the next few months, the Hellfighters fought from the French trenches, saw action in the Second Battle of the Marne and in the Allied counterattack in conjunction with the American drive in the Meuse-Argonne. On one tour, the Hellfighters were out for over six months, the longest deployment of any Great War unit.
The Harlem Hellfighters' valor in combat was recognized with two Medals of Honor and numerous Distinguished Service Crosses.
The most famous of the Hellfighters was Henry Johnson, originally from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who had moved to Albany, New York, as a young man. While serving on watch detail in France's Argonne Forest in May 1918, Johnson fought off a German raid in hand-to-hand combat, mortally wounding multiple German soldiers and rescuing a fellow soldier while experiencing an almost unbelievable 21 wounds. Johnson's story was heralded in the New York newspapers and in The Saturday Evening Post.
The French Government recognized Johnson's heroism with the Croix de Guerre with star and bronze palm, the first U.S. soldier in the Great War to receive that honor. While he became a hero for many citizens, the U.S. Army did not single him out for commendation. However, upon his return to the U.S. in February 1919, the newly promoted Sgt. Johnson participated, along with the Harlem Hellfighters unit, in a victory parade through New York City. For a brief period, he traveled the country, sharing the stories of his service and the courageous actions of the unit, but in 1929, he died in poverty, generally forgotten.
In June 1996, President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded the Purple Heart to Johnson and, in February 2003, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army's second highest honor, was presented to Herman A. Johnson, one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, on behalf of his father. On June 2, 2015, President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Honor to Johnson, received by Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard. The president's remarks included, "The least we can do is to say, 'We know who you are, we know what you did for us. We are forever grateful!'"
And, what about the connection to jazz? The story is a perfect footnote to the legacy of the 369th Regiment and Henry Johnson.
The "Hellfighters Band," whether playing for wounded soldiers during hospital treatment or entertaining troops during the silent moments between shellings, introduced an until-then unknown style called jazz to the British and French forces. By Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918, the "Hellfighters Band" had become one of the most famous military bands in U.S. history. As the leaders of the New York City parade honoring the returning Harlem Hellfighters, the band led the regiment members down Fifth Avenue, following a route that would eventually end in Harlem. The parade became a marker of African American service to the nation, and the band's music would help ignite a Renaissance in Harlem and a new campaign for civil rights.
Linda Moss Mines is the Chattanooga-Hamilton County historian, vice president for education for the Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center and regent, Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR.