The 15th Infantry, New York Army National Guard, with antecedents going back to the Civil War, was organized in 1913 and based at an Armory on Fifth Avenue just east of Lenox Avenue in Harlem. J. J. Pershing, known as "Black Jack" from his campaigns leading "Buffalo Soldiers" cavalry in Puerto Rico and the Philippines and Mexico, was quick to see the value of the 15th in the winter-spring of 1918.
Field Marshal Erich Ludendorff, supreme German commander and by then virtual military dictator of the Reich, was preparing an ultimate offensive on the Western front involving a massive deception on the Marne and a breakthrough in Flanders against the exhausted British. With war and revolution in the east and the disintegrating Ottoman empire exposing Germany's southern flanks, Ludendorff knew as well as his British and French counterparts that, this time, it was the final offensive in the war to end wars.
General Henri Gouraud, at the head of the French Fourth Army entrenched on the right bank of the Marne river -- scarcely an hour from Paris in armored vehicles -- asked Pershing for reinforcements. Pershing said the only troops ready for action were the Buffalo Soldiers and the 15th New York, already reorganized with other colored elements into the 369th Infantry. The core of the AEF's First Army, the Rainbow Division, was not ready and Pershing was fighting a staff battle at Allied HQ in Chaumont to maintain the integrity of American forces, under American command, rather than let our men be dispersed among French and British armies as they arrived.
Pershing made an exception because under Army policies, governed as they were by the same attitudes that had produced Plessy v. Ferguson just a few years before and to which he owed his nickname -- attitudes that had the full support of the C-in-C, the champion of making the world safe for democracy -- colored troops (as they were called) were relegated to labor and support battalions. Pershing, who had started out in life as a teacher in Negro schools on the frontier before seizing an opportunity to attend West Point, had no racist bones in his body, but he was a hard and realistic man and he had a war to fight.
The Harlem regiment had left their army base in Spartanburg, S.C. in a hurry, as vicious feelings on the part of other enlistees and the surrounding communities had very nearly led to race riots. Moreover, as a support battalion they had proven themselves a smashing success: their regimental band, led by the legendary James Reese Europe and including the famous Noble Sissle, was touring France with a repertory of popular favorites and patriotic medleys and, especially, a new music that was having a wild success and that would be America's signature cultural contribution to the world in the years after the war.
Pershing was badmouthed as a martinet and a desk general; the reality of course is that he had been a fighting officer in Puerto Rico and the Philippines and Mexico, where he had put an end to Pancho Villa's mischief, and he understood better than some others the requirements of staff organization in conditions of total, industrialized war. Teddy Roosevelt had not erred in promoting him from captain to general ten years before (the president cannot interfere with the regulations governing normal promotion through the ranks, but he can appoint general officers). How did Pershing reply to Gouraud's request? Surely not with an apology, but possibly he hesitated just for a moment, concerned as he was to keep all doughboys under his command. On the other hand, he knew these doughboys wanted a chance to prove themselves.
Gouraud, for his part, was delighted. A little younger than Pershing (both men were in their late 50s), he had spent most of his career in Africa and liked his colonial troops as well as Pershing liked his colored cavalry. He had lost his right arm at Gallipoli and regained control of the Fourth Army after some insistence. He was a fighting general. He told the 369th to keep their uniforms and their rifles but trade their pancake helmets for the characteristic ones of the French army so there would be no mistakes. He won their hearts immediately. Europe and Sissle led the band in a spirited Marseillaise and the men cried "Vive Gouraud!" as they headed to the Marne.
Twenty-six years later, at a jagged rock in Normandy called Pointe du Hoc, a group of Rangers began an ascent, with ropes, under enemy fire. Their objective was a battery that overlooked the Omaha and Utah landing beaches. Commemorating the occasion forty years later, Ronald Reagan said:
The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers at the edge of the cliffs, shooting down at them with machine guns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After two days of fighting, only ninety could still bear arms.
Assigned to the 161st Division of the Fourth Army, the 369th distinguished itself during what became known as the Second Battle of the Marne. The Allies turned the German diversion into a decisive turning point, setting up the great counter-offensive in the Meuse-Argonne in September. Here again, the 369th, which had been on the line longer than any other American unit of any size, distinguished itself, capturing the important objective of Sechault in Champagne. They did not lose an inch of ground and had no men taken prisoner except two who were immediately retrieved. The hardened German troops gave them a name they proudly accepted: the Harlem Hellfighters.
During Second Marne, two privates on guard duty, Henry Lincoln Johnson and Needham Roberts, fought off a platoon-sized German attack (24 men), using their rifles and bayonets when they ran out of ammunition and sustaining severe wounds. Pvt. Johnson was awarded the French army's Croix de Guerre (star and Gold Palm), the first doughboy so honored.
These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. [Reagan was addressing veterans who had made the journey to Normandy.] These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.
[And, as President Reagan said, there were others.] There was the impossible valor of the Poles who threw themselves between the enemy and the rest of Europe as the invasion took hold, and the unsurpassed courage of the Canadians who had already seen the horrors of war on this coast. They knew what awaited them here, but they would not be deterred. And once they hit Juno Beach, they never looked back.
All of these men were part of a rollcall of honor with names that spoke of a pride as bright as the colors they bore: the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Poland's 24th Lancers, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the Screaming Eagles, the Yeoman of England's armored divisions, the forces of Free France, the Coast Guard's "Matchbox Fleet" and you, the American Rangers.
General Gouraud credited the 369th with being one of the key factors in breaking Luddendorf's final offensive and making possible the September counter-attack that ended the war. What General Pershing thought in his heart of hearts has not been recorded, but he had no objections when Gouraud sent the 369th across the Rhine, the first Allied troops to invade German soil. The armistice went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the fourth year of the Great War. Armistice Day became Veterans Day, the day when we remember and honor those of whom Reagan spoke, using the words of Stephen Spender, those, whose "lives fought for life… and left the vivid air signed with your honor."
(The author thanks Richard Richardson for his research on Gen. Pershing.)
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