The 369th Infantry Regiment served on the front lines for 191 days during World War I, longer than any other American unit. In that time, the Soldiers of the regiment, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” never gave up any ground it captured. (Photo: National Archives)
“There are good men and bad men of all nationalities, creeds and colors; and if this world of ours is ever to become what we hope some day it may become, it must be by the general recognition that the man’s heart and soul, the man’s worth and actions, determine his standing.” Theodore Roosevelt,in a letter written on September 1, 1903, Oyster Bay, New York.
Roosevelt’s words of equality were wishful, but not practical. In 1903 vigilante groups were still hanging innocent black men throughout the South, sometimes daily, and certainly weekly. They were untried, and justice was not part of the equation. The Chicago Tribune reported that between 1882 and 1903 at least 3337 African Americans had been lynched, and likely even more. The state and federal governments turned their backs and acted as if it was normal. A group of ten white men beat Father Joseph Meiser nearly to death. He was a Catholic priest, who was living in Texas, and, his church included many recent Irish and Italian immigrants. Father Meiser had been dragged from his church into the street, in order to make the beating a public spectacle. His crime was simply that he opposed public education, especially for Catholic children. Again, nothing was done and authorities were not passionate to pursue justice.
By the early twentieth century Native Americans had been reduced to only a few hundred thousand individuals, down from their peak of 5 or more million during 17th century in America. Despite being the original owners of American soil, the vast majority of Native American were not recognized as citizens. A cultural line had been intentionally drawn to include some people as true “Americans” and exclude others. To suggest that America was a racist nation in 1900 is an understatement. Racism, bigotry, and xenophobia was institutionalized in our culture. It was like breathing air, so natural, that even President Wilson thought that the showing of the film “Birth of a Nation” at the White House in 1915 was a good idea. “Birth of a Nation” was a highly racist film about the old South, and depicted the Klu Klux as heroes. As World War I approached, it was not difficult to imagine who main stream America imagined as their true patriots.
With the advent of World War 1, the expectations of a glorious American victory along with imagined acts of valor were a national buzz. Well before the troop ships left our harbors, most Americans had already etched into their minds what a war hero was supposed to look like. As the new century began, America was pre-occupied with defining its own self, the reality, however, was that the views of mainstream America were largely shaped by the inherent biases and prejudices existing at the time. With the call up for troops in 1917, there were low expectations for those considered on the outside of mainstream thought. Skin color, religion, and origin of birth, largely dictated the overall meaning of American. Between 1880 and 1920 nearly 23 million immigrants entered the United States from Europe, many came from England, France, Ireland, Austria, Poland, Russia, and Germany, all from nations who were already participating in the conflict.
President Wilson’s administration tried engaging with the public to focus on the themes of “patriotism, heroism, and sacrifice.” Even Wilson, when considering the draft, suggested that it was not really a draft at all, but a “selection from a nation which has volunteered in mass.” Wilson was naïve about the willingness of all, to serve, and, he was also out of touch with some of the discriminatory practices used by a number of local draft boards.
By early 1917, and just prior to entering the war, the standing army of the United States amounted to only 120,000 soldiers. The massive call up of troops, of course, was led by the federal government, but much of its work was deferred to the local draft boards. These boards were given near complete power to organize and make draft decisions. Although the number of men drafted was certainly significant, 12% of the eligible men in the nation were considered draft dodgers. Some draft boards turned a blinds eye to these dodgers, also referred to as “slackers”, but, others relentlessly pursued a targeted group of people. In Georgia, one board exempted forty-four percent of the white draftees for physical reasons, while only three percent of the black registrants in the county were exempted. It is well documented that Southern postal workers would sometimes withhold the registration cards for eligible black men, and then notify the local authorities to arrest them for being draft dodgers. There is significant research which suggests that the majority of eligible African Americans were anxious to join, seeing military service to their country as an opportunity to prove themselves as Americans. Many times white men who owned farms and had families were either not drafted or were drafted late in the war, while black men with similar situations were drafted first. The largest portion of draft dodgers (33%) came from the Southern states.
There are many examples of the deep seated bigotry, racism, and xenophobia that existed. Instructors at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point embraced the ideology of Charles Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest. When considering integrating the military with non-whites they believed in the “harsh and cruel struggle for survival through racial conquest and domination.” The faculty warned against the amalgamation of “superior” and “inferior” races, for whom “extinction not absorption is the ultimate fate.” This opinion was also supported by the Chief of the War College Division of the General Staff, saying this of Native Americans ability to assimilate into the white culture “inclines them to think in Indian terms only and to hold themselves as a class apart with interests distinct from those of other citizens is undesirable and contrary to the object of the institution and to the best interests of the United States.”
Military leaders also expressed doubt about the loyalty of new immigrants, especially Germans and Jews. The news media, both American, as well as some European, led the way in fanning the flames of division by creating misguided stereotypes of non- white races and specific ethnic groups. Life Magazine referred to New York City as “Jew York” in a reference to the perceived clannishness of Jews, suggesting that Jews could not be counted on to support a military effort. A number of European newspapers, especially German ones, expressed “disgust” that the United States would enlist Native Americans and African Americans to “fight white men.”
In the March 1, 1917 edition of the Oregonian, in a clear reference to immigrants “the difficulty of administering justice when Chinamen, Italians, Greeks, and what not, who are constantly bounding over the bounds of law and order in the commission of crime.” The anti-Catholic newspaper, The Menace (October 6, 1917) stated that the “Vatican was responsible for the blood being shed in Europe, and that “Pope Benedict is the real Kaiser.” The Menace had a circulation of nearly 2 million readers in America. In an attempt to further incite unrest towards immigrants, former President Theodore Roosevelt addressed a crowd in Long Island, New York on July 4, 1917, and spoke directly about the concerns of the loyalty of German Americans. Roosevelt’s speech appeared in the Olympia Daily Recorder, July 4, 1917, and, he stated “For over two years Germany has heaped insult upon injury on our people. Now we are at war with Germany, yet many of these persons, supported, of course by professional pacifists, continue to champion Germany’s cause as against the cause that we are fighting. The time has come that we insist that they drop their dual allegiance and in good faith become outright Germans or outright Americans.” Roosevelt was correct, in that many recent immigrants were torn in their allegiance to the United States or their birth country. In fact, between 1915 and 1917, 500,000 German Americans and nearly 100,000 Italian Americans left the United States, and returned to their respective nations, and enlisted in their armies.
It was abundantly clear that mainstream America felt that the tenets of patriotism and valor extended only to white nativists. In reality, however, non-whites and recent immigrants showed a great deal of spirit in joining the ranks of the military. African American men eagerly accepted the call, and, in such large numbers that within one week of President Wilson’s declaration of war, the War Department had to stop accepting black enlistees because the quota for African Americans soldiers was met. Charles Brodnax, a black farmer from Virginia recalled, “I felt that I belonged to the government of my country and should answer to the call and obey the orders in defense of democracy.” Over 200,000 Jewish Americans served during the war, so many, that the army changed their policy related to military clergy, and included Jewish chaplains, along with Protestant and Catholic. Approximately 30% of the adult male Native American population served in the war, and, in some tribes, as many as 70% of the men. Eager to prove their worth as Americans, Native Americans enlisted, because they were not considered citizens, and were not eligible for the draft. In a newsletter written in 1917 by Indian leader Dr. Montezuma, he stated, “They are not citizens. They have fewer privileges than have foreigners. They are wards of the United States of America without their consent or the chance of protest on their part.” According to the Provost General of the United States “the ratio of Indian registrants inducted was twice as high as the average of all registrants” In regards to the German Americans who stayed and served, it was reported by the Omaha World-Herald on September 5, 1918, that, “loyalty and patriotism of German extraction found to be stronger than many of the “easy going” native sons.”
African American soldiers were segregated from the rest of the the troops, and many were initially relegated to jobs that were not combat related. By late 1917, the French army(our ally) was in such a desperate situation that they requested additional combat troops. The French, like the British army, had spent much of the war on the front lines fighting the Germans. U.S. Army General Pershing responded by loaning the French army 40,000 troops from the all black 92nd and 93rd Division of the army. Despite the language issues and the re-training needed, African American soldiers performed exceedingly well, and were treated as equals by the French army. Corporal Henry Johnson acting alone, defended a position against a raiding party of Germans using only a pistol and a knife. He killed several of the enemy, and wounded many more. Johnson sustained 21 wounds from hand-to-hand combat, but, his bravery allowed another soldier, who was also wounded, to escape capture. Johnson and his comrade Needham Roberts both received the French Croix de Guerre for their gallantry, being the first American soldiers to receive this coveted award. Asked about his heroic actions Johnson stated: “There wasn’t anything so fine about it, just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that.” The medal, also referred to as the “War Cross” was awarded to those who show heroism in combat. From July 18 to August 6, 1918, the 369th Infantry, also part of the same Divisions and nicknamed the “Harlem Hell Fighters,” showed their patriotism by helping the French 161st Division drive the Germans from their trenches during the Aisne-Marne counter-offensive. The African American division fought in the front lines for a total of 191 days, five days longer than any other regiment in all of the American forces. France awarded the entire unit the Croix de Guerre, along with presenting 171 individual awards for exceptional gallantry in action. Henry Johnson’s award was later elevated to The French Croix de Guere with Gold Palm, which is the highest military honor bestowed by the French government. Former President Theodore Roosevelt named Johnson as “one of the five bravest men who fought in World War I.” Johnson, like the other African American medal recipients, however, did not receive similar recognition from the U.S. government. In 2012, Henry Johnson was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery and courage.
Unlike African Americans, Native Americans were integrated with white soldiers during the war, and, were allowed to fight in every major offense that included American troops, earning many commendations for heroism and bravery. Native Americans soldiers, like African Americans, were also loaned to the French army, and, earned at least 10 Croix de Guerre for valor from the French, and an additional 150 individuals earned other commendations for valor in battle.
One of the most significant contributions that Native Americans made to the war effort had to do with their special language skills which facilitated coded communications. The U.S. Army used Navajo, Choctaw, Osage, Comanche, Cheyenne, and Sioux soldiers to transmit messages in their native languages. These “Navajo code talkers” were also used in World War II and many historians give them credit for creating the secret code that helped the U.S. defeat Japan, and end the war. Largely due to their war contributions, all Native Americans were granted full U.S. citizenship in 1924.
Out of the 3 million American troops who participated in World War I, nearly half were recent immigrants. Some of these new citizens had to make a decision between their loyalties to their original birth nation, and to their new country. Some had immigrated in part to escape the long military service required by many European nations, but other immigrants were eager to enlist in America’s armed forces to serve their new country. A French solder in 1917 described the heterogeneous character of American troops in Europe: “You could not imagine a more extraordinary gathering than this american [sic] army, there is a little bit of everything, Greeks, Italians, Turks, Indians, Spanish, also a sizable number of boches, (Boches was a term used to describe Germans) In some units, three-quarters of the recruits could not speak English. The Army usually placed draftees of the same ethnic group together for basic training. In an article about “true patriotism” the Omaha World-Herald (Thursday, Sep 05, 1918) quoted a German American soldier who was asked about fighting against his own family members, “Our hearts are with Germany, but our heads are with America.” Thirteen earned the Medal of Honor for their courageous actions on the battlefield during World War I.
As the war ended, and the soldiers returned home, some of the news media quietly reported on the patriotism of some of the unlikely heroes. In New York City a parade was held on February 17, 1919 to honor the black troops, the “Hellfighters” who fought with our French ally, because the American army did not want them on the front line with white soldiers. The band kicked off the procession with a French marching song, full of “bugle fanfares,” reported the New York World, as well as “saxophones and basses that put a new and more peppery tang into it.” The heroism of Native Americans was being displayed in a number of newspaper articles throughout the nation. Here are a few of the headlines: “Indian War Heroes Men of Sturdiness and Endurance” (June 20, 1918, Oregonian); “American Indians Real Heroes in Battles Against the Huns”, (June 29, 1918, Jackson City Daily News). In the April 30, 1918 edition of the News and Observer, (Raleigh, N.C. “Indians Big Factor in the War”) the article stated “the war attitude of the Indian has been a revelation of patriotism.”
In a number of cases Native Americans had volunteered for the more dangerous war assignments, and their mortality rates were considerably higher than others. In 1919, as the war ended, Congress recognized full citizenship to all Native Americans who had served in the war, and by 1924, all Native Americans were finally given full citizenship, largely due to their involvement in the war. Many recently arrived immigrants were also honored with Purple Hearts, Bronze and Silver Stars and other recognitions of valor. Michael Valente, a Medal of Honor recipient, noted the importance of this recognition when he said, “I did not forget, while the President was conferring the award, that he had decorated an American of Italian origin — and that through him honor can come to all Italians who emigrated here.”
The larger, and louder parades, were reserved for America’s native son’s. Alvin York, from Tennessee, was one of the most decorated American soldiers of the war, and he described in his memoirs how afraid he was at being “throwed” in with a bunch of “foreigners”, but, the experience caused him to dedicate his memoirs to “the Greeks, Irish, Poles, Jews, and Italians who were in my platoon … They were my buddies. I jes learned to love them.” In the armed forces, immigrants learned how to be American and native-born Americans learned to get along with immigrants.
For a moment, everyone who had served was a hero. All neighborhoods rejoiced having their heroes home. The minority ones, however, felt that their soldiers had accomplished much more than just participating in the horrors of the World War I. They had advanced, in some ways, their race, their ethnicity, and their people, as Americans.
A brief list of sources used, not including the various newspapers already cited:
A History of the Service of Ethnic Minorities in the U.S. Army, by Rhonda Evans
America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, by Anatol Lieven
Fighting for Respect: African-American Soldiers in World War I, by Jami L. Bryant
Immigrants in the Military During World War I, National Park Service
Jewish Threat- Anti-Semitic Politics of the U.S. Army, by Joseph Bendersky