The Hellfighters of Harlem


The Hellfighters of Harlem: African-American Soldiers Who Fought for the Right to Fight for Their Country

Bill Harris (2002)

Carroll & Graf Publishers

From time to time ABSTRACTO will feature books that, at first glance, don’t appear to have “related to Latin music” stamped on the cover. The Hellfighters of Harlem by long serving NY Times writer Bill Harris, who has written over 200 titles including many on New York history, is one such book. The real interest here is the band of the 369th – this was led by jazz pioneer James ‘Jim’ Reese Europe and featured singer Noble Sissle, Puerto Rican musical icon Rafael Hernandez and a number of other important musicians who would help change the face of music in NYC and beyond in years to come. You can read a bit about the band here. Within the 256 pages are eight black & white photographs, a bibliography and an index.

Why you might buy it:
Well, unfortunately, not because of the content related to the band, its musicians and their influence on the future of music. You will read about racism, discrimination, politics, heroism, distinguished service and pride though – and all presented in a highly readable manner. As far as books related to Latin music go this is very much a ‘luxury buy’.

Why you might leave it:
This was the band that brought many Puerto Rican musicians into the new jazz genre, the band that brought jazz to Europe – yet this hardly features at all. Even as a book on the Hellfighters, lack of commentary about the band notwithstanding, the title is somewhat misleading as about half the book is actually about the experience of black soldiers fighting for their country (I’d say USA but as the American War of Independence features this wouldn’t be strictly accurate. Actually it is less straightforward than that as the Hellfighters had to fight under the French command during WWI). I started off by saying that from time to time ABSTRACTO will feature books that, at first glance, don’t appear to have “related to Latin music” stamped on the cover. Well, annoyingly, this one doesn’t really have “related to Latin music” on many of the pages either.


Prologue: why do we march?
Part 1: the Pride of Harlem
– Chapter 1: The return from fighting
– Chapter 2: Prelude to war
– Chapter 3: Over there
– Chapter 4: Henry Johnson’s war
– Chapter 5: C’mon and hear
– Chapter 6: The new negro
Part 2: Other times, other heroes
– Chapter 7: A new war to fight
– Chapter 8: A proud tradition
– Chapter 9: Sea change

Selected extracts (from):

Chapter 1: The return from fighting

By the time the procession had reached the 60th street reviewing stand, the roar of the crowd, estimated at more than 250,000, might easily have been heard all the way up in Harlem. But just then it got even louder. The soldiers were marching at a quick pace, and it took only seventeen minutes for the entire parade to pass the dignitaries and their families. It was hardly enough time for any of the soldiers to do much more than smile as they rushed past their wives holding up babies for approval.

The troops were followed by a pair of flag bearers who carried the American flag and the blue regimental standard decorated with a green and red ribbon that had a bronze medal attached to it. It was the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest military honor. It had been awarded to the entire unit.

Right behind the flags, riding in an open car, was Sergeant Henry Johnson, who had earned the medal on his own. It was the high pint of the parade, with shouts of “Oh, you wick-ed Henn-nery Johnson!” and “Oh, you black death!” every few feet. Johnson stood in the back of the car, with a bouquet of lilies, a gift from an admirer, in one hand, and his helmet in the other, bowing (“like a French dancemaster,” said one eyewitness) and grinning broadly to the crowd during the whole seven-mile trip up to Harlem.

When he finally stepped out of his car at the end of the march, a friend pointed to the bouquet of lilies he was carrying and said, “Looks like a funeral, Henry”.

The hero shot back, “Funeral for them bush Germans, boy! Sure, a funeral for them bushes!” Throughout the war, most Frenchmen called the German enemy the “boche,” but Johnson and his buddies turned that into “bush”, a reference to minor league baseball teams, called the bush leagues, and usually regarded as inept. They usually added the word “Germans”, so as not to offend any ballplayers.

As they paraded up the avenue, Johnson’s car was followed by a fleet of ambulances carrying the nearly two hundred Hellfighters whose wounds made the long march out of the question. But the parade was far from over.
The piece de resistance was the regiment’s band that brought up the rear. The World described them as “One hundred strong, and the proudest band of blowers and pounders that ever reeled off marching melody”.

Among their instruments was a drum that was captured from the German army, and five kettledrums that had been a gift from the French government. James Reese Europe, their leader, marched at the head of the band in the full uniform of an officer (he was the regiment’s highest-ranking black officer) complete with a sidearm. He had what was described as “walking pneumonia” that day, but he didn’t let that stop him. His musicians wouldn’t be stopped, either, no matter how exhausted they might have been.

The 369th had come back to New York aboard the French super-liner SS France a week earlier and the Hellfighters were sent out to Camp Upton at Yaphank on Long Island, a camp some of its men had built. They rode the Long Island Rail Road into the city for their triumph, and the band started to play as soon as the train left the station at six in the morning. They never took a break all day long.

The music they played was all military marches until they crossed 110th Street and marched on up Lenox Avenue. They were finally home in Harlem, and the band changed the beat to jazz when it struck up a tune called “Here Comes My Daddy”, and the syncopated rhythm didn’t stop for the rest of the afternoon…

Chapter 2: Prelude to war

The next step was formal army training, and the regiment was shipped down to Camp Wadsworth at Spartanburg, South Carolina, where they didn’t find a warm welcome from the locals, who said they were almost duty-bound to teach these New Yorkers to “know their place”. The local Chamber of Commerce filed a protest with the governor of New York, claiming: “The most tragic consequenses would follow the introduction of the New York negro with his Northern ideas into the community life of Spartanburg”.

Chapter 3: Over there

Although the Americans were ambivalent about their black soldiers, the French knew exactly what they were getting, and they were pleased by the prospect. They had been fielding colored troops in their army for nearly a century, and France’s black soldiers had been in the thick of the toughest fighting in Europe since 1914.

Chapter 4: Henry Johnson’s war

Edna Johnson was also later given the news that her husband had been singled out by former President Theodore Roosevelt, who knew a good fighting man when he saw one, and had placed her husband in his personal honor roll as one of the “five bravest men of World War 1”.

Chapter 5: C’mon and hear

On New Years Day, 1918, when the 15th Regiment first stepped ashore in France, its band struck up a rendition of “La Marseillaise”, the French national anthem, but no one in the huge crowd of curious French soldiers and sailors gathered on the pier snapped to attention. In fact, they didn’t show any sign at all that they had ever even heard this music before. The explanation was that they had never heard this music played this way before. As the bands leader, Lieutenant James Reese Europe, described it, the realization that this was their national anthem didn’t come over them until “…after the band had played eight or ten bars.”

Chapter 6: The new negro

A new age seemed to have dawned that cold morning in February 1919 when the Hellfighters marched up Fifth Avenue. Journalists, politicians, and ordinary Americans never seemed to run out of good things to say about them, as well as African-Americans in general. It seemed as though racism was finally on the run at last. At the very least, the Hellfighters had lit the spark of black pride in the City of New York.

Chapter 7: A new war to fight

By the time World War II began, the army had exactly black senior officers. Three of them were chaplains: the other two were named Davis.

Chapter 8: A proud tradition

Although none of the early records offer specific names or racial references, there are enough accounts sprinkled through Colonial histories to prove without any doubt that the early seventeenth-century settlers along the East Coast frequently called on blacks to help them keep the Indians from overrunning their settlements.

Chapter 9: Sea change

By December 1954, there were no more official restrictions facing black army personnel in any of the service branches.

[end of extracts]

Other Reviews:

Sea Power by Sherry L Gardner (Aug 2003 )
The distinguished 369th Combat Regiment, which started out as the 15th Regiment of Colored Infantry, was forbidden to serve under U.S. command-by Gen. John J. Pershing-and the unit was handed over to the French Army. The 369th went on to receive, as a unit, the French Croix de Guerre and saw the longest frontline duty in World War I of any American unit. Before, during, and after their feats on the battlefield, the men of the 369th were shadowed by racism and debates among their own civilian leadership over whether they should withhold support for the war. Harris presents a story of pride and accomplishment as well as chronicling the 369th’s contribution in the Pacific during World War II and in Iraq during the Gulf War.

Booklist (American Library Association) by Vernon Ford
The prevailing view that blacks were cowards excluded any consideration of enlisting them for military fighting duty in World War I. But because the nation was ill-equipped and low on manpower at the war’s start, black troops were called into active duty, including the 369th regiment rooted in a New York National Guard unit centered in Harlem. General John J. Pershing, who’d had good experiences with black troops, was a strong supporter of blacks as fighters. Still, black infantry was banned from serving under U.S. command and were assigned to the French army. Harris recounts the numerous black troops’ heroics and exploits, on and off the battlefield. He includes as a subtext the career of Lt. James Reese Europe, the black jazz pioneer whose band dazzled Europe and presented an American face often more appreciated in Europe than at home. Harris also provides an overview of black military involvement from the Revolutionary War through the Gulf War, highlighting history unknown by many. by Amy Knapp (2002)
While Bill Harris should be thanked for writing about this topic, the treatment he affords it is weak at best. The whole story of the 15th NYNG (later 369th Infantry) as told here is riddled with factual errors, ranging from the date of the creation of the regiment confused with its actual implementation, to having Colonel Hayward associated with it 3 years before he actually assumed command. References to other events are also wrong, most noticeably, the Houston Riot of 1917 which happened in the 24th Infantry, not the 8th Illinois. Harris wrongly refers to the 69th New York as a division named the “Rainbow Division” (the 69th was a regiment in the 42nd Division which was, and still is the “Rainbow Division”)and also states that the 15th NY (369th) was not allowed to participate in the parade with the 69th. Many other white New York regiments (7th, 12th etc.) did not parade with the 69 as they were not chosen to represent New York in the 42nd Division, and Harris is wrong when he refers to the 369th as being formerly the 15th New York. The 369th was not designated as such until after they were in France, at the time of the parade they were still the 15th New York. They were never a part of the 42nd division, although they had hoped to be included in it. Perhaps one of the most egregious errors is the continuation of the myth that Henry Johnson was buried in an unmarked potters field in Albany when in fact he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Conspicious by their abscence are any reference to primary source documents which exist both in this country and France, nor are any of the standard published works on African Americans in The First World War cited. Little’s “From Harlem to the Rhine” is used, as is Scott’s “History of the Negro in the World War”, but no other works on this period appear in the bibliography, and the former was written over 30 years ago and the latter at the conclusion of the war. There has been much scholarly work done since then. His overview of the African American experience in the US military is equally thin and again his bibliography omits many scholarly studies of this subject, focusing instead on unit histories or personal narratives. This book takes an important theme and does a poorly researched rush job to make it to press in time for the holidays. For a factual book on this subject one should still refer to Arthur Barbeau’s “The Unknown Soldiers” or Bernard Nalty’s “Strength for the Fight”. The experience of African Americans in World War 1 and in the US Military is a crucial theme in American history, to which this book does not do justice. We can only hope that someone else produces a beter work on it in the near future than Bill Harris has done with this.


3 responses

21 10 2007
Richard Blondet

First off, thank you for creating this much needed vehicle for exposing literary works on the music that we all share a great passion for.

As you stated, the “Hellfighters of Harlem” is much more about the Infantry’s role in WW1as it is about the Military Big Band that was within the infantry and directed by Lt. Jim Europe. Even so, amongst other books that revolve around the musical contingent that made up the “Hellfighters,” there is little to no information regarding the various Puerto Rican musicians who were recruited to participate and simultaneously serve in the U.S. Military during the height of WW1.

What does exist are some articles written by educators, archivists and audiophiles who have done research on the subject of several of these Puertorican musicians, as well as census records, photographs and even recordings, to determine what became of these musicians after the war. Readers who are interested in unearthing more information regarding the puertorican musicians who made up the 369th Infantry (under the French flag) would do well to go this route than rely on the books that have touched on the subject. Although, I would not dismiss them entirely as much of what is described in the experiences of African-American musicians in those pages are mirror-image to that of those Puerto Ricans who opted to stay in the U.S. and found work with African-American bandleaders, Broadway pit orchestras, Negro Musicals and other artists in musical genres as varied as ragtime, blues, calypso, and what was then described as “Hot” jazz. Having a passionate interest in this particular subject, this is the route that I have personally taken and it has been one intriguing revelation after another regarding some of these latino musicians, as well as other latin-american musicians who also served in the military and participated in other similiar Infantry Big Bands like the “Hellfighters.” So much so, that the story of there being a Puertorican connection to the emergence of American Jazz goes back even further than the advent of U.S. involvement in World War I and the “Hellfighters” themselves.

Of all the books touching on the “Hellfighters,” I strongly recommend the book authroed by Reid Badger entitled “A Life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe.” While this book also lacks in-depth info on any of the Puertorican musicians recruited by Jim Europe, it gives you a blueprint of James Reese Europe’s genesis in New York and his involvement with the New Amsterdam Musical Association (aka “NAMA” which is still around today) and the formation of his Clef Club Society. Two organizations that existed prior to his service in WW1and which included latin american musicians amongst its membership. Including the Puertorican Tuba player Rafael “Ralph” Escudero, who in my estimation (based on the evidence surrounding the early part of his career as an actively working musician in Harlem from 1914 to 1931) is a significant persona in making James Reese Europe and other bandleaders become aware of the talent pool that existed in the Caribbean, and in particular, Puerto Rico.

Once again, many thanks for creating this website for books on latin music and for giving a book such as “Hellfighters of Harlem” a platform on this site because if anything, it will demonstrate that no matter what musical genres or personalities there are stemming from different backgrounds, we are all connected in some way, shape or form.

– Richard Blondet

24 01 2012
April Hoy

Richard, a quick thanks for mentioning Ralph Escudero, whom I recently discovered is my Great Uncle. I’m doing family research and all these little pieces of the puzzle are so helpful!

22 08 2013

Hi! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after checking through some of the post I realized it’s new to me.
Anyhow, I’m definitely delighted I found it and I’ll be
bookmarking and checking back often!

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