Harlem Hellfighers By : Tori Morgan B2

Nearly 100 years later, Pvt. Henry Johnson was finally awarded a Purple Heart for his courage and astonishing battle skills during WWI. After hearing of this news, my mother informed me that her grandfather had been apart of that regiment and they were called the "Harlem Hellfighters".I never knew much about my heritage, so I took it upon myself to learn more about him and what war was really like from the perspective of a black man in war. While digging through my grandmothers attic, I found a book full of journal entries from the years throughout the war...

10/15/1915

Dear Journal,

Sad news has spread throughout the world. It seems as though the war will not be ending soon like we hoped. More and more countries are joining in and I fear that we will also be pulled into the mix. We as a country cannot figure out how to effectively run a just democracy, so how does President Wilson expect us to be a part of a creating just world? The amount of segregation and laws still in effect is at an all time high. It seems every week there's another lynching occurring in the city, for as small reasons as a black man looking at a white man the wrong way. What has come of this world? What did we ever do to deserve this kind of treatment?

Samuel Carter

2/22/1917

Dear Journal,

What I feared has come upon us: the USA is finally joining in on the war. Coming as even more of a shock, they are allowing us black men to enlist. The gates are flooded with men going to put their name down. Seeing all of these men sent millions of questions through my head because I figured, why go fight for a country that doesn’t even want me.

The other day, in between blows to the railroad with the immensely heavy sledgehammer, I asked my pal Johnson why he went to enlist. He explained to me that, “What if after the war, they finally start seeing us as real people? By us willing to give our lives to the war, it will show to the whites that we appreciate this country and that we belong”. Huh, I never thought of it that way... With Johnson’s thought in my mind, I made my way to enlist myself into the military. I sure hope that what he said really happens and life be easier when we return home.

Samuel Carter

6/5/1917

Dear Journal,

The letters of recognition came in the mail, officially showing that I am truly in the military now. No turning back now. It states that we are to report to Camp Whitman in Poughkeepsie, NY in 3 days time. Even with circumstance, I’m excited to see what land looks outside of Harlem.

In the letter it also informed me that I would be apart of what’s called the 15th New York colored Regiment--name pending-- and that they had to make cuts to who they were allowing to go overseas( They said more than 2.3 million black soldiers had registered). When I asked around at work, many men had been rejected that I knew due to “unspecified” circumstances.

3 days later....

We have officially arrived at Camp and my stomach is a knot of nerves. All of the commanders are white, including Colonel William Hayward, and they treat us even worse than the people back home. Calling us cruel names and telling us how we are too stupid to go out into real battle. Little do they know my momma made sure that I was able to read and write accurately when I was younger. She wanted to make sure no man, of any color, would be able to make me look like a fool.

They started having us lift heavy supplies into ships and train cars to be sent off to help out in the war. My hands and back ache from the constant bending to grab boxes full of ammunition. Blisters are forming on my palms from the rubbing of ropes. This is even worse work than the railroads.

Samuel C.

8/9/1917

Hello Journal,

We’ve been shipped off into battle in France. We are now supposed to be fighting for the French, because America said they had enough fighters and didn’t think that we had the ability to add any useful help to the white soldiers. The french have been surprisingly accepting. They are actually allowing us to fight in combat. Our raged filled manners act as our motivation in battle and our commanders are extremely impressed with us.

But not is all fun in games. The trenches are so bad, I wouldn’t wish my worst enemy here. The ground is constantly soggy from the rain which makes it impossible to stand crouched without continually slipping. Small bugs have begun to burrow in our clothes and the smell of blistering feet is overwhelming. I cannot remember the last time that I took a shower.

Samuel C.

12/25/1917

Merry Christmas Journal,

At least I’m almost positive it is Christmas. Time seems to stand at a still in the trenches and it seems as though the war will never end. I’ve received word from back home in a letter from my family about what life is like for them. They tell me or horrid stories of lynchings and riots breaking out. They describe one from back in August of how a group of white men decided to attack a regiment based in Houston,Texas. More blood is being shed for our acceptance into society. I thought the war was going to help change this?

S.C.

6/19/1918

Journal,

I witnessed one of my friends die this afternoon. I held tight onto him as the light left his eyes. So many men have died for this war, when is it going to be enough? Our regiment was taken back to refuge tonight in order to let us rest up and get as clean as we can for the next week or so. I am grateful for the time to rest but I feel like I should be back out there fighting to end this horrid affair.

The Germans have taken notice of our battle strategies and aggressiveness and granted us the nickname the “Hellfighters”. Some men are offended, but most of us take it as a complement, because it means that they are afraid and threatened by us. Our commanders on the other hand have been oddly colder towards us. Rumors spread that America is threatening the french to be meanders towards us because they fear it will go to our heads and make us feel as though we can revolt. A revolt doesn’t seem that far from what I’ve heard from back home.

S.C.

1/23/1919

Journal,

We will be returning home soon! The war has ended, with the blame and damage being thrown on Germany. Though it comes as a happy thought to return home, all I can think about is all of the men who I saw die right in front of my eyes. I will have these mental scars for the rest of my life. My dreams have turned to nightmares, waking me every morning by my screams. I hear the sound of gunfire and explosions every time I lay down to sleep.

We are having a small celebration appreciating the brave men among us before our journey home, especially Pvt. Henry Johnson. He single handedly warded off German soldiers with only a knife all the while having been severely injured in the foot! As many as 30 people may been apart of the attack and he was able to ward ALL of them off. Now that’s a true hero.

S.C.

2/17/1919

Oh journal,

We are finally home. Tears are streaming down all of our faces as we see the millions of people lined on the streets welcoming us home. We have never felt so accepted than we do right now. Our numbers may have dropped to a meek 3,000 men, but we feel as grande and shiney as skyscrapers as the crowds scream their praises at us.

This seems nothing like the America we left a few years back. Full of acceptance and appreciation towards us. Maybe the time for change is finally upon us.

Samuel Carter

These letters truly blew me away. I knew the war was hard for men and women of color but I never knew how much death and struggle went into to fighting for my freedom. My appreciation for my great grandfather has grown immensely and I hope to learn more about him and what others have done for not just me, but everyone fighting for equality in this world.

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