The Harlem Hellfighters and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team’s tale begin with world wars and domestic tensions.
In both World War I and World War II, units fought units in Europe with kinetic energy and professional violence at a scale unseen in human history.
These two conventional wars, acting in a massive geospatial theater, had a unique way of cultivating patriotism, energizing industry and technological advancement in belligerent nations, and bonding citizen populations under the banner of a cause bigger than self.
Battalions became borderline sports teams with their own domestic fandom, celebrating battlefield exploits at home like they had won a national championship.
In the United States, both World Wars had that energizing effect in the public sphere. With great dismay, the World Wars also took place during some of the darker periods in American history, specifically the residual racial tensions in the wake of chattel slavery, and the heightened public fear and government internment of US-Japanese citizens in WWII.
To put it bluntly, Caucasian men fought the nation’s wars, save a small demographic of African Americans who could enlist, yet limited to menial support roles and not afforded leadership opportunities to the same degree as their white counterparts.
In WWII, Japanese Americans were far from desirable within the ranks of the armed forces. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed “Executive Order 9066” during the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. That directive sent thousands of Japanese citizens into internment camps as a “way to prevent domestic espionage”.
Despite the segregation and racial tensions, members of marginalized populations still helped the war effort.
Some became legends.
The Harlem Hellfighters: “Don’t tread on me, goddamn, let’s go!”
“Don’t Tread on Me, God Damn, Let’s Go”—the colorful motto of New York’s 369th National Guard Infantry Regiment, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” were not your average unit. Not because of some sort of advanced tactics or capability, but since African Americans primarily manned it, the bulk of which hailing from Harlem.
After its formation in 1913, the unit had a long period of training, but no deployment taskings. That changed in 1917 after being shipped overseas to support WWI. The 369th‘s original mission was to support the Services of Supply, who handled logistical support for the American Expeditionary Forces.
Even though the men were ready to fight in combat, higher command would not let them. The reason?
Cleaning latrines and unloading cargo ended abruptly, however. The war claimed substantial European lives, and the need for reinforcements turned into desperation.
Field commanders submitted a request to higher command for the 369th to re-orient their mission to a combat focus, which was inevitably approved. The white commander of the regiment, Colonel William Hayward, had profound thoughts about his command decision to grant the units entry into the war. In a letter, Hayward wrote: “A fairy tale has materialized… We are now a combat unit… Our great American general simply put the black orphan in a basket, set it on the doorstep of the French, pulled the bell, and went away.”
What the 369th did in combat was profound. Their actions showed a reoccurring spirit amongst the black community in the US, throughout the periods of slavery, Jim Crow (which was relevant at the time), and the 1960s civil rights movement – the spirit of strength.
A unit devoid of inter-service support or acceptance turned into the premier infantry force in WWI, and France was their testing ground. The command embedded the 369th with the Fourth French Army, where they received a short period of tactical training. Coincidentally, it is said they received a warmer welcome from the foreign troops than their US counterparts.
In April of 1918, the 369th entered the war front in the Champagne region. By the end, they served the longest period in the front lines from the US side throughout the duration of the war; 191 days, to be exact.
The Germans named them Hellfighters as a reference to their fierce battlefield presence. By the end of the war, the Harlem Hellfighters were national heroes back at home, making headlines in newspapers, and winning over the hearts and minds of the people.
Henry Johnson was a soldier from the unit that was eventually awarded the sacred Croix de Guerre from the French military for bravery, and recently in 2015 posthumously, the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery showed in combat. He reached celebrity status in the US and earned the moniker “The Black Death”.
Upon returning home, the Harlem Hellfighters were met with parades and fanfare. It was apparent how much of an impact they had on the public who, in the age of print media, had to rely on journalism and written storytelling to learn about overseas affairs.
Not long after their homecoming, the unit faded out of the spotlight. The public they came home to was under the dark spell of Jim Crow, segregation in the South, and general racial animus towards the black community. Outside of the legend of Henry Johnson, the Harlem Hellfighters became a forgotten piece of common history.
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team: “Go for broke”
Nisei are second-generation Japanese Americans, who at the time could freely work and live in the United States, despite the ongoing conflict with the Japanese homeland. In the wake of the Pearl Harbor attacks on the 7th of December 1941, the acceptance of them within the US population drastically shifted.
There was a dual nature of the attacks. On one hand, they launched America off the sidelines and straight into WWII. On the other, they exposed an unforeseen vulnerability in the nation’s defense.
The US was not only untouchable from a foreign adversary, but they identified a realistic domestic threat—the threat of espionage—conducted by Nisei citizens who were loyal to Japan.
President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 placed Nisei in internment camps and stoked fear and prejudice of and towards them within the American public. Likewise, Nisei couldn’t serve in the armed forces, and carried the “enemy alien” designation from the government.
In Hawaii, home of the largest Nisei population in the US, a group of Nisei college students, including ROTC cadets, petitioned to the Hawaii governor for the right to support the Army as a gesture of kindness. They wanted to show that they loved the US, were loyal to it, and despite the racism and persecution they faced, would still be willing to serve it.
The “Varsity Victory Volunteers” formed out of that request, and assisted the Army in infrastructure projects on the island of Oahu. Much to their benefit, their benevolence reached the radar of local military leaders. According to the Go For Broke National Education Center:
“Their dedication and willingness to serve their country in whatever way possible made a significant impression on military officials. The Varsity Victory Volunteers finally got their chance to fight. On January 28, 1943, the War Department announced that it was forming an all-Nisei combat team and called for 1,500 volunteers from Hawaii. An overwhelming 10,000 men volunteered, including many men from the VVV.”
On the 1st of February 1943, President Roosevelt activated this newly formed unit of Nisei, who were designated to be the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team trained for about one year, which resulted in a strong unit cohesion and proficiency in training scenarios. On the 22nd of April 1944, they departed for enemy lands, destination Europe.
In theater, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team dominated. From France to Italy, the latter of which being where they helped support the 92nd Infantry Division, another segregated unit of African Americans.
According to the National WWII Museum,
“Today, the 442nd is remembered as the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of the US military. The unit, totaling about 18,000 men, over 4,000 Purple Hearts, 4,000 Bronze Stars, 560 Silver Star Medals, 21 Medals of Honor, and seven Presidential Unit Citations.”
The unit motto “Go For Broke” is a gambling term derived from Hawaiian slang. In translation, it means to “risk it all in one effort to win big”. One honest look at the valor and achievements demonstrated by the 442nd, and it would be impossible to say they did not.
Segregated units, unified valor
The 369th Harlem Hellfighters and 442nd RCT have a selection of shared experiences. Both were a part of a world war, both distinguished, and both warriors in the European front.
What makes them special is their segregated nature. Men who had every reason to resent the very nation that caused their ethnic groups so much damage.
Marginalized service members from both units went straight into the heat of battle, and fought with the same, if not more, intensity than their white brethren. The records of service and awards from both units show the pedigree amongst their ranks, despite having to face the enemy of racism in the US, before they could ever reach the line of departure.
The United States prides itself on being the land of the free, home of the brave. The Harlem Hellfighters and 442nd show that freedom was partially carried on the backs of those who didn’t possess it to begin with.