When people tend to think about African-Americans and the military, they tend to think of the Tuskegee Airmen, who flew missions over Europe in World War II, or the Buffalo Soldiers, an all-African-American military unit who fought in the Indian Wars after the Civil War. Added to their roles is that of The Harlem Rattlers, a group of all volunteer soldiers who fought in the trenches during World War I.
Known by names such as The Harlem Hellraiser and Men of Bronze, the Harlem Rattlers were the 369th New York Infantry that formed after the United States entered World War I (1917). They faced discrimination at the hands of the military. For instance, they were not issued rifles to practice drill; the military feared that the soldiers would get into altercations with the local townsfolk. However, the resourceful Rattlers figured out a way to get the rifles they needed for drill. The U.S. government was giving away rifles for free to any rifle club that asked for them. Members of the Rattlers wrote to the government posing as the head of various rifle clubs to get the guns that they needed.
Receiving only one month’s training instead of the standard three to four months’ training, the 369th Regiment was shipped overseas where they were used for manual labor, digging tunnels and trenches, as well as acting as stevedores (men who load or unload cargo from ships). They finally got the chance to go into combat when their regiment was assigned to fight alongside the French. It was there that the Harlem Rattlers made history. They fought against the Germans for an astonishing 191 straight days, longer than any other American regiment during World War I.
Two members of the Rattlers distinguished themselves during battle. On May 14, 1918, Privates
Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts were on guard duty in the Argonne Forest in France when German troops came upon them. In the ensuing battle, Johnson and Roberts defended themselves from as many as 24 German troops, who initially captured Roberts and were going to take him as a prisoner. Pvt. Johnson used his bolo knife and his bare hands to rescue Roberts, while also killing as many of the Germans as he could. After the skirmish, both men were awarded the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest award for bravery.
Artist Horace Pippin also served with the Harlem Rattlers. Colonel Horace Pippin was shot during battle and lost the use of his right arm, temporarily sidelining his artistic aspirations. After the war, Pippin learned how to draw and paint without the use of his right arm. Pippin became one of the greatest self-taught painters of the early 20th century. His painting “Christmas Morning Breakfast” currently hangs in the Cincinnati Art Museum.
When the Harlem Rattlers returned from France, they were denied participation in the Rainbow Coalition parade—a parade designed to honor all the different sorts of troops who fought during the war. The Regiment continued to exist until the start of World War II, when the troops were divided up into different parts of the military. Soon, their stories were forgotten, until scholars and researchers in recent years began to resurrect their story.
For more information on the Harlem Rattlers, the definitive guide to the Rattlers is Jeffrey T. Sammons and John H. Morrow, Jr.’s book Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War: The Undaunted 369th Regiment and the African American Quest for Equality.
-Alan Jozwiak, Chatfield Instructor