The Harlem Hellfighters and Black Death

In late April 1918, the German troops opposite the French in the Argonne Forest began a series of trench raids and reconnaissance patrols in preparation for the third phase of the Spring Offensive – Operation Blücher–Yorck, whose objective was Paris. The Germans were surprised to find not French troops but African American soldiers of the 369th US Infantry.

Formerly known as the 15th Regiment of the New York National Guard, the 369th was re-designated when they got to France in the First World War. The 369th was recruited primarily from Harlem, where 50,000 of New York’s 60,000 African Americans lived. When they landed in France on New Year’s Day 1918, the regiment was assigned supply, labor and support jobs because many of the American regiments from the South refused to train with them. When the Germans launched their Spring Offensive in March, the French were in need of men to fill their trenches. However, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General John “Black Jack” Pershing, was under orders from President Wilson that American troops were to fight together, and not used as replacements for British and French casualties. Pershing recognized that because of the discrimination, it would be difficult to assign the 369th to an American division. By assigning the 369th to the French, under the strict provision that they fight as a regiment, Pershing was assisting his distressed French allies and getting the 369th into the fight, while still adhering to the letter of Wilson’s orders, if not the spirit.

In early April 1918, the 369th was assigned to the 16th French Infantry Division. Because American equipment would be difficult to get in the French army, the 369th turned in all of their American equipment, except their uniforms, and drew French equipment, including weapons. They were then assigned to partner, man for man, with a French regiment for three weeks of grueling training behind the front. In the mid-April 1918, the 369th took their place in the trenches opposite the Germans.

On the night of 15 May, a 24 man German patrol crept through No Man’s Land opposite the 369th. In a small listening post to the front of the American trenches, Pvts Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts heard the distinct clip of wire cutters. Johnson told Roberts to run back to the trenches to warn the rest. Just as he departed the first German grenades landed. Johnson was wounded by shrapnel in the hip and back, but Needham was nearly killed. Johnson threw his own grenades. Then as the Germans charged, he shot three with his French rifle, the last with muzzle directly in the chest of the German. Johnson then noticed two Germans trying to carry off Needham. With no time to reload (the French Labille Rifle only had a three-round magazine), Johnson pulled his US Army issue bolo knife, essentially a Filipino machete, disemboweled one German, and then sunk the heavy blade into the skull of the other. By this point the rest of the German patrol arrived, so Johnson attacked them too. His aggressiveness and ferocity surprised them. In the ensuing melee, Johnson suffered 21 separate wounds, but drove the Germans off and saved Needham.

The German patrol stated later that they had been assaulted by “Black Death”, and the name showed up in propaganda specifically directed at Johnson. The name stuck.

The French awarded both Johnson and Needham the Croix de Guerre, the first American soldiers to receive the honor in the First World War. Over the 191 consecutive days of combat the 369th fought in, their French partner referred to the unit as the “Harlem Hellfighters”. That name stuck too.

The Harlem Hellfighters hold the honor of having served the most time in combat of any American unit in the First World War. President Obama awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor to Henry Johnson on 2 June 2015. The medal was received by the New York National Guard, as there was no next of kin.

The End of the Desert War

On 7 April 1943, the Americans and British of Eisenhower’s Allied Expeditionary Force, advancing from the west met Montgomery’s Eighth Army advancing east, forcing the Germans and Italians into a pocket ringed by mountains around Tunis. A month of hard fighting pushing the passes commenced. However, with both the American capture of Bizerte and the British capture of Tunis on 6 May, the Axis forces in North Africa were doomed. Allied air and sea superiority, mainly operating from Malta, cut off all paths of escape for the Rommel’s Panzer Armee Afrika. (Though Rommel was recalled before that could happen and he turned over command to GenLt Hans-Jürgen von Arnim.) On 13 May 1943, 270,000 of the best and most experienced, not to mention irreplaceable, German and Italians troops surrendered to Allied forces in Tunisia. This was the largest surrender of German troops so far in the war (Only 90,000 surrendered to the Soviets at Stalingrad, although the German casualties there were much higher).

The Allies were not prepared for the large amount of prisoners. General Eisenhower would remark, “Why didn’t some staff college ever tell us what to do with a quarter million prisoners so located at the end of a rickety railroad that it’s impossible to move them and where guarding and feeding them are so difficult?” In spite of the difficulties, they were cared for and transported, and most would end up in prison camps in the continental US.

In the two and half months since the American rout at Kasserine Pass, the U.S. Army came of age in the mountains and passes of Tunisia. The hard lessons of basic discipline, warfighting, and soldiering dearly paid for by their fathers and grandfathers in the Philippines, Mexico, and on the Western Front in the Great War were relearned at the cost of much blood, treasure, and time in North Africa. The US Army that made the Run for Tunis was a very different animal than the peacetime army that landed in Morocco and Algiers six months before during Operation Torch. Moreover, the Tunisian campaign solidified the military senior leadership that, for the next two long years, would lead the Allied armies on the difficult road to Germany. They would become household names by the end of the war: Eisenhower, Alexander, Montgomery, DeGaulle, Patton, Bradley, Horrocks, Harmon and Juin, among many others.

The War for North Africa was over and the War for Sicily and Italy began.

The Battle of Attu

On 11 May 1943, the 17th Infantry Regiment of the US 7th Infantry Division invaded the Aleutian island of Attu which had been occupied by the Japanese a year earlier. The rocky terrain, fanatical resistance, and arctic weather conditions caused thousands of casualties on both sides. On 29 May 1943, the 1200 remaining Japanese defenders banzai charged their attackers and broke through the American lines. The Japanese attack was only stopped after vicious hand to hand combat with the regiment’s rear echelon troops. The Japanese secretly withdrew from the nearby island of Kiska shortly thereafter. The Battle of Attu was the only battle fought on US territory in North America during the Second World War.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

When the Germans conquered Poland in late 1939, they rounded up everyone “with Jewish blood” and forcibly moved them into walled off ghettos. In the Polish city of Warsaw, 400,000 Polish Jews and other National Socialist undesirables were packed into an area of only 1.3 square miles. In the autumn of 1942, Nazi Germany began “liquidating” these ghettos by rounding up a set daily quota of the inhabitants and sending them to the gas chambers. In Warsaw that number was as high as 5,000 a day to the Death Camp at Treblinka.

At first, the Jewish leaders thought that those collected were just being transferred to labor camps and didn’t fight the arbitrary detentions. But eventually the truth became known. By 1943, less than 100,000 Jews were left in the Warsaw Ghetto, many of whom were in hiding. In response, Jewish resistance groups formed with support from the Polish Home Army and eventually fought back against the quota detentions in January. The surprisingly fierce and widespread resistance caused the Germans to stop the deportations until sufficient strength could be gathered to crush them.

On 19 April 1943, the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto resumed. 2,000 SS troops backed up by tanks and 5,000 policemen arrogantly marched into the seemingly quiet and deserted streets. On a pre-arranged signal Jewish ambushes were sprung on the unsuspecting Nazi’s. The initial German assaults were repulsed by the fierce Jewish defenders. They were armed with Molotov cocktails, homemade grenades, small arms, and the fanatical resistance of people who have nothing left to lose. Defeat meant immediate execution, and for their families, hiding in homemade bunkers around the Ghetto, a cattle car to Treblinka. That afternoon, the resistance raised the red and white Polish flag and the blue and white flag of the ZZW (the largest Jewish group in the Ghetto) over Muranowski Square. Embolden by this show of defiance, other Polish resistance groups came to the aid of the Jews by attacking the Germans in other areas of Warsaw and smuggling supplies into the Ghetto. However, the approximately 1,000 Jewish defenders were under no illusions that they could save themselves. Their only hope was that the news of the uprising would make its way to the outside world, and expose the National Socialists for what they really were.

The Germans continued to attack and the battle in Warsaw raged for the next 11 days. The uprising was a great embarrassment to National Socialism: for the Germans to be stymied by “untermensch” or “sub-humans” was contrary to all of their racial propaganda. Hitler authorized the subjugation of the Ghetto his highest priority and flooded Warsaw with additional troops and supplies. With practically unlimited support, it was only a matter of time before the Germans overcame the resistance. Nevertheless, the Germans had to resort to using poison gas and burning down the entire Ghetto before they declared victory in May. The German commander, Juergen Stroop, marked the end of the operation with a small twisted ceremony in which the highlight was his personal pressing the detonator button demolishing the Great Synagogue of Warsaw.

Stroop reported killing “about 13,000” and capturing 56,065 Jews at the end of the operation to “cleanse” the Ghetto. 7,000 were immediately sent to Treblinka and gassed over the next few days. Because Treblinka could not “process” so many prisoners so fast, the remainder were sent to other camps in the General Government (Germany’s official name for Poland, since the word “Poland” was outlawed.), primarily the Majdanek Concentration/Death Camp inside the city of Lublin. Those not immediately gassed were eventually murdered when the Nazi’s liquidated that camp in November.

The outside world ignored the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, despite a frustrated Jewish member of the Polish Government-in-Exile committing suicide over the British unwillingness to do anything concrete to help the defenders. However, the Uprising was a great inspiration to the Polish Home Army and led directly to the general Warsaw Uprising a year later. The Polish Home Army managed to rescue about 400 Jews from the Ghetto, and several hundred more continued to hide in the rubble, sometimes for weeks, until they could escape.

After the war the survivors would form the Lohamei HaGeta’ot kibbutz (literally “Ghetto Fighters” in Yiddish) in northern Israel.

Military History For All (1962)

The immediate reaction is that if I as an officer can and will only suffer an excursion into the realms of history under the prod of promotion, how can our subordinates be persuaded to indulge? I believe that if we look back after the smoke and fog of the examination battle has cleared we will admit that our studies weren’t really that difficult and in some instances to our amazement our military history texts were fascinating and illuminating. I recall that when I was studying for a set of examinations in Wainwright in 1957 I put off reading Chester Wilmot’s Struggle For Europe time and again because it appeared at a glance to be such heavy going, until I could delay no longer Military History was to be written the next day. I forced myself page by page into the maze until suddenly I was caught up by the spirit and enthusiasm of the author. I read all night, completely fascinated, berating myself for having neglected such a magnificent treatise for so long. I suspect that the reluctance I did played in my studies is not uncommon. It was probably built up over the years by listening to unhappy examination aspirants and by reading a few obtuse texts on compulsory reading programmes. This reluctance to pursue the study of military history is understandable but will not bear up under exposure to the enlightened reading list available to any of us today.

Military History For All (1962)

Operation I-Go, Operation Vengeance, and the Death of Admiral Yamamoto

Japan needed to regain the initiative after the losses of Guadalcanal and eastern New Guinea and the defeat in the Bismarck Sea. It was painfully obvious to the Imperial General Staff that the Allies were attempting to neutralize the critical Japanese base at Rabaul by island hopping up the Solomon chain to New Georgia.

Throughout early April 1943, Japanese Army and Navy conducted Operation I-Go from bases in the northern Solomon Islands to counter the Allied build up. The plan was developed over the month of March by Japan’s master strategist and architect of the Attack on Pearl Harbor, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. I-Go was a massive joint aerial offensive against Allied shipping and airfields that was to prevent further Allied landings in the Solomon Islands. It was exceptionally successful in severely damaging Allied logistics infrastructure and much needed shipping, which significantly delayed Allied preparations. However, without any amphibious operations to retake Guadalcanal and the southern Solomons, I-Go would ultimately not stop any operations.

On 14 April, Adm Yamamoto’s staff began preparations for him to visit outlying fighter squadrons in order to congratulate them on a job well done. However the Americans knew the exact times and routes of Yamamoto’s movements because American code breakers deciphered the radio transmissions. Japanese army intelligence suspected the navy’s code was compromised, but the “Divide and Conquer” method of governance by Japan’s totalitarian and militaristic system precluded them from warning the Japanese Navy. Moreover, Japanese commanders in the area were worried about these visits but they didn’t want to lose face caused by any perceptions that they couldn’t protect Yamamoto. Yamamoto himself knew the mission was too dangerous, but refused to lose face in the eyes of the pilots who were already told to expect him.

Over the next two days (!?!?!), a miraculous and singular, never-to-be-repeated episode of US government operational security and efficiency happened when the entire American chain of command up to FDR was briefed, and approved Operation Vengeance to assassinate Yamamoto. On the morning of 18 April 1943, 18 US Army P-38 “Lightning” fighters, with drop tanks for extended range, took off from the new Kukum Field on Guadalcanal and intercepted Yamamoto over the island of Bougainville. That the P-38s intercepted Yamamoto’s aircraft is a testament to the Lightning pilots’ skills in navigation (helped by Yamamoto’s legendary punctuality). Adm Marc Mitscher, (We will hear his name again) the air commander in the South Pacific, commented that, “It’s a thousand-to-one that they even see him.”

Yamamoto was in a G4M2 “Betty” bomber and had six “Zero” fighters for an escort. Another Betty carried the rest of his staff. In the ensuing dogfight, both of the bombers were shot down, killing everyone on board both aircraft. Adm Yamamoto was Japan’s best naval strategist, but more importantly he was the only officer in the Japanese military with sufficient respect to force coordination between the near violently rivaled Japanese Army and Japanese Navy. The Japanese would not be able to successfully coordinate a joint Army/Navy operation for the rest of the war.

The Battle of Pork Chop Hill

By 1953, the Korean War’s front lines had stagnated roughly half way down the Korean peninsula just north of Seoul. 800,000 dug in Chinese and North Korean troops looked across miles of heavily fortified hills at 650,000 dug in American, South Korean and United Nations’ troops to the south. At this point, the Korean War had more in common with World War I than the recent fight with Germany and Japan, and neither side could launch a major offensive without unacceptable losses. Constant patrolling and artillery duels were the norm, with the occasional attack on isolated outposts to draw media attention. These small scale battles over hilltops reminded the people at home that the war in Korea was still being waged. These company and battalion-sized actions had dramatically out sized propaganda significance compared to any meager military value the hills conferred from changing hands.

In April 1953, Easy Company, 1/31st Infantry Regiment, 7th Inf Division held Hill 255 opposite a battalion of 141st Chinese Infantry Division. The hill was previously garrisoned by a Thai battalion who had nicknamed it “Pork Chop” because of its shape on the topographical maps. The name stuck. Pork Chop Hill was exposed to attack from three sides because of the loss of “Old Baldy”, a hill to the north, to a Chinese attack on its Colombian defenders several weeks before. However, Pork Chop couldn’t be abandoned without appearing weak at the peace talks in Pannmujom. The Chinese waited for a stall in these talks before launching any attack in order to make the most use of its propaganda effect. The stall came on 16 April. That night the Chinese launched a massive artillery bombardment and attacked Pork Chop Hill with two infantry battalions.

The Chinese surprised and quickly overran the trenches of Easy’s forward positions and methodically cleared the Americans from the remaining bunkers with grenades, flamethrowers and sheer numbers. In a desperate last stand, First Lieutenant Thomas Harold rallied about a dozen men at the Command Post bunker on the reverse slope, thus preventing the Chinese from capturing Pork Chop Hill outright.

Alerted by LT Harold, Love Company and King Company of the 1/31st Inf, led by 1LT Joseph Clemons (K Co’s Commander), prepared to retake Pork Chop. (A young first lieutenant was the senior officer on the ground for a two company assault. Think about that for a second.) At 0430 on 17 April they began their assault up the hill. Love Company was destroyed by Chinese artillery, but King managed to recapture the southern third of Pork Chop and relieve Easy, who numbered exactly eight men at this point. However the Chinese sent another battalion into the fight. For the rest of the day, King Co and the remnant of Easy fought to retain their toehold on the back slope of Pork Chop, without any reinforcements or resupply except for the 12 remaining men of Love Co who staggered in later in the morning. Fortunately, the Chinese were having their own difficulties penetrating the ring of fire that American artillery rained down around Pork Chop preventing them from attacking King Co en masse.

In the late afternoon, George Co 1/31st Inf was sent to “mop up” and was surprised to find the fight raging, supplies low and casualties high. Due to a misunderstanding, George was pulled off the hill almost immediately, much to LT Clemons’ dismay. He was now down to 25 men, including the remnants of Easy and Love. He pulled them all to the top of the hill and waited for the inevitable final Chinese attack just after dusk. They had been in close contact, including hand to hand combat, for almost 20 hours. Most of the men were using captured Chinese weapons.

At 0100, 18 April 1953, the Chinese finally attacked. They forced Clemons’ and his remaining die hards into the Chow Bunker, where the Chinese prepared to use satchel charges and flamethrowers to finish them off. Luckily for the defenders, George Co’s commander convinced his and Clemons’ superiors of the gravity of the situation on Pork Chop and they finally authorized more reinforcements. Just as the Chinese nighttime attack started, Easy Company 17th Inf Regt, sprinted up the rear slope of Pork Chop without consideration of Chinese artillery fire and struck the Chinese attack head on. Although they took casualties, their bold move was probably all that saved Clemons and the remaining defenders from an inevitable death in the confines of the Chow Bunker.

The battle raged for another two days and consumed five more American companies and ten Communist battalions before the Chinese conceded. Of the 500 men in Easy, King and Love Companies of the 1st Battalion 31st Infantry, who fought on Pork Chop Hill between 16 and 18 April 1953, only 12 would walk off the hill, including LT Clemons.

On Grand Strategy

“A gap has opened between the study of history and the construction of theory, both of which are needed if ends are to be aligned with means. Historians, knowing that their field rewards specialized research, tend to avoid the generalizations upon which theories depend: they thereby deny complexity the simplicities that guide us through it. Theorists, keen to be seen as social “scientists,” seek “reproducibility” in results: that replaces complexity with simplicity in the pursuit of predictability. Both communities neglect relationships between the general and the particular—between universal and local knowledge—that nurture strategic thinking. And both, as if to add opacity to this insufficiency, too often write badly.”

Truly Grand Strategy

The Battle of Sullivan’s Island

While the British regulars were locked up in Boston throughout late 1775 and early 1776, Americans in the remaining colonies threw out most of the British and loyalist officials. When Howe evacuated Boston, two large expeditionary forces were made available to Howe: one under Gen. John Burgoyne that went to lift the siege of Quebec, and another under Gen. Henry Clinton, which sailed south.

In June 1776, Britain’s only friendly harbor north of the Caribbean was in Nova Scotia. And another was needed to effectively subdue the colonies. With only 4000 men New York and Virginia were out of the question, so Clinton headed south to the supposedly friendlier Carolinas and Georgia.

Clinton sought to link up with Scottish loyalists from the backwoods of North Carolina. However, when he arrived off of Cape Fear, he found out that the Scots were defeated at the Battle of Moore’s Bridge two weeks before so he headed further south to Charleston, South Carolina.

In colonies that were prepared to fight against the Crown, South Carolina was close to the top of the list. Charleston was the third largest city in the colonies, the center of patriot resistance in the south, and home to most of the arms manufacturers in the Southern colonies. Thousands of Scots-Irish patriot militia poured into the city from the backwoods, and fortifications defending the city were started in late March 1776. Unfortunately, they were not completed when Adm Peter Parker’s flotilla of eight warships appeared off the coast in June with Clinton’s men. The northern entrance to Charleston Harbor was guarded by a half finished fort on Sullivan’s Island commanded by COL William Moultrie with 500 men and thirty pieces of artillery. Only two walls of the “fort” we’re started. But they were thick and consisted of palmetto log retaining walls filled in with sand, and had firing platforms for the guns.

On 28 June 1776, Clinton’s men attempted to march on the rear of the fort by fording from nearby Long Island while Parker destroyed the it with cannon fire and landed marines. But the ford was chest deep, and a small blocking force prevented Clinton from ferrying across. Nonetheless, Parker was confident he could complete the task himself.

Parker opened fire and Moultrie responded in kind. To make up for a relative lack of gunpowder, Moultrie’s gunners made every shot count, greatly damaging the fleet. Parker’s fire was continuos and heavy but the spongy palmetto logs absorbed the shot. Most accounts of the battle note the logs of the fort “quivered” when hit instead of splintering. But that didn’t help the men on the platforms whom took a terrible pounding. The high watermark of the fight came just before dusk when the flag Moultrie designed was struck down fell outside the walls. SGT William Jasper yelled “We shall not fight without our flag!” and ran through the fire to grab it. He fastened it to a cannon swab so the city could see it since the flag staff was broken. The act inspired the defenders and they increased the rate of fire, so much so that when dusk fell, Parker decided that any further bombardment would just get his barely floating ships sunk.

Unable to force the narrows, Clinton’s men reboarded. Parker returned to the bigger Long Island to join with Howe’s substantially larger invasion of New York later in July.

The Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the beginning of serious American involvement in Vietnam in 1965 began a new and more volatile phase in America’s Civil Rights Movement. The booming post war economy of the 50s and early 60s couldn’t keep up with the competing fiscal requirements of enforcement of the CRA, Johnson’s Great Society Programs, and the Cold War. A combination of Southern Democrats (for mostly racial reasons) and Northeastern Republicans (for mostly economic and political reasons) consistently steered money away from urban programs creating a widening economic gulf in America. In response to this, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, at the forefront of America’s Civil Rights Movement, organized the Poor People’s Campaign in late 1967 and early 1968, focusing on jobs and income for America’s urban poor.

As part of this campaign, Dr. King traveled to Memphis Tennessee in March 1968 to give support to the plight of black sanitation workers who received unequal pay and benefits compared to their white counterparts. Memphis was no stranger to Dr. King: he was there often and routinely stayed in the same hotel, even the same room. At 6pm on 4 April 1968, a gunman, James Earl Ray, took advantage of this situation. Ray shot and killed Dr. King as he stood on the 2nd floor balcony of his usual room in the Lorraine Hotel. Ray would escape, but would be captured in London two months later.

Later that evening, at a campaign stop in Indianapolis, Senator Robert Kennedy learned of Dr. King’s assassination. He had one last campaign speech to make that day but he tore up his remarks. During this impromptu address he gave one of the most memorable speeches in American history. He focused on Dr. King’s belief of non-violence and abhorrence of racial divisiveness. He concluded by saying,

“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”