Ar­chiv­ist un­cov­ers story of WWI ‘Harlem Hellfighters’ sol­diers in photo

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - RETROPO­LIS BY MICHAEL E. RUANE michael.ruane@wash­post.com

The nine African Amer­i­can sol­diers were just home from the war. It was Feb. 12, 1919, and most were bun­dled in heavy coats as they posed for the pho­tog­ra­pher on the deck of the USS Stock­holm.

Mem­bers of a heroic black com­bat reg­i­ment, the men looked se­ri­ous as they paused on deck amid the coiled ships ropes — their French war medals, the Croix de Guerre, pinned to their gar­ments.

The pho­to­graph is one of the best known pic­tures from World War I, and the men had all been iden­ti­fied. But a re­tired Na­tional Archives se­nior pic­ture ar­chiv­ist wanted to know who, ex­actly, they were.

“The faces just cap­tured me,” the ar­chiv­ist, Bar­bara Lewis Burger, said Fri­day. “And I wanted to know more about these peo­ple. I wanted to breathe some life into their ex­pe­ri­ences.”

Last week, Burger wrote a blog post on the Na­tional Archives web­site de­tail­ing what she found.

“They were pretty rep­re­sen­ta­tive of African Amer­i­cans in the big city around that time,” she said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “Some were more ed­u­cated than oth­ers. But for the most part . . . they were rel­e­gated to . . . lower mid­dle class, work­ing class jobs.”

One man, Daniel W. Storms Jr., was 33 when he en­listed as pri­vate in 1917. He earned an in­di­vid­ual Croix de Guerre for gal­lantry in ac­tion. Af­ter the war, he worked as a jan­i­tor and el­e­va­tor op­er­a­tor. Three years af­ter the photo was taken, he died of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis.

Henry Davis Pri­mas Sr., of Charleroi, Pa., who also re­ceived an in­di­vid­ual Croix de Guerre for brav­ery, had a phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal de­gree from the Uni­ver­sity of Pitts­burgh when he en­listed in 1917.

He served with a med­i­cal de­tach­ment, and af­ter the war he worked as a phar­ma­cist and for the post of­fice.

Ed Wil­liams, Burger thinks, may be the 21-year-old pri­vate who was se­verely wounded on Sept. 30, 1918, dur­ing bit­ter fight­ing with the Ger­mans at Séchault, France — a strug­gle that took the men through ma­chine gun fire, poi­son gas and hand-to-hand com­bat, ac­cord­ing to a his­tory of the reg­i­ment.

The nine men, whose names ap­pear in a typed pic­ture cap­tion of the In­ter­na­tional Film Service in the Archives, were mem­bers of the 369th In­fantry Reg­i­ment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters.

The New York City-based unit was famous for its prow­ess in bat­tle and the in­dig­ni­ties it suf­fered at the hands of many white of­fi­cers. Dis­crim­i­na­tion was so bad that the reg­i­ment was shunted off to fight with the French army and were equipped with French hel­mets and French ri­fles, his­to­ri­ans say.

“The his­tory of the reg­i­ment is well re­searched and doc­u­mented, in­clud­ing its ill treat­ment and un­der-uti­liza­tion by Amer­i­can forces in France,” Burger wrote. “At the time, many Amer­i­cans, in­clud­ing mil­i­tary lead­ers, be­lieved African Amer­i­cans lacked the in­tel­li­gence and courage to fight.”

“The 369th proved the skep­tics wrong and went on to achieve a re­mark­able com­bat record,” she wrote. It served “more time in con­tin­u­ous com­bat than any other Amer­i­can unit [and] . . . fought for 191 days on the front, the long­est of any unit.”

The French gov­ern­ment awarded the reg­i­ment the Croix de Guerre and be­stowed 171 in­di­vid­ual medals for valor, Burger wrote.

The out­fit’s ranks in­cluded mu­si­cians, fu­ture pub­lic fig­ures, an even­tual re­cip­i­ent of the Medal of Honor — Pvt. Henry John­son’s was be­stowed in 2015 — and the artist Ho­race Pip­pin, who chron­i­cled parts of the 1914-1918 war in art and words.

“They were al­ways ready to go and they did go to the last man,” Pip­pin wrote of his bud­dies.

But lit­tle seemed to be known of the nine men in the famous pho­to­graph, ac­cord­ing to Burger.

“Af­ter years of be­ing in­trigued by this hand­somely-com­posed im­age and the de­meanor of the nine . . . I de­cided to find out as much . . . as I could about their lives,” she wrote.

The pic­ture was taken right be­fore the reg­i­ment marched in a huge home­com­ing pa­rade in New York City.

She scoured avail­able pub­lic records on the In­ter­net and came up with nine mini bi­ogra­phies — some more de­tailed than oth­ers.

In ad­di­tion to Storms, Pri­mas and Wil­liams, she found:

Cpl T.W. Tay­lor, 23, of Win­stonSalem, N.C., a post of­fice driver and cook in New York be­fore he en­listed in 1917. He, too, earned an in­di­vid­ual Croix de Guerre for hero­ism in bat­tle. Af­ter the war he worked as a cook on a steamship and died in 1983, in Bay­onne, N.J., at age 86.

Pvt. Al­fred S. Man­ley, who was 19 when he en­listed 1917. His nick­name was “Kid Buck.” Af­ter the war he worked as a driver for a laun­dry com­pany. He died in Ne­wark in 1933.

Pvt. Ralph Hawkins, 19, of El­iz­a­beth, N.J. A hazy por­trait emerges of a young man whose Croix de Guerre in­cluded a Bronze Star for ex­tra­or­di­nary hero­ism. Af­ter the war, he worked as a la­borer with the New Deal’s Works Progress Ad­min­is­tra­tion, and in 1942 reg­is­tered for the World War II draft. He died in Philadel­phia in 1951.

Pvt. Leon E. Fraiter, 21, of Charleston, S.C. Af­ter the war, he mar­ried, had two sons and worked as a jewelry store sales­man. He died in 1974.

Pvt. Joe Wil­liams. Burger found a Joseph Wil­liams in Com­pany C who was slightly wounded in ac­tion on or about Nov. 10, 1918, the day be­fore the war ended.

Pvt. Her­bert Tay­lor, 22, of Com­pany B was wounded on Sept. 29, 1918, pos­si­bly dur­ing the bat­tle for Séchault. Af­ter the war, he worked as a la­borer in New York City and in 1941 reen­listed in the Army. He died in 1984.

Burger worked for the Na­tional Archives for 30 years be­fore she re­tired in 2007 as a se­nior still pic­ture ar­chiv­ist. A stu­dent of African Amer­i­can his­tory, with deep fam­ily roots in Wash­ing­ton, she said she got to know the nine. Was she par­tial to any­one? “Storms,” she said. “I just liked his face. He looked like a tough guy.”

In “a lot of pho­tographs of African Amer­i­cans, the in­di­vid­u­als are not iden­ti­fied,” she said. “In this case, they were. So [they were] like wait­ing for some­body to do some­thing.” More at wash­ing­ton­post.com/ news/retropo­lis

NA­TIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS AD­MIN­IS­TRA­TION

Mem­bers of the 369th In­fantry Reg­i­ment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters, were pho­tographed just be­fore they marched in a huge home­com­ing pa­rade in New York City in 1919.

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