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