Hidden History of America's Black Soldiers
1. 54th Massachusetts Infantry
While most of the men who served in this all-Black unit did not originally hail from Massachusetts, they traveled there to enlist to fight the Confederates nonetheless after Gov. John A. Andrew put out the first call for Black soldiers following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. While their first siege was a disaster and almost half of the unit was killed, they became a formidable force during the rest of the war. A memorial now stands on Boston Common to commemorate the bravery of the regiment — which included two of Frederick Douglass’ sons — and their white commander, who was killed in their first raid.
2. Buffalo Soldiers
After the Civil War, six all-Black regiments were sent to the western frontier and became known as the buffalo soldiers. (The name may have derived from Native Americans comparing their curly hair to a buffalo’s fur.) These troops were on the front lines of American westward expansion, tasked with protecting railroad lines and settlers, and earned 18 medals of honor for their service during the Indian Wars. Though they were continually discriminated against — they weren’t allowed to serve back East for fear of violent pushback from white citizens — the buffalo soldiers had the lowest desertion rates of any regiment in the Army.
3. Harlem Hellfighters
The first Americans to receive the French Croix de Guerre were Privates Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts for their heroics against 24 German raiders in World War I. They belonged to the 369th Infantry, known as the Harlem Hellfighters. Most of its members were from Harlem, and the regiment’s band was credited with introducing jazz to France. They served under the command of the French army, battling the Germans on the front lines longer than almost any other American unit. They even earned a parade down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue at the end of the war.
4. Balloon Battalion
Take a closer look at the familiar images of D-Day when the Americans stormed the beaches of Normandy, and you might notice something unusual: balloons. Barrage balloons were anti-aircraft floats manned by the first Black regiment to storm Normandy’s beaches. Three men would keep a balloon’s cables tethered and adjust its altitude, forcing enemy aircraft to fly higher to stay above them. That made enemy planes less accurate, protecting the troops on the ground.
5. The Forgotten Theater
Many of the Black Americans who served in World War II did so in the often overlooked China-Burma-India theater, the goal of which was to fight Japanese troops on a new front in addition to the Pacific theater. Thousands of Black men were assigned to build a critical road connecting those three countries, and though road construction might seem a pleasant way to spend a war, they had to fend off leopard and tiger attacks. One regiment was so deep in the Burmese jungle that it didn’t learn about the end of the war until two months later.