WWI heroes: Two Morristown men won medals with Harlem Hellfighters, famed African American unit


Soldiers of the 369th (15th N.Y.) who won the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action, 1919. From the National Archives
Soldiers of the 369th (15th N.Y.) who won the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action, 1919. From the National Archives

By Carolyn Dorsey, North Jersey History and Genealogy Center

During World War I, it was problematic for African Americans to participate in the war effort. At the turn of the 20th century, overt racism was part of daily life for African Americans who regularly experienced segregated housing and education, were turned away from well-paying skilled jobs, and for whom speaking up invited the threat of violence and intimidation.

As America entered the war, a large number of black Americans viewed military service as a patriotic duty and a means to demonstrate their love of country.

Many also joined the armed forces with the hope that in helping to defend democracy they might achieve equality under the law and finally obtain the dignity and respect afforded to all lawful Americans. However, state and federal law presented a number of obstacles that first had to be overcome.

In 1913, President Wilson issued an order that officially segregated all offices of the federal government. Furthermore, while the war department recruited and drafted African Americans soldiers, it continued to assign them to segregated units where few served as officers and many were given duty in labor battalions.

The soldiers at training camps lived in segregated housing where they were denied access to YMCA services and other benefits that all other soldiers enjoyed on base.

Harlem Hellfighters at train barricade Courtesy of NYPL photo collection
Harlem Hellfighters at train barricade, in French uniforms    Courtesy of NYPL photo collection
Colonel William Hayward

Approximately 350,000 black Americans served during the First World War, and 200,000 were deployed to Europe in segregated units with the American Expeditionary Force.

One of several segregated infantry regiments raised at this time was the famed “Harlem Hellfighters.”

First organized in 1916 as the 15th New York National Guard Infantry Regiment, the U.S. Army’s 369th Infantry Regiment became the most well known African American unit of the First World War.

Commanded by Colonel William Hayward, the regiment benefited from his support and leadership. Hayward had been a judge in Nebraska for two years when he entered politics in 1903. He served in public office for several years in Nebraska.

William Hayward as Secretary of the Republican National Committee
William Hayward as Secretary of the Republican National Committee

In 1911 he moved to New York with his wife, where he was appointed Assistant District Attorney in New York County, and then New York State Public Service Commissioner.

Hayward was instrumental in organizing, recruiting,and training the 369th regiment.  He used his political connections to support the regiment, and he agreed to recruit black company level officers.

He wrote in a letter in 1919: “I’ve always told these boys I’d never send them anywhere I would not go myself, so I went first to the trenches, prowled around, saw it all and came back to the regiment to take in the battalion which was to go in first.”

Harlem Hellfighters in the trenches, ca. 1918. Photo courtesy NYPL photo collection

In the spring of 1917, the regiment received federal designation and was reorganized and re-equipped to French standards. The 369th was integrated into the French 161st Division and began combat in December.

Morristown natives Leroy Montgomery and Paul Catto joined the regiment in 1917. Montgomery trained at Fort Dix and Camp Merritt in Bergen County, and sailed for France in December 1917.

Draft registration card for Leroy Montgomery, 1917      From the National Archives

The French army readily accepted black soldiers.

In 1917, much of Africa was under European rule. Great Britain and France controlled the two largest colonial empires, and both the British and French used troops from their African colonies during the war.

The 369th regiment came to be known as the “Hellfighters,” named by the Germans for their extreme toughness.

The Harlem Hellfighters  were the first Americans to be awarded the Croix de Guerre: 171 men received the individual Cross, and the regiment  earned a unit Cross for taking the town of Sechault away from the Germans.

Leroy Montgomery and Paul Catto both received the Croix de Guerre for bravery in combat. They returned to Morristown in March 1919, having served on the front lines for about 190 straight days.

The Croix de Guerre, France’s highest military honor

Montgomery described his extraordinary war experiences in an article that appeared in the Jerseyman, March 7, 1919. The Jerseyman was a Morris County newspaper of record at the time.

“The greatest battle I was in was the battle of September, when we captured Snake Hill. For capturing this German stronghold, which had been held by them for fifty years, the French christened us ‘The Snake Regiment.’

“The allies had been unsuccessful in capturing the hill for four years and at last they gave us the job. On Sept. 27th, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd battalions of the 15th regiment started out to capture the hill. It was about 16 kilometers from Hans, we crawled like Indians most of the way. The Germans had the hill heavily fortified with machine guns.

The second battalion had been almost annihilated, and then the third battalion, of which I was member, rushed the Germans, they were so surprised that those who could get away ran over the hill. Most of the Germans were chained to their guns and couldn’t run away. It took three hours to capture the hill.

A piece of shrapnel struck me in the leg in the Battle of Snake Hill, and I was sent to a field hospital. In another battle Colonel Hayward personally went over the top with the boys and led them into battle.

After two months in the hospital I joined the 15th on the Meuse. We then marched to the Rhine and our regiment was first to reach the famous river. We dipped our colors into the Rhine River and took a bath. The armistice had been signed and the Germans became very friendly. They crossed the river and brought us liquor called schnapps.”

Article in The Jerseyman, March 7, 1919

Montgomery also had a particularly gruesome account of the Moroccans, who fought for the French.

“…The Germans learned to fear the Moroccans more than they did us. Prisoners told us that the Moroccans pulled out their teeth, and cut off their ears. Anything was a token of victory when they captured them. …many times we would see them walking around with peculiar looking knives and weapons. Parts of bodies the Moroccans strung on the cords of their identification buttons. When I was wounded and in a Paris Hospital, a nurse one day noted a peculiar odor around the ward. Upon searching she found that a Moroccan soldier had a German’s head in his knapsack.”

Leroy Montgomery

Leroy was was born to E.S. and Leila Montgomery, of 72 Water St. His father’s occupation was listed as “salesman” in the 1910 census.  By the time Leroy was drafted in 1917, he had moved to Jersey City with a wife and two children. After the war, he returned to his family and moved to Newark. Census records show that he and his wife Belle had three more children and that he worked as a laborer and a cook. He died in 1957, and received a veteran’s grave at Glendale cemetery in Bloomfield. He was remembered as a beloved husband and devoted father.

Death notice from The Newark Evening News, May 18, 1957

Paul Catto

Paul Catto was the son of a Morristown gardener and grew up with his four siblings in a modest home on Morris Street. He worked as a laborer for a moving van company when he joined the Harlem Hellfighters in 1917 at age 20. Upon his return, he moved to Madison Street where he lived with his sister and her family and worked as a driver for a furniture company. He attempted to organize a black chapter of the American Legion with Jerome Jackson, a fellow veteran who served in the 350th regiment. He lived in Morristown until his death at age 41 in August 1938.

What kind of America did Catto and Montgomery come home to?  African American participation in World War I did not immediately advance the equal rights of blacks, but the bravery and valor of the Harlem Hellfighters helped to pave the way for greater participation in the military during World War II, and desegregation of defense industries, the armed forces, and the federal government.

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  1. Saturday, Feb. 18th at 2 p.m. there is a program specifically on the New Jersey connection with the Harlem Hellfighters. Members of the Crawford Crews Post 251 will be attending as are French veterans. A significant participant is Mr. L. Aarons, son of a soldier who served in the regiment during the war.

    The program if free and open to the public and appropriate for children age 8 and above. Program doors open at 1 p.m.. The premiere of a scene from From Harlem to Hell and Back will also be shown.

    For more info: richwalling@hotmail.com