Albany’s Harlem Hellfighters – the Black Heroes of World War I

Most everyone has heard of the Harlem Hellfighters. It was the all-Black regiment that fought with great courage and distinction in World War I.  It was the regiment in which Sgt. Henry Johnson fought, and for his bravery he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President of Obama in 2015.

In late August, 2021 the entire Hellfighters regiment received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award Congress can bestow. The Medal dates back to 1776 when it was first awarded to General George Washington. There have been less than 200 recipients in 250 years.  

You probably know that Sgt. Johnson was living in Albany when he enlisted in the Hellfighters.   But you may not know  that there were at least  44 other men from Albany who enlisted in the Hellfighters as well, and fought bravely alongside of him.  They have been overlooked for about a century and it’s time to give them their due, and tell you about them.

Who were the Harlem Hellfighters?  

The Hellfighters was a segregated, all-volunteer regiment mustered in World War I.  (The U. S. Army wouldn’t be de-segregated for another 41 years, in 1948 after World War II, by President Truman.) The regiment started out as the 15th NY National Guard (known as the 15th Infantry) and subsequently became part of the U.S. Army as the 369th Infantry.

The men who served came from across New York State and even outside of the State. But the bulk of enlistees were from Manhattan – and most of those from Harlem, which is how the refiment got part of its name.

 The men called themselves the “Black Rattlers”.  The French called them “Hommes de Bronze” – Men of Bronze.   But it was the German name that stuck, “HollenKampfers” – Hellfighters  – because they fought like demons from Hell.

Company C – The Men from Albany

So far we’ve identified 45 men from Albany who enlisted in the 15th. We’re confident there are more, but we can’t confirm their military records.  Almost half of the men enlisted on the same date – May 15, 1917. We think it’s a safe assumption they went to enlist as a group – both in Albany and New York City.  This was 5 weeks after President Wilson declared war on April 9, 1917, and 4 days before a universal draft was enacted. The rest of the initial Albany contingent enlisted later that month and in June (Sgt. Henry Johnson enlisted on June 5, 1917) and July. This group became the nucleus of Company C (a/k/a Albany Company) of the 15th.

In July, 1917 the initial enlistees from Albany reported to training camp in Peekskill.  We presume most of the men, even given disparities in age (18  to39), knew one another.   There were overlapping groups – the men who lived in Arbor Hill, including a small group of boys who had all attended School 6 on Second St. together, and a group railroad porters. Some of the men had also been members of a very popular Black baseball team the Hudson Giants.

At Peekskill they met the commander of the 15th – a white lawyer from New York City, Colonel William Hayward.  Later that summer they were sent to Camp Whitman near Poughkeepsie. During that time the Unit was federalized and became part of the U. S. Army. They were then sent to training camps in the South.  The men met with increasing levels of racial discrimination and harassment by civilians and white troops the farther into the South they went.  This culminated in the physical assault by white troops of one of the soldiers of the 15th.  . Both white and Black soldiers rushed to his defense.

Hayward was a strong advocate for his men. He imposed strict discipline and implored them to ignore racial taunts and insults. Confrontations among white soldiers and civilians, and other Black units had resulted in deaths in the past, but after the attack he ensured his men were sent back to New York.   

Over There

Hayward concluded it would be best to ship the 15th to Europe as soon as possible. He discussed the need for this with General John Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), who reluctantly agreed. After several attempts they sailed from New York City, reaching France in late December, 1917; they were among the first American troops to reach Europe.

In their first months in France the men of the 15th weren’t assigned to combat; they performed general labor duties.  The deployment of Black troops was a problem for Pershing. His nickname was “Black Jack” because he had previously commanded an all Black unit.  But history gives him mixed reviews about his feelings regarding Black soldiers’.  While he appears to have strong affection for their loyalty and valor, in his memoirs he indicated they lacked certain abilities.  In 1931 Pershing wrote:

“It is well known that the time and attention that must be devoted to training colored troops to raise their level of efficiency to the average was considerably greater than white regiments.”

Colonel Hayward urged Pershing to let his men fight. But it was clear there were large numbers of white troops who would not willingly go into combat alongside Black troops.  Black and white regiments had fought in the same line of battle in the last days of the Civil War.  And they fought together up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War.  But Jim Crow in the South had spread to the North by 1917. Black and white troops side by side in the trench warfare of World War I wouldn’t work .  

The French were desperate for whatever help the Americans could provide, but Pershing was loathe to place U.S. troops under other Allied command.   Finally, Pershing relented, and permitted the 15th to fight under French officers, rather than just serve merely in a support role.   As Colonel Hayward put it: “Our great American general simply put the black orphan in a basket, set it on the doorstep of the French, pulled the bell, and went away.”

At about the same time in March, 1917 that the 15th received its final, formal federal designation as the 369th infantry  it was sent to fight under French command. Race was rarely an issue for the French Army.  White soldiers and Black troops form the French Colonial territories in North and West Africa had long fought together.  

Company C near their French training facility

After training under the French the 15th went into combat May, 1918. They wore American uniforms, but used French helmets and carried French rifles. On May 15, 1918 Sgt. Henry Johnson, while on sentry duty, displayed his courage. He and Pvt. Needham Roberts were attacked by German soldiers. Though wounded, they refused to surrender, fighting in hand-to-hand combat. Johnson killed multiple Germans and suffered 21 wounds.

The 15th went on to fight at Belleau Woods in June 1918.  Jim Reese Europe, the Hellfighters’ famous bandleader Europe, who brought jazz to France, was injured in a German mustard gas attack outside the village of Maffrecourt where the Hellfighters’ had trained. They continued to aggressively fight their way across France.  Casualties started mounting in Company C.  In July Privates Charles Jackson, William Randall and George Simmons were wounded; in August Private Cornelius Banks.

At one point when a French General wanted the men to retreat Colonel Hayward told him they would not, “They move forward or they die”, he said.   Hayward called them “the Black Tigers”.  A captured German colonel is alleged to have said, “They are devils” “They smile while they kill and they won’t be taken alive.”

The Hellfighters pursued he Germans methodically, advancing from trench to trench, where they rested at night. Cpl. Robert DeGroff, on his return to Albany, told the Knickerbocker Press a story about the Germans and the 15th:   “.. the Germans tried to capture one of the Negro troops to keep him as a “souvenir”. The German officers tried to take one of the men and send him to the Kaiser, he said. Every night for four months they made attempts by coming to the trenches and speaking in English, hoping to deceive the men into believing them Englishmen”.

The Bravery of the Hellfighters and Company C

In the Helfighters’ last major offensive in the Meuse-Argonne in September, 1918 Company C was said to have taken  “hideous and continuous casualties”. At least eight men were wounded,  many of them severely: Sgt. Alfred  Adams and Privates Robert Green, Robert DeGroff, Merritt Molson, Wlbur Putnam, Clarence Sickles and  William Vedder. It was during this push that the Hellfighters captured the key German position in the French town of Sechault.  In October Privates Robert Blackwell, Albert Johnson and George Walker were wounded.

Cpl. Robert Degroff described the last push:


“On our left were French, Moroccan and Algerian troops..  A fierce rain, followed by thunder overtook us.  It rained all night. The ground was soaked and made our advance difficult. However, we held out and managed to take five hills from the enemy. We flanked them and the best they could do was retreat to their inside lines.   Our chance came, the day of the great American drive, when 750,000 of our soldiers marched forward in a solid mass to drive the enemy from their trenches,  and found me in the Champagne sector our division facing a great enemy  barrage.

September 28, the day of the great drive, we received orders to advance. As we went over the top hundreds of German airplanes hovered over our heads throwing great bombs which wrought havoc in our lines. It was on this day we suffered our greatest casualties. Despite the fierce enemy machine gun fire, we continued to advance; our lines remining unbroken. We struck  the enemy fierce blows on their left flank. “

At that point Cpl. DeGroff was hit in the back and neck by machine gunfire.  The next thing he knew, he was waking up  in an army hospital.

The 15th was the first Allied unit to reach the Rhine.  By the end of the war the Hellfighters  had spent 191 days in combat, more than any other American regiment. At War’s end the 15th had suffered 1,500 casualties, more than any other American regiment.

Awards

For its valor and courage, the Hellfighters was presented with the Croix de Guerre by a grateful French government.   The citation read:

“Under the command of Colonel Hayward, who though injured, insisted on leading his regiment into battle, of Lieutenant Colonel Pickering, admirable cool and brave, of Major Cobb (killed), of Major Spencer (grievously wounded), of Major Little, a true leader of man, the 369th R. I. U.S., engaging in an offensive for the first time in the drive of September 1918, stormed powerful enemy positions, energetically defended,  after heavy fighting in the town of Sechault, captured prisoners and brought back six cannon and a great number of machine guns,”

We know of three men from Company C who received individual awards of the French Croix de Guerre – Sgt. Henry Johnson, Sgt. Alfred Adams and Sgt. Arthur Tucker, and possibly a fourth, Sgt. Merritt Molson.  (171 men in the Hellfighters received individual medals from the French.)

Back Home

The soldiers who had enlisted in late Spring, 1917 were quickly demobilized. The regiment returned to the United States in early December.  It was first to  come home; the Hellfighters were part of large parade on February 17, 1919 on Fifth Ave.  in New York City, and then up Lenox Ave. through Harlem, among cheering crowds.

And then they returned to their homes. While there was a period of brief celebrity, their accomplishments in the War seemed to matter little in Albany.  The men from the 15th attended a large dinner for all returning veterans, and in February, 1919 there was a special dinner in honor of Sgt. Henry Johnson.  

Most of the men returned to their previous jobs if they were lucky.  A couple of men appear to have been provided jobs in the State Capitol as porters or messengers by Gov. Al Smith.   

Some, like Henry Johnson, had been so severely wounded they were unable to work at the physical labor jobs they had before the War, so they were left to drift. The story of his bravery and courage had been used by the U.S. government to attract Black men to enlist and to sell War Bonds. Yet he was unable to find steady employment in the city that had lauded him as a hero.  Unlike many others his military record does not indicate he was wounded in action, and it appears he didn’t receive a veteran’s disability pension. Johnson contracted tuberculosis and slowly succumbed to alcoholism.  He traveled the country, and gave several speeches.  In one which raised a furor in newspapers across the country he railed against the racism of the U.S. military and the country in general.  He died virtually penniless in 1929 at age 32. He’s buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Veteran’s Organizations -Separate But Equal?

Veterans received a lump sum payment of $80 upon separation from service. There were no general pensions for World War I veterans, only meager disability pensions even for those for who whom there were records, and system for computing and disbursing pensions inadequate. Efforts by the federal government to facilitate  private sector employment for returning  veterans were not successful (especially for Black veterans),  nor were vocational training programs.  

And so veteran’s organizations were formed to advocate on behalf of the men who served.  But even they were segregated. There was the Admiral Coughlan Post 25 of the VFW in Albany, established in the early 1900s for the local men who had served in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection. There were several Black members (including one man who went on to serve in Company C 16 years later – Sgt. Albert Johnson.)  But that was a time before Jim Crow racism had spread from the South to the North.  

We will never know exactly what happened, but a March 16, 1919 article in the Albany Argus indicated that 17 Black men who served in the Hellfighters were admitted to the Coughlan Post. But there was a proviso  – as soon as they found 25  Black men they were  to establish their own  VFW post.  Later that year the Albany Hellfighters established their own VFW post – the Lorillard Spencer VFW Post 119. It was named after Major Spencer  who had been  in charge of the 3rd Battalion of the 15th, (in which Company C served),  and was said to have had a special affinity with the “colored troops” as he fought alongside them.  He too was severely wounded by machine gun fire in the September, 1918 Meuse offensive. The first known address of the Spencer VFW Post is 641 Broadway in 1921. Sgt. Albert Johnson, who had once been a member of the Coughlan Post was the first Commander of the Spencer Post.

Early Spencer Post Members

There were other Black men from Albany who served in World War I – some we believe fought overseas, but others who probably never saw combat and remained in the U.S (Approximately 400,000 Black men served in World War I.). They started their own American Legion Post, the Walter Dixon Post 966, which some of the members of the Hellfighters joined as well. Private Walter Dixon was a young man from Albany who enlisted in the 15th; ; he died in training camp in Peekskill in July, 1917.  (In 1944 in the midst of World War II the Dixon Post changed its name to the Henry Johnson Post.) The first Commander of the Dixon Post was James H. Harder.

Who Were the Albany Men in Company C?

This is a list of the some of the men from Albany who served with the 369th (most served in Company C – “Albany Company”) gleaned from military and census records, and old newspapers. We believe there are more we have been unable to find.

The Sergeants of Company C including Sgt. Alfred Adams, Sgt. Albert Johnson and Sgt. George McNamara from Albany

Sgt.  Alfred (Maurice) Adams – born Albany (attended School 6 in Arbor Hill;); lived 83 Orange St at time of enlistment. Enlisted 6/15/17 in New York City – age 20.  Severely wounded in France. August, 1918.  Awarded Croix de Guerre. After the War he employed as Red Cap porter at Union Station for over 30 years, and lived most of his life on North Lake Ave.

Sgt. Albertus (Bert) Anderson – born Camden SC; lived 23 Spruce St. Employed as coachman in 1915.  Enlisted 5/22/17 New York City – age 30.   After the War worked in a scrap metal business.

Pvt.  Leroy Baker – born in Rensselaer, NY. Lived in Albany as child. Enlisted 5/15/17 in New York City – age 18.  Killed from “accidental wounds” June 29, 1918 in France.

Pvt. Cornelius Banks – born Albany (attended School 6 in Arbor Hill); lived 59 Third St. Enlisted 9/21/17 – age 19.  Severely wounded in France August, 1918. Banks was a founding member of the Spencer VFW Post. Immediately after War he was living at 66 Third St. and working as a porter.  At one point he worked for New York State after War, He lived in Arbor Hill and Sheridan Hollow most of his life. In his later years he worked in construction.

Frank Bembry – born Canton NC; lived 49 Spencer St. Enlisted 7/15/19 – age 32.  Deserted 11/17 in New York State.

Pvt. Robert Blackwell – born Easton, MD; lived 167 Third St.  He was a married railroad porter at time of enlistment. Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 25.  Wounded in France October, 1918. Early member of Spencer VFW post.

Pvt. Harold Caesar – born Rensselaer, NY; lived 146 Sheridan Ave. Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 20.    He was active for many years in the Spencer VFW Post, and a member of the Albany Inter-Racial Council formed in 1929.   Employed as a chauffeur and mechanic after the War.

Sgt.  Walter Cobbs – born Danville, VA; lived 207 Railroad Ave., Catskill (Mother and rest of family lived in Albany.) Enlisted 4/18/18 – age 22.  Brother of Pvt. William Hellicous.   Early member of the Spencer VFW Post. Truck driver before and after War.

Pvt. Henry Cole – born Albany; lived on Third St.  Enlisted in NYC on 5/15/17 – age 36. Married.   Employed as cook at the Hospital for the Incurables before and after the War. Brother-in-law of Pvt.  James Harder, first Commander of the Dixon American Legion Post.

Bertham Davis (rank unknown) – born Albany; lived 223 Myrtle Ave.  Enlisted age 23.  Married with one child.  When he returned he continued his employment as an elevator operator.  Active in the Spencer VFW Post in early days,

Cpl. Robert DeGroff – born Pittsfield, MA; lived 64 Irving St.  Enlisted on 5/17/17- age 27. Married. Wounded September, 1918. Returned to his job as a porter at the NYS Capitol and appears to have subsequently become a construction worker in Albany. He was an early member of the Spencer VFW Post.

Pvt. John Dixon – born in Wilmington,  DE.  Pvt. Dixon enlisted in the 15th in June, 1916 when he was 38. He was only man we found to enlist before President Wilson’s Declaration of War.  At the time of enlistment he lived in New York City.  He was initially in Company F, then transferred to Company C, and moved to Albany after his discharge.

Pvt.  Julius Dixon – born Ballston Springs, NY; lived 22 Bleecker St. in Albany Enlisted 7/14/17 – age 19. 

Pvt. Walter Dixon – born Albany; lived 168 Third St. Enlisted 7/25/17 – age 18.  Died October, 1918 of wounds received in action in spring, 1918.

Cpl. William Myers Freeman – born Albany; attended School 6 in Arbor Hill, lived 199 Third St. Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 21. (Great Great Grandson of Stephen Myers, supervising agent of the Albany Underground Railroad.) Founding member of Spencer VFW Post, and Commander in the 1930s.

Pvt. Robert Green – born Albany; attended School 6 in Arbor Hill; lived 664 Broadway.  Enlisted 7/14/17 – age 18. We know little about him except that before the War he played  first base for the very popular Tri-City Hudson Giants Black baseball team.  He was wounded in France September, 1918. Immediately after the War he was working as a chauffeur.  He was a founding member of Spencer VFW Post.

Pvt. William Hellicous – born Catskill NY; lived with family at 17 Second St. Enlisted 5/15/17- age 22. Brother of Sgt. Walter Cobbs.  Died in training camp September, 1917.

Pvt. Charles Jackson – born in Great Barrington, MA; lived 23 Monroe St. Enlisted 5/19/17 – age 29.  Severely wounded in action July , 1918 and severely wounded again October, 1918.  He was a railroad porter before and after the War.  Founding member of Spencer VFW Post.

Pvt. George Jackson – born Kinderhook, NY; lived 173 ½ Third St. with family.  Teamster prior to enlistment.  Enlisted 4/30/17 – age 26.  Cousin of James Harder, first Commander of the Walter Dixon Post, and lived with Harder family for decades.

Sgt. William Jackson – born Montgomery, AL. Enlisted in NYC 5/15/17 – age 25.  Served in Company F of the Harlem Hellfighters.  Moved to Albany after the War. Member of the Spencer Post.

Sgt. Albert Johnson – born Lynchburg Va.; lived 183 First St. Married with 1 child a time of enlistment.  Driver for a trucking Co.  Enlisted 5/17/17- age 37.  Wounded in France October, 1918. Awarded the Croix de Guerre.  Johnson’s initial military service was in the Philippine Insurrection in 1900 in which he served on the U.S. Navy Gunboat “Helena”. Immediately after the War he is was appointed as a messenger at the Capitol by Governor Al Smith; he served in that position for decades. He was the first Commander of the Spencer VFW Post.

Sgt. Henry Johnson – born Winston- Salem, NC; lived 35 Monroe St (draft registration card lists his address as 53 Spencer St.). His employment is listed on his registration card as a laborer at the Albany Coal and Wood Co. Enlisted 6/5/17 – age 23.  ((The registration card also shows he “made his mark” and it was witnessed, which indicates he was probably illiterate – not an uncommon circumstance for men raised in the South where education of Black children was not a priority.)  Awarded Croix de Guerre with the Gold Palm (one of the first Americans to receive the Croix); awarded Medal of Honor posthumously 2015.

  • Pvt. James Johnson – born Albany; lived 312 Orange St.  Enlisted 3/29/18 – age 27.  (Tried to enlist in 5/17, but rejected for failure to meet physical requirements.) After the War he became a bank messenger/porter for the First Trust Bank and worked there for several decades.  He was active in the Spencer VFW post for many years.
  • Pvt. Charles Jones – born Elmira, NY; lived 55 Monroe St.  Porter NY Central Railroad at time of enlistment.   Enlisted 6/18/17 – age 26.  Railroad porter after War. (Probably brother of Pvt. Louis Jones.)
  • Pvt. Louis Jones – born in Elmira, NY; lived 166 Third St. (next to Pvt. Walter Hallicous). Enlisted 5/15/17- age 25. Railroad porter before and after War.  (Brother-in-law of Pvt. Charles Jackson; probably brother of Pvt. Charles Jones.) Appears to have left Albany in 1920s.
  • Pvt. Robert Lodge – born Albany; attended School 6 in Arbor Hill.  Enlisted 5/15/17 in New York City – age 20. We think he was the great nephew of John Lodge, who served in the 20th NY “colored troop” regiment in the Civil War.   Early member of Spencer VFW Post.  Died 1920.
  • Sgt. George McNamara – born Ballston Spa, NY; raised by grandparents in Albany. Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 35. At time of enlistment, he was a widower living on Dove St.  working in a livery stable.  He was active in the early days of the Spencer VFW post. After the War he was porter at the Capitol, living on Market St.
  • Cpl. Foster Molson – born Binghamton NY; lived 49 North Swan St. with family. Enlisted 9/9/18 – age 33   Before the War he was the captain of the very popular Tri-City Black baseball team  the Hudson Giants.  Brother of Sgt. Merritt Molson. Moved to Queens, NY by mid-1920s.
  • Sgt. Merritt Molson – born Binghamton; lived  49 North Swan with family.   Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 18. Wounded September, 1918. Brother of Cpl. Foster Molson. He was star track and field athlete at Albany High School and right fielder for the popular Tri-City Black baseball team the Hudson Giants.  Enlisted in senior year.  Returned to high school after War.   Active in the early days of the Spencer VFW Post. Graduated Howard University School of Dentistry in 1923 and established a practice in Queens, NY. (Said to have been awarded by Croix de Guerre in History of the Negro in the Great World War, W. Allison Sweeney, 1919.)
  • Pvt. George Morgan – born Cobleskill, NY. Enlisted 5/15/17 in New York City –age 39.  Active in the early days of Spencer VFW Post. Resided 643 Broadway (a boarding house close to Union Station) and worked as a railroad porter in 1920 after the War. Pvt. Clarence Sickles lived in same boarding house.
  • Pvt.  Wilbur Putnam – born Albany; lived 175 Church St.  Enlisted 8/16/17 – age 21.  Severely wounded in France September, 1918. In 1920 he was living with his family on Dongan Ave. working as a construction laborer.  Boarding with the family was Pvt.  Edward Taylor.
  • Pvt. William Randall – born Virginia; address in Albany unknown. Enlisted 5/15/17 in New York City– age 29.  Severely wounded in France July, 1918. In 1925 he was working as a porter at Union Station.
  • Pvt. Augustus (Aubry) Reddick – enlisted from Haverstraw NY, 5/15/17 – age 28.  Served in the Company F of the Harlem Hellfighters.  Moved to Albany after War and was an early member of the Spencer Post.
  • Pvt. Clarence Sickles – born Albany; grew up next to Pvt. William Freeman on Third St.  At time of enlistment lived 89 Orange St.  Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 33.  Initially in Company F; subsequently transferred to Company C. Severely wounded September, 1918.  In the 1920 census he is married and living in  same boarding house at 643 Broadway as Pvt. George Morgan, working as porter at Union Station.
  • Pvt.  George Simmons – born Saratoga Springs, NY.  Enlisted in NYC  8/17 – age 31.  Wounded July, 1918, Moved to Albany after War.  (Probably brother of Pvt. William Simmons.)
  • Pvt.  William Simmons – born Saratoga Springs.  Enlisted Albany 9/17 – age 23. (Probably brother of Pvt. George Simmons.) We believe he returned to Saratoga Springs after the War.
  • Pvt. Arthur E. Smith – born Chatham, NY; address in Albany unknown. Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 30.  1920 census lists him as a teamster for a coal company.
  • Cpl. Edward Taylor – born Hartford, NY; lived 175 Church St. (same address as Pvt. Wilbur Putnam) Enlisted 9/17/17 – age 24. He may have been part of the famed James Reese Europe jazz band of the 369th that took France by storm and created a world wide phenomenon.
  • Pvt. Lynwood Taylor – born Ashland, Va.; lived in Harlem. Enlisted 6/17. Honorably discharged 7/17 due to physical disability.  Moved to Albany after discharge, and in the 1920s was a member of the Walter Dixon Legion Post.
  • Cpl. William Thomas – born Augusta, Ga.; lived 119 Third St. Employed as an elevator operator. Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 20.   
  • Sgt. Arthur L. Tucker – born Albany NY; lived 5 Chapel St. Enlisted 5/15/17 – age 20.  Before the War he was short stop for the very popular  Tri-City Black baseball team the Hudson Giants. Awarded Croix de Guerre.  In the 1920 census he’s living with his parents on Chapel St. and working as an elevator operator at Whitney’s Dept. Store on N. Pearl St. (Also living in the home was William Brent an elderly Black man who served in the Civil War in a “colored” regiment.) By 1930 he had married, had 4 children, and  was living on Third St. and still working at Whitney’s. Tucker was founding member of the Spencer VFW Post for years, and served as Commander several times. He became very active in the county VFW. In later years he was  a member of the Albany Inter-Racial Council and the Booker T. Washington Community Center in Arbor Hill.
  • Pvt. William Vedder – born Schoharie NY; lived 62 Orange St.  Enlisted 5/17/17 – age 28.  Severely wounded September 29, 1918.   Vedder appears to have lived in Albany after the War for a while, but then returned to Schoharie.  
  • Pvt. Harrison Vroman (Vrooman) – born Schoharie NY; lived 62 Orange St. with Pvt. Vedder.  Enlisted 5/17/17 – age 20.  Vroman returned to Albany after the War, making his home in Arbor Hill. Before the War Vrooman played center field for very popular  tri-City Black baseball team the Hudson Giants. It’s quite probable his grandfather was Thomas Vroman, from Schoharie County who served with the 26th NY “colored” regiment.
  • Pvt. John Wallace – born Selma, Al.  Enlisted  in Albany 5/15/17- age 39.
  • Pvt. George Russell Walker – born Catskill NY; attended School 6 in Arbor Hill; lived 240 Livingston Ave. Enlisted 5/15/17– age 18.  Severely wounded October, 1918. He was active in Spencer VFW Post for many years.  

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

Albany and the American Humane Association

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The nationwide American Humane Association was founded in 1877 as an organization devoted to the protection of children and animals. In 1905, when the president was William Stillman, MD, a local doctor, the national headquarters moved to Albany.
The Humane Association located in the empty Albany Hospital building on the corner of Eagle St. and Howard St.
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In 1911 it came up with the slogan and campaign “Be Kind to Animals” we all know so well, and is still used today.
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In the early days World War I it brought to the attention of public the plight of animals, especially horses, during the War, and founded the Red Star Relief organization. It has continued the campaign throughout the years to address needs of animals affected in military conflicts and disasters.
Over the years the Humane Association tackled such diverse subjects as treatment of child AND animal actors, slaughterhouses, and pet therapy for World War II veterans.
In 1938 the Association moved to the old Rice mansion on the corner of Dove St. and Washington Ave. (The Albany Institute of History and Art is in that location today.)
In 1954 the Association HQ moved out of Albany to Denver, Colorado, and is still very active. A most recent effort of the Association’s Red Star teams was the rescue of animals in the California wildfires.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

Albany’s Gertrude Valentine – World War I volunteer – killed in France

There are scores of World War I soldiers buried at Albany Rural Cemetery. Some, like sixteen year old James Armstrong and pilot George Goodwin died in the War. Others lived to serve in World War II. There are also several Army nurses buried here.

In Section 27, Lot 16, a large dark granite cenotaph bears the following inscription:

“In Loving Memory of Gertrude Crissey Valentine
Born April 8, 1890
Died in France June 11, 1919
while serving her God and Country
Buried in Le Mans Cemetery
American Officers Row No. 177 Sec A”

“She died in the line of duty.”

Gertrude was raised at 80 Chestnut Street in Albany. Her father, Clarence Valentine, was a partner in a firm making such wooden products as packing boxes, moldings, shingles, as well as felt weather stripping. Gertrude attended the State College for Teachers’ Model School from kindergarten, then went on to Vassar College where she graduated in 1913. She returned to Albany and continued her education at the State College with plans for a teaching career. She was also involved in local musical societies as newspapers mention young Miss Valentine playing the piano and coronet at various social functions.

During the War, she went to England and then to France with the YMCA. At the close of the War, while still serving as a canteen worker, she was killed in an automobile accident. Her grave is now in Plot C, Row 7, Grave 13, Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, Fere-en-Tardenois, France.

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Between 25,000 – 30,00 American women served overseas in World War I. Over 100 were women  from Albany.  They included nurses working at field hospitals and Base Hospital 33 (established by Albany Hospital-now Albany Med-in Portsmouth England, the Red Cross, the YWCA and the Salvation Army, many of whom worked close to combat areas.Gertrude Valentine was one of approximately 125 American women who died in the line of duty in the Great War.

Never forget that women who couldn’t even vote went off to war to serve their country.

By Paula Lemire from the Facebook Page Albany Rural Cemetery – Beyond the Graves

More Tales of Bravery from Albany’s  Harlem Hell Fighters – But We Need Your Help!

 

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We’re trying to find out what we can about Sgt. Alfred Adams, from Albany, a member of Company C (the Albany Company) of the 369th Regiment (the Harlem Hell Fighters) awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government in World War I.

By now most of you are very familiar with the story Sgt. Henry Johnson from Albany – posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery in World War I. As the story goes, he enlisted with about a half dozen other Black men from Albany, many of whom worked for the railroad. We’re pretty sure Alfred Adams was one of those men.*

This is what we know: He was born to Jacob and Caroline Sawyer Adams in 1897 in Albany. They appeared to have lived on Orange St., at various addresses, before Alfred enlisted in 1917. His father was a waiter (probably for the D & H Railroad). He had younger brother and sister, Edwin and Pauline. His father was active in community organizations, including the Elim House, for “colored young women” on Orange St. in the early 1900s and the Albany Inter-racial Council in the 1940s.

The story of the Harlem Hell Fighters (the 369th Infantry) is fascinating. It was a Black unit (the U.S. Army wasn’t de-segregated until 1948 by Pres. Truman) formed from the 15th NY National Guard, created to recruit Black men for World War I. It was among the first U.S. units shipped to Europe to help the French – desperate for American aid. General Pershing, commander of the American forces, was caught between a rock and a hard place. White troops didn’t want to fight in combat with black troops, yet Pershing didn’t want American soldiers to take orders from French officers. Finally, Pershing relented, and permitted the 369th to fight under French officers, rather than just serving in a support role, as was the case with most Black American troops.

So the Hell Fighters were among the first American troops to see combat during the War, performing with courage and bravery, that opened the eyes of the Country to what a Black man could do. The 369th spent more time in front line combat than any other American unit. It sustained heavy casualties and the regiment was much reduced in size when it returned home at the War’s end. It appears that as many as 120-150 soldiers from the 369th were awarded the French medal for heroism – the Croix de Guerre. At least two of those men, Sergeants Henry Johnson and Alfred Adams, were from Albany and both lived on Orange St.

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And that takes us back to Sgt. Adams. He was working for the Railroad when he enlisted in the Army in May 1917 when he was 20. By August he was promoted to Corporal. We think it was his actions in the summer of 1918, during the Champagne offensive in the Battle of the Marne, for which Sgt. Adams was awarded the Croix de Guerre. In late August 1918 he was promoted to Sergeant. But his war wasn’t over. In September 1918 he was severely wounded – his name appears in an Albany newspaper casualty list almost a month later on October 8.

 

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Unlike Sgt. Johnson, Sgt. Adams returns to more normal life in Albany. He’s discharged from the Army in February 1919, and marries Beatrice Van Houten in 1920 – they don’t appear to have had children. He goes to work as a Red Cap (railroad porter) at Union Station in Albany. We lose track of the Sgt. until 1948, when a reference to him emerges in an interview by “The Knickerbocker News” with Frank Noble, head Red Cap. (Adams has continued to work as a Red Cap and he and Noble are best friends; they own a camp on Lake Champlain. It’s in that interview that Noble mentions that Adams was a member of the 369th and awarded the Croix de Guerre – that set us off on our search).

Finally in 1955 we find Sgt. Adams and his wife living in West Hill, at 123 North Lake Ave. (between Elk St. and Clinton Ave.). Then we lose track. We believe Sgt. Adams died in 1974.

So tell us anything you may know about Sgt. Adams or any of the Black men identified below. Please message us with any pieces of information so we can tell more of the stories of Sgt. Adams and other men from Albany who served with the legendary Harlem Hell Fighters.

*This is a list (probably not complete) of the men from Albany who served with the 369th (all served in Company C):
Pvt. Cornelius Banks
Pvt. Harold Caesar
Pvt. Walter Cobbs
Corp. Robert Blackwell
Corp. Robert DeGraw
Corp. William Freeman
Pvt. William Hallicons
Corp. Charles Jackson
Pvt. George Jackson
Albert Johnson (rank unknown)
James Johnson (rank unknown)
Pvt Charles jones
Pvt. Robert Lodge
Sgt. George McNamara
Corp. Foster Molson
Corp. Merritt Molson (may also have received the Croix de Guerre)
George Morgan (rank unknown)
Pvt. William Randall
Pvt. Clarence Sickles
Sgt. William Thomas
Pvt. John Wallace

Parker Dunn – Albany Medal Of Honor Recipient

33720264_1658334284214827_6611007480992366592_nYou’ve driven over the bridge across the Hudson River from Albany to Rensselaer many times. You may even know its name – the Dunn Memorial. But you may not know why it has that name.

The bridge was named after Parker F. Dunn who was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his gallant and courageous service in World War I.

 

Parker was born in North Albany in 1890 to an Irish Catholic family. His mother died when he was about a year and half. His father, an Albany police officer, felt unable to care for Parker and placed him with his aunt and uncle, Mary and George Mimney, who lived in the Cathedral parish. He attended Cathedral Academy but left school a young age to become a Western Union messenger to help out his aunt, who was by now a widow with three young daughters. He was by all accounts an average All-American young man, who loved baseball and was an altar boy at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. At the time he entered the Army he was working for the Standard Oil Co.

33765908_1658333104214945_6637036636368535552_oHe tried to volunteer for service several times, but was turned down because of poor eyesight. Finally in April 1918, at the age of 26, he entered the Army. Dunn was assigned to a military intelligence unit of the 312th Infantry, 78th Division. After training in Fort Dix, his company was on its way across the Atlantic in June. After a short stop in England, they reached France July 1918.

By September Dunn was in the thick of it, in what would become the last push in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. It was the greatest battle of the War – more than 26,000 Americans were killed and over 96,000 wounded. The objective in the middle of October was the capture of the French village of Grandpre. What had been in the early days been a campaign measured in yards became a pitched and fierce fight in late October, with both sides throwing everything they had in to the battle.

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Dunn’s Medal of Honor Citation, issued by President Coolidge, tells it all. General Orders: War Department, General Orders No. 49, November 25, 1922:

“When his battalion commander found it necessary to send a message to a company in the attacking line and hesitated to order a runner to make the trip because of the extreme danger involved, Pfc. Dunn, a member of the intelligence section, volunteered for the mission. After advancing but a short distance across a field swept by artillery and machine gun fire, he was wounded, but continued on and fell wounded a second time. Still undaunted, he persistently attempted to carry out his mission until he was killed (October 23rd) by a machine gun bullet before reaching the advance line. ”

In less than three weeks, the War would be over.

Initially Dunn was buried Grandpre. His remains were later moved to the American National Cemetery in Romagne, France. (The U.S. government initially prohibited the remains of soldiers being returned to the U.S., but later relented.) In 1921 Dunn’s remains were transferred to a family plot -section 16, lot 69- in St. Agnes Cemetery in Menands.

James Dunn, Parker’s father, was presented with his son’s medal on Armistice Day, 1923 in Memorial Grove (New Scotland and So. Lake) by Parker’s commanding officer, Major General Robert Bullard,

Parker Dunn was one of 119 to be awarded the Medal of Honor during World War I. Two of those men – Parker Dunn and Henry Johnson – were from Albany. I often wonder if their paths crossed before the War while they were in Albany.

The first Dunn Memorial Bridge was dedicated in 1933. It was replaced by the current bridge of the same name in the late 1960s. (The old bridge was demolished in 1971.)

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Albany and the Great War (that pretty much no one remembers)

 

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World War I has largely been forgotten. Not just in Albany but throughout the world, unless we think of Henry Johnson, Albany’s most recent Medal of Honor recipient.

Yet it was the war that changed the world forever; it was our loss of innocence, but brought the country together for the first time since before the Civil War.

It began in 1914; America didn’t enter the War until April, 1917, but when it did, the U.S. Government did everything within its power to raise an army. But after 3 weeks, there were only 73,000 volunteers (many who volunteered were rejected; they were illiterate or had un-diagnosed physical or mental issues that made them unfit for military service). In May 1917, a draft was instituted. By the time the war was over, about 4 million American men had served in some capacity.

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Great Uncle Will Anderson

About 6,500 men from Albany served (out of a population of about 105,000). Some were already in the Army like my great uncle Will, stationed at Balboa guarding the Panama Canal.

3Others were in the 10th NY National Guard, based at the Washington Ave. Armory (like my great uncle Arthur) and called to active duty. Some volunteered for the Army, Navy and Marines (there was no Army Air Corps until April 1918); others were drafted. America was unprepared for war and needed every able body. Great Uncle Fred couldn’t pass the physical for the Army. He joined the Merchant Marines by enlisting at Frank Smith’s Drugstore on Clinton Ave. (The U.S. Merchant Marines was desperate for men- it teamed up with the 6,800 drugstores that sold Rexall products across America to serve as recruitment centers – a genius idea.) Even Great Uncle Albert, somewhat of a rascal and already in the Army, was released early from his sentence of hard labor in the “The Castle” military prison on Governor’s Island to do something useful. (My Gram had 6 brothers, only 2 did not serve; was a Lt. in the Albany Fire Dept., the other was a telegrapher for the D&H Railroad – exempt occupations. Her family’s participation in World War I was quite similar to the rest of the City. If they would take you, you went.)

By May 1918 there were 1 million U.S troops in France. They were called the American Expeditionary Force (the A.E.F.). Their combat action started in late spring 1918 and it quickly became bloody and brutal. War had broken out all over Europe in August 1914; for almost 4 years the Germans and the Allies had been stuck in a holding pattern of trench warfare while half of the German Army was fighting the Russians. The new Bolshevik government in Russia surrendered in March 1918, and the Germans turned their full force back to France. The American quickly went on the offensive in the face of this threat in a succession of attacks.. at Belleau Wood, the Marne River, Amiens and the Argonne Forest.

In less than 5 months of fighting approximately 53,000 men were killed in action, 205,000 wounded (about 70,000 died from disease – 1918 was the height of the worldwide flu pandemic which affected young adults most severely). Men died from chemical warfare, in hand to hand combat and from facing modern weapons (grenades, automatic rifles, machine guns, mortars, tanks, flame throwers and German Big Bertha cannons), with inadequate training and equipment (there were no ant-aircraft guns at the start of the War). The life expectancy of American pilots in combat (flying with the French in the Lafayette Escadrille or the U.S. Army Air Corps) was about 1 month (parachutes were not used until after the War.. they were considered “bad form” and cowardly). Many who survived were blinded or left with horrible chemical burns or amputations and other disfigurement. It was the first time soldiers were diagnosed with “shell shock”- what we know today as PTSD. It was NOT a “good war”.

obit 1917
Courtesy NYS Archives

9After the “War to end all Wars” the American dead, including those from Albany, lay buried in graves in France. One of those was another Albany Medal of Honor recipient, Parker Dunn (after whom the Dunn Memorial Bridge is named). He died in October, 1918 during the last great “push”, the Argonne Offensive. He was buried in a battlefield grave near Grand Pre, half way between the French city of Reims and the Belgian border. But the dead boys in Europe were going to stay there for another 2 to 3 years. Some families were ok with leaving their sons, their husbands, their brothers where they had fallen. Others were not. It didn’t make any difference; for 2 years the French refused to allow the bodies to be shipped home and re-interred. They had lots of support from British government officials who feared the impact on the English people if the bodies were brought back (about 700,000 British soldiers had been killed) and some of America’s greatest leaders, including General John Pershing, leader of the AEF, and ex-president Theodore Roosevelt. Finally after relentless pressure from American families and the newly formed American Legion, the French government lifted its ban and about 70,000 American troops were returned, including the bodies of about 25 of the 40 Albany soldiers killed overseas.

One of the first soldiers returned to Albany in March 1921 was William J. Kelly, Private USMC, from Jefferson St. He was killed in France in the early morning of November 11, 1918, before the Armistice ending the War went into effect “on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” of that day. Private Kelly is interred in St. Agnes Cemetery.

11The memorial to the World War I dead is perhaps the least known in Albany. Memorial Grove was established in 1921 on the corner of S. Lake and New Scotland Ave, and is still there. It is truly the Forgotten War.

“He Put the Huns on the Run” – Albany’s Sgt. Henry Johnson and the Medal of Honor

June 5, 2017

Today is the first annual Sgt.Henry Johnson Day in Albany, celebrating the life of this distinguished war hero.zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz18951357_1334296046618654_3469178987009407237_n

He was born William Henry Johnson in Winston Salem, North Carolina. In his teens he moved to Albany, and worked various jobs – as a chauffeur, soda mixer, laborer in a coal yard, and a Redcap porter at Albany’s Union Station.

 

 

 

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The 369th Infantry Regiment was ordered into battle in 1918, and Johnson and his unit were brigaded with a French army colonial unit in front-line combat. It was during this service that Johnson came to be a hero. He fought off a German raid in hand-to-hand combat, killing multiple German soldiers and rescuing a fellow soldier while experiencing 21 wounds.

For his battlefield valor, Johnson became one of the first Americans to be awarded the French Croix de Guerre avec Palme, France’s highest award for valor. Upon his discharge, the Army used Johnson’s image to recruit new soldiers (Sgt. Johnson’s heroics were also used as a recruitment tool in World War II) and to sell Victory War Stamps. (“Henry Johnson licked a dozen Germans. How many stamps have you licked?”) Former President Theodore Roosevelt called Johnson one of the “five bravest Americans” to serve in World War I.

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Johnson returned home from his tour and was unable to return to his pre-war position as a railroad porter, due to the severity of his combat injuries. Johnson’s inability to hold down a job led him to drink. It didn’t take long for his wife and three children to leave. Veterans Bureau records show that a “permanent and total disability” rating was granted to Johnson on September 16, 1927 as a result of tuberculosis. Additional Veterans Bureau records refer to Johnson receiving monthly compensation and regular visits by Veterans Bureau medical personnel until his death.

He died of myocarditis, destitute, in 1929 at age 32 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Johnson was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in 1996 and the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002; President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor in 2015.  Sgt. Johnson’s Medal of Honor Citation is found below.

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