Like many veterans of the killing fields of World War I, Horace Pippin had a tough time shaking off the memories. So in the decade after the war he captured them, and tamed them, inside sketch-filled journals.
He had no dearth of stories to tell. There was the terrified young recruit who hauntingly foresaw his own death. The foul trenches, with their unending soundtrack of screaming artillery shells and staccato machine-gun fire. The gas clouds that suddenly appeared from the sky. The forays across fields littered with wounded and dead. And the trauma of being hit by a German sniper and then pinned in a foxhole, bleeding out.
WATCH: ‘Harlem Hellfighters’ a HISTORY Channel Documentary Event—Coming Soon!
Pippin poured out his war memories into a few small composition books, filling page after page with his tidy handwriting. The spelling and grammar are often makeshift. The humble drawings are rendered in pencil and crayon. But the stories—even in Pippin’s muted, matter-of-fact telling—offer a rare first-person account of the harrowing combat experience of the Harlem Hellfighters, the most celebrated U.S. regiment of African-American soldiers during WWI.
VIDEO: The Harlem Hellfighters
The Harlem Hellfighters were an African-American infantry unit in WWI who spent more time in combat than any other American unit. Despite their courage, sacrifice and dedication to their country, they returned home to face racism and segregation from their fellow countrymen.
Signing on for Uncle Sam
When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Horace Pippin was almost 30 years old. Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania and raised in Goshen, New York, he left school after the 7th grade to help support his family. He took an array of menial jobs (hotel porter, coal-wagon driver, feed-store helper); lived intermittently in New York City as a laborer; then moved to Patterson, New Jersey in 1912, to work as an iron molder. At this point, there was little evidence he would go on to become one of the most renowned African-American artists of the 20th century.
On June 1, 1917, not long after the U.S. entered the war, Pippen volunteered for the 15th New York National Guard, later christened the 369th regiment and nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters. That November, during training, he earned his corporal stripes. They landed on the Atlantic coast of France the following month.
From the time the Hellfighters arrived in France late in December 1917, it was unclear if they would ever see combat at all. In the heyday of Jim Crow discrimination, the U.S. military’s all-white leadership questioned whether black soldiers had the intelligence or courage to fight, so most were relegated to support roles. Roughly 10 percent of the 380,000 African-Americans who served in the war actually fought, according the U.S. National Archives.
Eager to fight, hailed as heroes
Assigned to the infantry under General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, the Hellfighters initially toiled as laborers, constructing a railroad yard, building roads and unloading ships. “It were slow work and wet work and you would go to bed wet, for there would be no fire to dry by,” Pippin wrote of the latter duty. But the black troops were eager to fight from the front-line trenches. “It were a place we all wanted to see,” he wrote. “We did not think it right to go there and not see it.”
They ultimately did see the trenches—and combat—in northern France, where they played a crucial role in helping to blunt the German advance across the Western front.
The 369th proved themselves able and fearless fighters. Serving 191 days on the front—more time in continuous combat than any other American unit—the Hellfighters never lost ground to the Germans or had a man captured. And they were the first unit of all the Allied armies to reach the River Rhine, a key strategic victory. “My men never retire, they go forward or they die,” said their commanding officer, Colonel William Hayward, to a French general who urged retreat after one particularly bruising battle. The French government honored the entire regiment with the Croix de Guerre; many individual members received medals of valor. (U.S. recognitions wouldn’t come until decades later, if at all.)
Of his unit, Pippin wrote, “I never seen the time yet that…[they] were not ready. They were always ready to go and they did go to the last man….We were good. Good a nuff to go any place.”
Fighting for the French
But it wasn’t alongside American forces that the Hellfighters made their mark. With the French looking to the U.S. to help replenish their badly depleted armies, Pershing handed the 369th over to their allies.
Seeing the shoddy equipment given to America’s black troops, the French re-kitted the Hellfighters with French rifles, helmets, belts, gas masks and canteens (with wine). They also beefed up the 369th’s military training: in trench construction, machine-gun operation, the construction and use of grenades, and preparations for a gas attack.
“They proved apt pupils,” wrote journalist and educator Emmett J. Scott in Scott’s Official History of The American Negro in the World War, the first major chronicle of African-American contributions to WWI, published in 1919. “In grenade-throwing they easily outdid their instructors, and in bayonet work they demonstrated great skill.”
After months of training, the 369th first saw action in Bois d’Hauze, in the Champagne region, on March 12, 1918. The Hellfighters went on to fight major battles at Château-Thierry, Belleau Wood and Minancourt.
Dogfights above, vermin below
Life on the front, in what Pippin called “them lonely, cooty, muddy trenches,” was a miserable, terror-filled slog, where one day blurred into the next. Soldiers had to constantly bail out water with pails, he wrote, to keep their bottom bunks from being inundated. Rats and lice were constant companions. And the steady German barrage meant that death could arrive at any moment.
“We were all in the dugout when…the shells were dropeing all around our trench,” he wrote. “Soon as we came out of our dugout I could smell gas… I looked around me and I seen that they all had their gas mass on… Every step we took a shell would land somewhere near the trench.” He went on to describe how mortar shells caved in parts of the trench, forcing them to fall to their bellies and crawl like worms through the muck.
Clouds of poisonous gas drifted in without warning. They could be so thick, he wrote, “that it all looked blue… [The Germans] put so mutch gas in one place and it were so thick that it looked like fog.”
Recommended for you
And hardly a day went by without a dogfight overhead. Once, Pippin witnessed a French plane score a direct hit on a German one: “All at once he were afire and came down to rise no more.” He ran to the crash site, where the cockpit’s two occupants looked “like mush.” Meanwhile, the victorious French pilot circled above “like a king over his great foe.”
Airborne gunners would also strafe the ground with bullets. Anywhere men were out in the open, on roads or in fields, “the Germens would come in a plain and would deel out Death to them,” Pippin wrote. “I never gave it a thought ontill one afternoon, it were a cloudy day… I were not thinking of anytheing in the line of danger at that time…when all at once I heard a sound like a gush of air… I fell to one side of the trench as he fired at me. I lade lo ontill he were gon. I said to myself he near had me this time.”
Not that there was ever time to recover from such close calls. Afterward, as Pippin sat on a box, smoking a cigarette to calm his nerves, the gas alarm sounded, alerting the platoon to an incoming cloud of strong mustard gas. Later that night, a runner arrived; soon after, Pippin and others were sent out into no man’s land in the pouring rain to root out a nest of German gunners; the mission failed.
Men as machine-gun fodder
Pippin vividly described the 369th’s hellish forays into the battlefield. When the artillery opened up, he wrote, “You would have thought the world was coming to an end… To see those shells bursting in the night…the gas, dust and smoke was terrible.”
Sometimes they would be out for days, without food, trying to advance as enemy machine-gunners targeted them continuously. “Men layeing all over wounded and dead, some was being carryed. We wished we could help the wounded by we couldn’t. We had to leave them there and keep advanceing, ducking from shell hole to shell hole all day.”
He described one afternoon in summer 1918 when virtually all of his platoon had been felled by heavy machine-gun crossfire. “It only left four unhirt in that pit,” he wrote. After one friend got killed right behind him while peeking up to spot the enemy position, Pippen creeped away. “The bullets were hitening in front of me and would throw dirt in my face. I knew that if I stayed there I would get it. So I said to my budy, when I say go be ready and make it for the little bridge and cross the swamp if we can. I said go and we made the bridge.” The whole way, he wrote, “the Germans were shelling the swamp with gas and scrapnel.”
A foreboding of death
While the 369th was renowned for its aggressiveness and bravery, soldiers naturally had moments of primal fear. Pippin wrote about a young fellow Hellfighter who, in July 1918, had gathered with other volunteers to join a raid: “He looked like every nerve was shakeing. I never saw a man like this before. I asked him what was wrong. His eyes all but bulged out of his head, he said I am not comeing back.” Pippin reminded the young man that he didn’t have to volunteer, that he could take a sick exemption. “He said no I am going through with it. But I am not comeing back.”
Pippin called it “the worse fifteen minutes I ever put in, watching this boy.” After the squad jumped into the enemy trench, and returned with two German prisoners, the boy wasn’t with them, he wrote: “A Germen had run him through. He fore told his end… I have seen men die in all forms and shapes, but never one who knew like he did.”
The final mission
In late September 1918, as the regiment advanced to capture the town of Séchault, Pippin and a buddy were stalking a German gunner positioned behind a rock, when they left one shell hole to find another with a better vantage. “I said to my comrad, you go one way and I’ll go the other,” he wrote, “and one of us can get him.”
Instead, when they popped up, the German sniper “let me have it,” Pippin wrote, causing him to fall onto his back in a deep shell hole, his shoulder and right arm shattered by bullets. “I began to plug up my wounds when my budy came to me and did what he could for me… I thought I could get up but I could not. I shook hands with him and I never seen him cents.”
Pippin lay there, losing blood, as the battle raged on. “Now the shells were comeing close to me. Piceses of shells would come in near me sometimes. Then the German sniper kepted after me all day.”
Eventually, a French soldier scouting German snipers noticed Pippin laying in the shell hole, and started to speak. But before he got the words out, a bullet pierced his skull. “He sank on me. I seen him comeing on but I could not move. I were just that weeke. So I hat to take him.”
Despite being pinned and too weak to move, Pippin said he was glad for the dead man’s water and bread. When night came on and the skies opened up, he attempted, unsuccessfully, to pull the blanket from the man’s kit and to push him off. “The rain came more and more ontill I were in water yet I were groweing weeker and weeker all the time and I went to sleep. I can’t say how long.” Two soldiers eventually arrived, pulled the Frenchman off him, and carried Pippin to a holding area for the wounded.
Painting the war
With his right arm largely paralyzed, Pippin shipped back to the U.S., physically and emotionally shattered. He ultimately settled in West Chester, Pennsylvania, married and eked out a subsistence living. He was known to suffer from bouts of depression.
He began painting in earnest about 10 years after returning from the war, teaching himself to guide his right arm with his left. Inside his house, he worked under a naked lightbulb; outside, under a tree in his garden. His pictures, with their broad, flat planes of color, had a raw, emotional intensity.
He sometimes bartered his pictures for local services, and it was in the window of a shoe-repair shop that his art was discovered by famed local illustrator N.C. Wyeth. It wasn’t long before major museums and galleries were showcasing Pippin’s work and collectors began clamoring for his paintings.
While he painted many subjects, from portraits to scenes of daily life, he kept returning to the subject of war. One of his best-known pictures, “The End of the War: Starting Home” (c. 1930) shows a grim tableau of German soldiers surrendering, complete with barbed wire, exploding shells and planes falling from the sky. Pippin intensified its visual impact by carving helmets, hand grenades, rifles and tanks into the surrounding wooden frame.
“When I was a boy I loved to make pictures,” he later recalled, but it was the terror of World War I that “brought out all the art in me….so I came home with all of it in my mind and I paint from it today.”
The United States awarded Pippin with a Purple Heart in 1945, a year before he died.
History Reads features the work of prominent authors and historians.