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Honoring Black WWI Soldiers of Kentucky

They earned Medals of Valor and the name "Harlem Hellfighters"

By Lisa Aug
News from the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs
FRANKFORT, KY (3 Feb 2017) - Black Kentuckians were among the most decorated fighters of World War 1. As members of the 369th Infantry Regiment, they earned the name "Harlem Hellfighters" bestowed by the German enemy for the ferociousness with which the all-African-American unit fought.

Belittled by their American comrades and commanders, the men of the 369th were welcomed with open arms by the French army, which was in dire need of men. The 369th fought not just for the French and the allied cause, but also to prove themselves and by extension all African-Americans to the white society that discriminated against them.

On one tour the unit was in combat for more than six months - longer than any other unit in World War 1. The Harlem Hellfighters never lost a man through capture, never lost a trench or a foot of ground to the enemy. Two of the unit earned Medals of Honor and many earned the Distinguished Service Cross. The government of France gave its highest medal of valor - the Croix de Guerre - to many of the men and to the unit as a whole. The Harlem Hellfighters made their point many times over and paved the way for future black soldiers.

Kentuckians who fought with the Harlem Hellfighters include Private Bert Beckham, Private Robert Wooten, Private Bradley Logan and Private Ionia Harris, all of Shelbyville, and Private Leonard Todd of Finchville. Their military records are incomplete, but they appear to include the notation "MoH," an abbreviation often used for Medal of Honor. Although none of the men are listed among the official recipients of the Medal of Honor, "MoH" could refer to the Croix de Guerre, France's equivalent medal of valor, which France awarded to many of the Harlem Hellfighters.

According to John Trowbridge, courtesy of the Kentucky National Guard.
"One of those Kentuckians who would serve and later become the only black Soldier from Anderson County to die in the First World War was John Ray Carter. John Ray's two brothers, Sam and Ira would also serve in the war. Sam with the 167th and Ira with the 801st Pioneer Infantry Regiment.

"On June 20, 1918, John Ray was inducted into the Army at Anderson County. He was sent to Camp Zachary Taylor in Louisville, where he received his initial military training with the 64th Company, 16th Battalion, of the 159th Depot Brigade. On July 16, 1918, he was transferred to Company A, 801st Pioneer Infantry, and ready to be sent overseas. By mid-August he was in France and immediately transferred to the 369th Infantry... ". . . It is difficult to say when or how Private Carter died; officially his cause of death is listed as accidental/not shown. His date of death is listed as on or about October 16, 1918, however his service record indicates that he was transferred to Company B, on October 17, 1918, and there is a letter, written by Private Carter to his father which has the date of October 22, 1918.

"Following is John Ray's final letter home to his father. It arrived in the mail the day after the family had been notified of his death... ". . . Initially the body of Private Carter was buried in a small church yard in France. In the 1920's during the efforts by the Allied Governments to recover the remains of their soldiers, Carter's body was located and his family was notified. The family requested that John Ray be returned home. On December 20, 1921, the body of John Ray Carter was buried in Woodlawn Hills Cemetery in Anderson County, Kentucky. He was buried beneath a persimmon tree growing in the cemetery.

"Over time John Ray Carter's sacrifice in the world to end all wars was forgotten. Eventually the local American Legion Post had a monument constructed on the courthouse lawn honoring the county's war casualties, the bronze table on which John Ray's name is cast appears as John Roy Carter.

"In 1997, it was learned by a group of local citizens that John Ray Carter, a soldier of the Great War, was buried in an unmarked grave. The old persimmon tree that had once marked his grave had long since died and rotted away, leaving no trace or indication that an American soldier was buried there. Additionally it was determined that the medals he had earned had not been awarded. Efforts were immediately begun to correct these oversights and by June 1998, the grave of Private Carter was marked with a veteran's headstone and the medals he had earned were formally presented to his family.
Watch a video about the Harlem Hellfighters here:

Kentucky is commemorating the Centennial of World War I

For the next two and a half years, Kentucky is commemorating the Centennial of America's involvement in World War 1. The Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs administers the Kentucky World War 1 Centennial Committee, which includes members from more than 26 local, state and national organizations.

The Centennial officially begins on April 6, 2017, which is the 100th anniversary of America's entry into the War, and ends in the summer of 2019, the 100th anniversary of the last American service members arriving home.

There are many WWI Centennial events throughout the Commonwealth taking place now and through 2019. Find those events, along with photos of WW1 Monuments in Kentucky and articles about Kentucky during World War 1 at the Kentucky pages of the national World War 1 Centennial Commission website, and the World War 1 Centennial page of the KDVA website.

This story was posted on 2017-02-03 14:58:57
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