The Montclair Memorial Day ceremony for 2016 was moved indoors in the council chambers at the municipal building due to rainy weather earlier on the morning of May 30. The sun came out as the ceremony was ending. Mayor Robert Jackson said that the smaller space in the chambers made for a more moving ceremony.
The ceremony honored black and Hispanic 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the Harlem Hellfighters, for their distinguished bravery in fighting the Germans and helping to save France from defeat. Private Crawford Crews, for whom American Legion Post 251 is named, was one of four members of the regiment from Montclair who served on the battlefield in the Great War. The others were Corporal Austin Barnes, Corporal Benjamin E. Smith, and Private Alonzo Mills.
Speaking at the ceremony, Yann Yochum, the head of the Press and Political Office of the French Consulate in New York, noted that when the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, many black Americans were earger to sign up and join the fight, but in those days, American troops were racially segregated, and soldiers of color were mainly assigned menial tasks. Yochum said that the 369th eventually fought under the French chain of com command. Not only did they show such great courage, they never lost a man to capture by the enemy or gave a foot of captured ground throughout 191 days of fighting. It was the Germans who first called them “hell-fighters.”
“It’s hard to imagine the brutality of the battles and the suffering of these young men,” said Yochum. “The vast majority had never traveled far from their homes before. They courageously left their families to defend a country – my country.” The 369th was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government – the first Americans to be bestowed such an honor.
Yochum said he was grateful for the service of all Americans who fought to secure liberty and freedom in France and he hoped that the story of the 369th would become more widely known. He also thanked black American soldiers for introducing jazz to France, much to the delight of Mayor Jackson and the other dignitaries.
Mayor Jackson and Yochum then presented a plaque to American Legion Post 251 commander Darrel Collins honoring the four Montclair men who were part of the Harlem Hellfighters, all of whom were members of the post, thanking them for having “paid the supreme sacrifice to ensure our freedom.” Commander Collins said it would be proudly displayed at the post “with good cause.” Later, he told Baristanet that it had been a great ceremony, and he said that he had only heard of the Harlem Hellfighters, who were also called the Men of Bronze, after he himself had left the service, and he underscored the importance of making people more aware of black American history.
As Mayor Jackson had said, noting the nicknames of the 369th, “You’ve got to be tough if you’re called ‘hellfighters’ and then ‘men of bronze,'” to appreciative laughter.
Resident Irving Geddis, who had approached the township with the idea of honoring the Harlem Hellfighters and was instrumental in the organizing of the ceremony, said he was grateful for the joy that audience had shown, and he said he had been particularly impressed when he learned about Private Crews’ story and what a formidable solider he was.
The ceremony, which featured patriotic music from members of the Montclair Community Band, also included words from Bishop Warren Harper, a Montclair Mormon elder from the Caldwell ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in North Caldwell, who hoped that the fallen servicemen and servicewomen being remembered on this day had “passed into a life more abundant, into a service more noble, where there is no more pain nor sorrow, neither tears nor suffering.” The Montclair Police Honor Guard was on hand for the firing of the salute – “hopefully outside,” Mayor Jackson joked – which the honor guard was able to perform in the parking lot after the weather had cleared.