When Cpl. Horace Pippin finally reached the Army field hospital to have his wounds dressed, he was so weak he couldn’t tell the doctors who he was. Instead, he pointed to his shirt, where he had written his name and “Co. K. 369. INF.”
President Obama is scheduled to posthumously award the Medal of Honor to Pvt. Henry Johnson, another member of the renowned all-black Army outfit.
Johnson is being recognized for an action in May 1918, in which he and a comrade held off an attack by more than a dozen German soldiers, some of whom he battled with a knife and the butt of his rifle, according to the White House and historians.
Separately, Army Sgt. William Shemin, of the 47th Infantry Regiment, is receiving the Medal of Honor posthumously from the president for actions later in the war.
The New York City-based Harlem Hellfighters were famous for their prowess in battle and the indignities they suffered at the hands of many white officers. Discrimination was so bad that the regiment was shunted off to fight with the French army, historians say.
The regiment’s ranks included musicians, an elite baseball player, future public figures, and the self-taught Pippin, whose paintings are in the National Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among other places.
A Pippin exhibit is on view at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pa.
But Pippin also left three small handwritten and illustrated memoirs — now in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art — that provide an intimate glimpse of life in the 369th, and the horrors that the Hellfighters witnessed while serving in France.
Writing a few years after the war, Pippin told how he was wounded in battle while he and a buddy were stalking a German machine-gunner. As Pippin sought cover in a shell hole, the German “let me have it” in the neck, shoulder and right arm.
Pippin fell into the hole and “began to plug up my wounds.” His buddy came by, saying he had killed the German. But Pippin couldn’t get up, and his friend had to leave him. They shook hands, and Pippin never saw him again.
Several hours later, a French soldier paused to check on Pippin.
“He stoped to say somtheing to me,” Pippin wrote, with his makeshift spelling. “But he never got it out. For just then a bullet past through his head. And he sank on me. I seen him coming on but I could not move, I were just that weeke.”
Pippin, who was also hungry and thirsty, found bread and water among the dead soldier’s belongings. Night fell and it began to rain, he wrote. He tried to get the Frenchman’s blanket free, but couldn’t manage it, and he still couldn’t get out from under the body.
“The rain came more and more ontell I were in water,” he wrote. “Yet I were groweing weeker and weeker all the time.” He fell asleep but was awakened by two comrades, who removed the soldier’s body and carried Pippin to safety.
Pippin’s right arm was permanently disabled by the wound, and he had to use his left arm to support it when he painted in future years.
But he wrote later, in a letter also at the Smithsonian, that his war experience "brought out all of . . . the art in me."
“I can never forget suffering, and I will never for get sun set. That is when you could see it,” he wrote. “So I came home with all of it in my mind. And I paint from it to day.”
He said later that he had made 100 drawings in France, but burned them.
His first oil painting, “The End of the War: Starting Home,” was done in 1930. It depicted black soldiers storming German trenches, against a backdrop of exploding shells and crashing fighter planes.
Pippin, who lived much of his life in West Chester, Pa., outside Philadelphia, died in 1946, well-known for his paintings about American life and history, and the 1914-1918 war.
In July 1917, when the United States entered the conflict, Pippin, then living in Goshen, N.Y., enlisted in what was then the 15th Regiment of the New York National Guard, later designated the 369th infantry.
Reaching France in late 1917, he saw much of the final, climactic months of what he called the “Big War.”
His memoirs portray trench life in underground dugouts dripping with water. They recall poison gas attacks and terrifying moments in which he hid in smoking shell craters.
Pippin remembered that bullets striking barbed wire sounded like bees humming.
He and the other Hellfighters spent long weeks at the front, and reportedly more time in the trenches than any other U.S. unit. He wrote that he once had his shoes on for 30 days straight.
At one point, he waited in ambush for a German sniper for two days, and finally spotted him in a tree when he saw the leaves move.
“I did not lose any time in geteing my work in,” he wrote. “I took good care to get him. When my buddy hird my rifel crack, he came to me and said I no you got him for I seen him come down.”
He and his men thought often of the “good old U.S.A.” He would find himself “wundering about Brodway [and] thought I could see them bright lights shineing.”
He wrote that he received few letters from home, but reread one so many times that he had it memorized.
He wrote later of Company K: “Every man in that Co. were a man. And there were not one of them that did not look to his maker to bring him through.”
Of the Hellfighters he wrote: "I never seen the time yet that . . . [they] were not ready. They were all ways ready to go and they did go to the last man. . . . We were good. Good a nuff to go any place."