Harlem Hellfighters: The Brave African American Regiment renowned for courage despite Prejudice, during WWI

In World War I, the Hellfighters, an infantry regiment of the New York Army National Guard, were the most celebrated African American unit. They were nicknamed the Black Rattlers. Frenchmen nicknamed the regiment Men of Bronze (French: Hommes de Bronze), and Germans gave it the name Hell-fighters (German: Höllenkämpfer). These African American troops fought a war for a country that denied them fundamental rights, just like their predecessors in the Civil War and their successors in the wars that followed – and their bravery stood as a rebuke to racism.

In 1910, 50,000 of Manhattan’s 60,000 African Americans lived in Harlem, home to most enlistees. Other immigrants came from Brooklyn, towns up the Hudson River, and New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. Many African Americans believed that joining the armed forces would help eliminate racial discrimination in the United States when the U.S. entered World War I. By serving in the armed forces, they could prove to their white counterparts that they deserved respect. Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, South Carolina, was where the Regiment received combat training in October 1917. The camp was set up like the French battlefields. During their time at Camp Wadsworth, they experienced significant racism from the local community and other units. At the end of 1917, the 369th shipped out, and when it arrived in France, it joined its brigade. Instead of combat training, the unit was relegated to labor service duties. Due to a widespread refusal by white American soldiers to perform combat duty with black soldiers, the U.S. Army decided to assign the unit to the French Army in April 1918. Despite wearing their U.S. uniforms, the men received French weapons, helmets, belts, and pouches.

The “Harlem Hellfighters” rapidly gained a reputation for their courage and effectiveness. The Hellfighters saw government propaganda directed at them overseas. According to the article, Germans had done nothing wrong to blacks, and they should be fighting the U.S., which had oppressed them for decades. It had the opposite effect of what was intended. In conjunction with the American drive in the Meuse-Argonne, the French 4th Army went on the offensive on 25 September 1918. Despite suffering severe losses, the 369th performed well during heavy fighting. The unit captured the vital village of Séchault. In total, the 369th spent 191 days in frontline trenches, more than any other American unit. They also suffered the most casualties of any American regiment, with 1,500.

After Armistice Day, one month after 13 December 1918, the French government recommended the French Croix de Guerre for 170 individual 369th members, and the Regiment was also recommended for a unit citation. General Labor pinned it to the unit’s colors. Not only was the 369th Regiment “Hellfighters Band” used in battle, but also for morale. By the end of their tour, they had become one of Europe’s most famous military bands. The 369th followed them overseas and were known for boosting morale instantly. Overseas, the 369th Regiment constituted less than 1% of the soldiers but was responsible for over 20% of all land that belonged to the United States. The 369th returned to New York City at the end of the war, and on 17 February 1919, they marched through the city. For all of Harlem, it became an unofficial holiday of sorts. Black school children were dismissed from class to attend the parade.

#1 Soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment stand at attention.

#2 Members of the 369th in combat on the Western Front.

#3 Members of the 369th Infantry band perform under the direction of Lt. James Reese Europe in France.

#4 Members of the 369th Infantry band perform at an American Red Cross hospital in Paris.

#5 Lt. Europe and the 369th band on their way back to New York.

#6 The 369th band played jazz for American wounded in the courtyard of a Paris hospital.

#7 Soldiers of the 369th wearing the Cross of War medal pose for a photo on their trip back to New York.

#8 Cpl. Fred McIntyre of the 369th poses with a bullet-framed photo of Kaiser Wilhelm which he carries for good luck.

#11 Officers of the 369th and 370th return home bearing the Cross of War medal.

#12 Sgt. Henry Johnson of the 369th poses wearing the Cross of War, awarded for bravery in an outnumbered battle against German forces.

#13 Wartime poster of the 369th fighting German soldiers, with the figure of Abraham Lincoln above.

#14 Flag of the old 15th N.Y.N.G.Regiment (at left) after being decorated by the French and US National Flag.

#15 New York’s famous 369th regiment arrives home from France.

#16 The 369th parades up Fifth Avenue upon their return to New York. 1919.

#19 Lt. Reese leads the 369th band in a parade upon their return to New York City.

#22 Wounded soldiers of the 369th ride in their victory parade.

#23 Spectators gather to watch the 369th on their return parade.

#24 Spectators cheer on the 369th, formerly known as the 15th Regiment, upon their return to New York.

#25 A wounded veteran watches the victory parade of the 369th.

#26 Lt. James Reese Europe leads the 369th band in their victory parade in New York.

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Written by Aung Budhh

Husband + Father + librarian + Poet + Traveler + Proud Buddhist. I love you with the breath, the smiles and the tears of all my life.

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