The “Harlem Hellfighters” was a name acquired by an all-black military unit from Harlem that fought during World War I. Officially, they were the 369th Infantry. They became known for their fierceness and stamina, so their nickname was well-earned.
The Hellfighters accomplishments were measurable. The unit served in continuous combat for longer than any other American unit. They fought the longest on the front during the Champagne-Marne offensive. In addition, they were the first unit to cross the Rhine River during the Allied offensive.
However, the story of the 369th is two-pronged. The members of the unit set an example of character and heroism overseas, but the story is a disappointment because when they got home, America hadn’t changed—the men still faced the discrimination they knew too well.
How the Hellfighters Began
When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, only four regiments in the regular Army were open to African Americans. The segregated units were also restricted as to their duties. They could provide manual labor necessary for the war effort, but they were not considered fit for combat.
Many African Americans signed up or were drafted into military service. As a result, some of the National Guard units that accepted Blacks had more men than they needed. For that reason, they were conscripted to be on loan to the U.S. Army.
The Harlem Hellfighters initially were part of the 15th New York National Guard. They were later absorbed into the Army as the 369th Infantry.
Training in South
All military units had to go through special training prior to going overseas. The 369th was sent to Spartanburg, South Carolina. Many Southerners were enraged by Black men in military uniforms. In Spartanburg, the men in 369th were subject to abuse in town. If members of the unit were in town, the locals pushed them off the sidewalks and did everything they could to make life for the enlisted men miserable.
Yet many of the men in the unit remained hopeful. They saw the war service as an opportunity to prove themselves. If they showed they served as good Americans, wouldn’t that help reduce discrimination at home?
Harlem Hellfighters Sent Overseas
The 369th Infantry Regiment arrived in France on January 1, 1918. They were under the command William Haywood, a prominent white New York attorney who enlisted. Haywood was a good advocate. He felt strongly that his men should be permitted to fight alongside white soldiers. Most other military officers disagreed.
For the first three months, the men did manual labor at the port–unloading ships and digging latrines. Haywood worked to get the men assigned to a fighting unit. Soldiers were needed, but prejudice among American officers was strong. Finally, a compromise was reached. The French Army had suffered devastating losses and were in desperate need of replacement units. The French were also accustomed to working alongside people from different backgrounds. If Black U.S. soldiers marched in a unit with their military, that was fine with them.
Under French Command
Though the 369th spent all their training time learning to operate U.S. equipment, this new plan meant they would need to use French weaponry. By using the same weapons the French used, the Hellfighters would have correct ammunition and spare parts if needed.
In their hierarchy of order-taking, they were totally under French control.
Military Brass Slighted Harlem Hellfighters
But strong prejudice among American officers was ever-present. General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in the Western Front, warned the French military what they were taking on. (Fortunately, the 369th unit was unaware of Pershing’s actions until much later.)
Pershing sent out a pamphlet entitled: “Secret Information Concerning the Black American Troops.” The directive warns the French that if they work too closely or too well with the members of the 369th, then Americans would hold it against them:
“The increasing number of Negroes in the United States (about 15,000,000) would create for the white race in the Republic a menace of degeneracy were it not that an impassable gulf has been made between them…”
Later the booklet states: “Although a citizen of the United States, the black man is regarded by the white American as an inferior being …” (The pamphlet can be read in its entirety at the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition.)
Harlem Hellfighters: Endurance and Fearsome Fighting
While the Pershing booklet was being read (and more or less ignored by the French who were accustomed to fighting alongside colonists from other countries), the men of the 369th were dedicating themselves to doing their part to win the war.
The Hellfighters became known not only for their fearsome fighting and their endurance. They fought from the trenches for 191 days—longer than any other American unit. (See the profile of Henry Johnson that describes how they earned their reputation.)
None of the Hellfighters were ever captured though they did eventually lose about half the regiment (1500 losses) toward the end of the war. Ultimately, their war record showed a unit that consistently went above and beyond to fight for the Allies.
After the war, the French Army acknowledged their fine work. The 369th Regiment was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the highest honor given by the French. There were also 171 individual medals awarded to members of the unit.
Known for Their Music
The unit also had another claim to fame: they were known for their music. The 369th Regiment Marching Band was commanded by James Reese Europe, one of the best-known jazz band leaders in the United States.
He and the military band were frequently called away to perform for officers. American jazz and blues were not commonly heard in Europe. The music caught on through the Hellfighters playing. It is said they introduced jazz to the Allies.
The Return Home
The 369th was the first full regiment to return to the United States. Americans–particularly those in Harlem—were very excited the men were coming home. A parade was scheduled, and festivities began early on the morning of February 17, 1919. The Harlem Hellfighters paraded up Fifth Avenue from 23rd Street to 145th Street and Lenox Avenue. The schools in Harlem were dismissed for the day so students could be on hand to welcome the soldiers home.
At the parade’s conclusion, the men were directed to subway cars dedicated to taking them to the 34th Street Armory. The celebration continued, and they were joined by family and friends.
But this parade was to be the only one in which they were included. When a Victory Parade was held in later months for the entire military, the Harlem Hellfighters were not permitted to participate.
Though France presented the 369th with their highest honor, the Croix de Guerre, there were no such honors in the United States. After years and years of urging by descendants that the 369th deserved better treatment, the Congressional Gold Medal Act was finally signed in August of 2021.
The Congressional Medal of Honor was long-delayed. At least the regiment finally now has the honor they earned more than a century ago.
Known for Other Accomplishments
Several of the members of the 369th went on to distinguish themselves in other ways. This website has stories about these three soldiers:
Henry Johnson–Johnson was deemed a hero and received numerous awards. The military used him as a spokesperson to recruit more African Americans.
James Reese Europe was famous during World War I as the military brass loved the music he and his band created. Europe went on to continue playing jazz and ragtime when he returned to the United States.
Horace Pippin became a successful artist. Some of his paintings depicted war scenes, and major galleries took note.
To read about another unit that was important in World War I, read WWI: U.S. Recruits Women Operators.