The Depot

Harlem Hellfighters: Who Were They?

 

National Guard Beginnings

The 369th Infantry Regiment was formed in 1913 as the 15th Infantry Regiment. It was a New York Army National Guard infantry unit and one of the first few U.S. Army regiments to have African American officers in addition to an all-African American enlisted corps. Known as the Harlem Hellfighters, the 369th was one of a few black American combat units during World War I.

Once the United States entered World War I, the 15th New York Infantry Regiment was called into federal service and redesignated the 369th Infantry Regiment. The 369th Infantry was assigned to the 93rd Division, which was one of two divisions comprising African Americans.

The unit reflected the racial discrimination and segregation both in American society and within the Army. U.S. Army Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, assigned the Harlem Hellfighters to the allied French Army in order to avoid placing African-American units alongside of white Army units.  

In March 1918, Pershing assigned the Harlem Hellfighters to the French who desperately needed combat troops and had deployed their own Black colonial troops. American leaders warned the French not to use the Harlem Hellfighters in the same manner as white troops, but the French ignored the advice and welcomed the Harlem Hellfighters into their fighting force. After training the Harlem Hellfighters on French tactics and weapons, the Harlem Hellfighters were sent to the Argonne Forest in the Champagne region.

During its service in World War I, the Harlem Hellfighters are credited with participation in the Champagne-Marne, Meuse Argonne, Champagne 1918, and Alsace 1918 campaigns. The 369th spent 191 days fighting in frontline trenches and earned a regimental French Croix de Guerre with Silver Star and Streamer embroidered Meuse-Argonne.

Henry Johnson Medal of Honor Recipient

Perhaps the most notable of the Harlem Hellfighters was Pvt. William Henry Johnson. He was an African American born in Winston Salem, North Carolina. He moved to New York as a teenager, where he worked in various jobs as a chauffeur, soda mixer, laborer in a coal yard and a porter at Albany’s Union Station.

Two months after the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany, June 5, 1917, Johnson enlisted and was assigned to Company C, 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment, which would later become the 369th Infantry Regiment of the 93rd Division, American Expeditionary Forces. The unit would earn their nom de guerre, the Harlem Hellfighters, in combat against the Germans.

The Harlem Hellfighters deployed to France the following year. Johnson and his unit were brigaded with a French army colonial unit in front-line combat on the western edge of the Argonne Forest in France’s Champagne region.

Johnson and Pvt. Needham Roberts were on nocturnal sentry duty in the vicinity of the Tourbe and Aisne Rivers, northwest of Saint Menehoul, May 15, 1918.

A German raiding party of at least a dozen soldiers approached their forward position. As the Germans snipped concertina wire to breach the defensive position, Johnson and Needham fired illumination flares. When they did, the enemy opened up with intense small-arms fire and grenades.

Johnson and Needham were both shot and suffered from grenade wounds, but they both mounted a brave retaliation resulting in several enemy casualties, according to a 2015 White House Medal of Honor announcement for Johnson.

Although badly hurt himself, Johnson ignored the pain and bleeding to assist his fellow wounded soldier, who was in immediate danger of being taken prisoner. “Johnson exposed himself to grave danger by advancing from his position to engage an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat,” the White House announcement said.

At the time, Johnson was wielding a bolo knife, which he used to engage the Germans after firing all the rounds from his rifle. Johnson killed an enemy soldier with his knife, stabbing him in the head and saving his fellow soldier from being taken captive. He stabbed another who was nearby. Upon seeing the ferocity of Johnson’s actions, the other enemy soldiers fled back to their lines. The French and American soldiers Johnson served with on the battlefield were in awe of him following that epic struggle.

When Johnson and others from his unit returned to the United States, they rode in a victory parade in New York City. About a million people showed up to welcome the soldiers back.

Although Johnson would never live to see his Medal of Honor, he did receive an equivalent award from France, the French Croix de Guerre avec Palme, that nation's highest award for valor. In 1996, Johnson was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and in 2002, the Distinguished Service Cross.

When Johnson was discharged from the Army, Feb. 24, 1919, he had attained the rank of sergeant. He returned home to Albany, but was unable to be employed at his pre-war porter position due to the severity of his combat injuries.

He died July 5, 1929, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, in Section 25, Grave 64.

Rattlers and Hellfighters?

The 369th Infantry, whose members called themselves Harlem’s Rattlers, became the most famous all-black regiment to fight during World War I. By the end of the war, 171 of the regiment’s men received individual Croix de Guerre medals for their valor. Several soldiers were also awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

The Germans fighting against the 369th Infantry called the men “Hollenkampfer,” German for “hellfighter.” This is how the 369th received the nickname Harlem Hellfighters. Within their own ranks, however, they called themselves Harlem’s Rattlers because of their unit emblem. Some claim the snake was chosen because of the Revolutionary War-era Gadsden flag. Others say it was influenced by a narrative written by Frederick Douglass that likened his master to a snake. Either way, the unit symbol, a coiled snake ready to strike, became the insignia of the Harlem Hellfighters.

During World War I, approximately 380,000 African Americans served in the wartime Army. Approximately 200,000 of these men were sent to Europe. More than half of those sent abroad were assigned to labor and supply battalions, but they performed essential duties nonetheless, building roads, bridges, and trenches in support of the front-line battles. Roughly 42,000 African Americans saw combat.

It should be noted that the Harlem Hellfighters, while an all-black regiment, was under the command of mostly white officers including their commander, Col. William Hayward. In December 1917, when Col. Hayward’s men departed from New York City for the European theater, they had not been permitted to participate in the farewell parade of New York’s National Guard, the so-called Rainbow division. The reason Hayward was given was that “Black is not a color in the Rainbow.”

Upon completion of their tour of duty in Europe, Hayward fought hard and petitioned many politicians to ensure the 369th received a proper homecoming. He lobbied for inclusion and his hard-fighting men got the homecoming they deserved as returning warriors. Sadly though, many of the men would return to a nation that was still heavily segregated and many would return to the unjust and unequal American racial landscape.

Post-War

Congress did not make Armistice Day an official U.S. holiday until 1938. Veterans Day would not be known officially as “Veterans Day” until 1954. However, thanks to the efforts of Hayward, the Harlem Hellfighters returned home to what has become known as the first official Veterans Day parade when the Harlem Hellfighters marched in in New York City on Feb. 17, 1919. The month of February would eventually be set aside as Black History Month.

Roughly a little more than 2 million African Americans registered for the draft during World War I. Most served in the U.S. Army because the Marine Corps would not accept African American enlistees. The U.S. Navy allowed African Americans to enlist, but the few that were allowed to join served in cleaning, cooking and other menial positions.

The contributions of the Harlem Hellfighters to the ranks of the U.S. military are enormous. They showed, as did other all-black units before them, that racial segregation was not needed and that African Americans could serve with just as much dedication to duty and bravery as their white counterparts. Moreover, the men of the 369th showed their gumption by fighting for a nation that would put them at peril for the freedom of others, but would not grant them those same freedoms at home.

The Harlem Hellfighters were also instrumental in helping jazz music spread into Europe when the regiment’s band played overseas, but they also helped usher in some of the most musically artistic periods in American music as jazz spread out from Harlem. In addition, many of the men who served in the famed unit inspired other African Americans to migrate north and find opportunity in other parts of the United States.

The Harlem Hellfighters were instrumental in not just fighting tyranny, they were key to helping African Americans begin to break free of the American societal limitations unjustifiably placed on them.

Today, the New York National Guard's 369th Sustainment Brigade has lineage honors from the Harlem Hellfighters.

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