The Harlem Hellfighters, part one

The Harlem Hellfighters, WWI, part one

The 369th Infantry Regiment of the 15th New York Army National Guard was formed, in part, due to the work of Emmett Jay Scott, long time secretary of Booker T. Washington, who was appointed Special Assistant to Newton D. Baker, the Secretary of War & the efforts of the 10th Calvery in Mexico, in 1913.

Prior to 1917, many Black men were turned away from military service. After the passing of the Selective Service Act of 1917, they seized the opportunity to signup, in the hopes of using it as a chance to change racial discrimination & how they were viewed by fellow white compatriots throughout the US.

Along with the 370th Infantry Regiment, they are known for being the first African-American regiments to serve with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in WWI.

But how they got there is a long, hard earned story.

Originally, they were nicknamed the 'Black Rattlers'. The French nicknamed them the 'Men of Bronze' (Hommes de Guerre), & the Germans called them 'Hell-fighters' (Hollenkompfer), a name that stuck.

The 369th was called up to federal service, July 25, 1917, at Camp Whitman, NY, where they received formal military training. They were then called to active duty & split into 3 battalions, spread throughout New York, to defend rail lines, construction sites & other camps.

Oct of 1917, the Regiment was sent to Camp Wadsworth in South Carolina, for combat training based on the French frontlines. There, they faced severe discrimination, including an incident where 2 tried to buy a newspaper & were denied service.

Members of the 27th Division, an all white unit, came to their defense, saying if shop owners would not serve their Black compatriots, they could close up & leave.

But that was the exception, not the rule, & racial discrimination was rampant among other all white units, many of whom refused to serve alongside the 369th.

In April of 1918, the 369th was assigned to the French Army for the duration of US participation in WWI. There, they were treated like any other French unit. The Germans, however, tried propaganda to turn them against the Allied Forces, claiming Germany had never done anything to Blacks. Needless to say, it didn't work.

While still in the US, they experienced severe racial discrimination from other US units, to the point that the French Colonel J.L.A. Linard, of AEF headquarters was persuaded to write a discriminatory pamplet to distribute among French soldiers, titled 'Secret Information Concerning Black American Troops', making such claims of alleged inferior nature & racial tendencies of African-Americans.

May of 1918, they were attached to the French 16th Battalion & sent to the frontlines. There, they served continuously, until July 3rd, before returning to combat at the Battle of the Marne.

After that battle, they were then assigned to the 161st Division to participate in the Allied counterattack.

One tour for the 369th lasted 6 months, the longest of any American unit in WWI.

Sept 25, 1918, with the French 4th Army, they went on the offensive at Meuse-Argonne. There they sustained heavy losses, but managed to capture the important village of Sechault. At one point, they had pushed so hard & so fast, they left the French units behind & risked being cut off by the Germans. Hence, the name 'Hell-Fighters'.

By October, they were reassigned to the quieter village of Vosges, and remained there until Armistace Day, Nov 11, 1918. Nov 25th, they made their last advance & on Nov 26th, reached the banks of the River Rhine, becoming the first Allied unit to do so.

Dec 12, 1918, they were relieved of assignment & sent home, becoming the first unit to return. The unit was 'demobilized' Feb 28, 1919, at Camp Upton, NY.

The 369th became the first American unit to march up Fifth Avenue of New York City to their Armory in Harlem, from the Washington Square Park Arch.

Among the numerous honors the 369th received, they count 1 Medal of Honor, & numerous Distinguished Service Crosses, a unit citation- pinned to their colors, along with the first French 'Croix de Guerre' awarded an American, Pvt Henry Johnson, totaling 170 'Croix de Guerre' awarded among the entire unit, on Dec 13, 1918.

Officially, the 369th was under fire for a total of 191 days, never lost a foot of gained ground, never had any men taken prisoner of war- though they did have 2 captured who were recovered within days- and only once failed to fulfill an objective, due to French failures.

By the end of WWI, they had been at The Champagne- Marne, Meuse, Argonne, Champagne 1918, Alsace 1918- where they lost 1500 men, the highest casualty loss of any US regiment at the time. They also fought in the Battle of Belleau Wood and at Chateau-Thierry.

They went on to serve just as honorably in WWII, reorganized as the 369th Anti-aircraft Artillery Regiment.

In 1933, the 369th Regiment Armory was created to honor the unit for their service. The Armory stands at 142nd & Fifth Avenue in the heart of Harlem. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994 and listed as a City Landmark in 1985.

In 201,7 the documentary movie was released, titled 'The Harlem Hellfighters Great War'.

Today, the 369th is known as the 369th Sustainment Brigade.

Part two- The 369th Harlem Hellfighters Military Band.


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